Skip to content

COLUMN: Scrip was former Orillia mayor's plan to address deficit

Ben Johnston was a colourful character, and his voucher plan was one example of that
This is a five-cent Co-operative Purchasing Relief Scrip belonging to former Orillia mayor Ben Johnston, printed by the Town of Orillia. The front has an image of the Champlain Monument, while the back has an image of the Swift Rapids power plant. This scrip is part of the Charles Harold Hale Collection at the Orillia Museum of Art and History.

Submitted by the staff of the Orillia Museum of Art and History (OMAH)

Can you believe Orillia once produced its own currency? Mayor Ben Johnston declared in 1936 that this was to be the plan.

Johnston was a colourful character, according to Randy Richmond, author of The Orillia Spirit. He once tried to shut down the high school because it was costing too much money. During one council meeting, he declared that when he said something out loud, it automatically became a written report. He ordered police officers to throw out politicians who opposed him. He spent provincial relief funds freely on himself and his friends and, when the votes were needed, on his supporters.

The town’s deficit grew, but Johnston had a plan. He borrowed an idea from Kitchener and created Orillia’s scrip, or voucher. After another battle with a dubious council, a bylaw to create scrips “as perfectly made as possible” was passed. On one side of the scrip was an illustration of the Champlain Monument and, on the other, an illustration of the Swift Rapids power plant. Instead of paying people directly in cash borrowed from the province, Orillia paid them in scrip, which could be used at Orillia businesses and redeemed at 99 cents on the dollar at city hall.

The city made little money off the plan. That same year, rumours of drinking with bootleggers and lining his pockets and those of his friends caught up with Johnston, and his reign of Depression-era mayoral terms ended.

He ran for mayor several more times and vowed to keep running until he won again, but he was killed in 1942 in a wagon accident. Johnston’s legacy as one of the most eccentric mayors in Orillia history lives on, and so does his scrip. It became such a popular souvenir that, in 1956, council gave up waiting for people to redeem their scrips and closed the voucher account, with $156.45 still left to be paid out.

Next week, we will feature another object from the OMAH collection that showcases our local history.


Verified reader

If you would like to apply to become a verified commenter, please fill out this form.