[Viola MacMillian] The Prospector in the Pink Penthouse – by Christina MaCall

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 20, 1957.

Viola MacMillan believes “anybody can do anything” and has mink, a mansion, a Miami apartment and mines worth $10,000,000 to prove it

Mining papers credit her with building the Prospectors and Developers
Association from a loosely knit agglomeration of fieldmen and promoters
into a powerful organization representing one of the most important
segments of the mining industry.

The Prospector in the Pink Penthouse

Canada’s sprawling two-billion-dollar mining industry owes its boom to a motley army of men: sleek brokers in big city offices, lonely prospectors in frontier camps, geologists and bush pilots, road builders, professional engineers. But their spokesperson is a women who lives in a pink penthouse, wears a mink coat and buys size ten dresses from Sophie of Saks.

For fourteen years Viola Rita MacMillan has been president of the Prospectors and Developers Association, the largest organization of mining men on the continent, and in that time she has made scores of biting speeches that lash out at anything and everything impeding the development of mining. The sophisticated apartment and the soigné clothes are really only trappings. As she says herself, “I’m a miner. I love this business and I want to stay in it until I die.”

She doesn’t look much like a miner she so proudly calls herself. A small woman, she stands just over five feet tall and weighs little more than a hundred pounds. She has alert cobalt-blue eyes and short dark hair. The most striking thing about Voila MacMillan is the agility and speed of her movements. She darts about so quickly that bigger people sometimes feel almost cumbersome, when they are in her presence.

Mrs. MacMillan often says with firm conviction that Canada’s future greatness depends to a large extent on the growth of the mineral industry. For more than thirty years she has dedicated her unusual energy and persistence to that industry. In returen she has gained both money and prestige.

When Viola MacMillian first caught prospector’s fever in 1922, she was a stenographer in a Windsor, Ontario, law office. Before her climb to the tense and involved life of a prominent mining executive she also worked at one time or another as a switchboard operator, real-estate agent, boardinghouse proprietor, door-to-door Christmas-card saleswoman and prospector. Now, at fifty-four, she controls uranium, lithium and base-metal mining interests with an estimated value of ten million dollars. She has an uptown mansion as well as the penthouse in downtown Toronto and a winter apartment at the Surf Club in Miami.

Businessmen, government officials and men in every phase of mine-making respect her keen business sense and her aptitude for organizing. John S. Proctor, vice-president and general manager of the Imperial Bank of Canada, calls her “the most remarkable woman in Canada.” Mining papers credit her with building the Prospectors and Developers Association from a loosely knit agglomeration of fieldmen and promoters into a powerful organization representing one of the most important segments of the mining industry.

Outside her own world, attempts are constantly made to analyze her success. Financial pages carry colorful stories of her doings. She is tagged with such coyly sentimental titles as “the angel of the sourdoughs,” “the Queen Bee” and “sweetheart of the mining men.” Feature writers on the women’s pages of newspapers use her success as a weapon in their one-sided battle to prove the natural superiority of the female.

Mrs. MacMillan herself has developed two different, but equally definite, theories on how to do well in mining or anything else. In the late Thirties and the Forties she used to say that everything she had she owed to good luck. “It was in the books for me,” was a sentiment she repeated often. In the Fifties she has tended to attribute her success to hard work. Now one of her favorite maxims is this, “Anybody, regardless of sex or circumstance, can do anything they want to do. All you need is the guts to stick to things.”

Whether you attribute her accomplishments to her luck or to her labour, they make an impressive listing. She is president of six companies and is a director of three other. Her interests include: ViolaMac Mines Ltd., a producing base-metal mine in British Columbia, a Saskatchewan uranium property at Lake Cinch and a lithium property in the Cat Lake district of Manitoba. She also holds promising oil, copper and gold prospects in various parts of Canada.

Mrs. MacMillian has a broad, if rudimentary, knowledge of all phases of mine-making, form the techniques of sinking a shaft to the translation of a geologist’s report into the terminology of the ordinary prospector, and everything she knows she learned by practical experience.

Until the last two or three years she spent about eight months of every years in the field living in bunkhouses and eating with the men from her mines. Now she, or her husband George MacMillian, who has mining interests of his own and is a director of some of her companies, visits their properties every two or three weeks. Viola MacMillian mines and her leadership of the mining association keep her hopping. Last March she came home from a holiday in Florida and was immediately involved in last-minute preparations for the association’s annual convention at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. The change was so abrupt that when she woke up the morning after her return it took her a few minutes to realize that the bright light streaming through the skylight in her penthouse wasn’t Florida sunshine.

That same day, in two hours, early in the afternoon, she had a hasty lunch, showed a legman from the CBC-TV program Graphic through the penthouse (she was interviewed by emcee Joe McCulley on Graphic last April), talked to me about everything form uranium holdings and mining legislation to seamless stockings and interior decoration; and sat in on an association executive meeting to discuss, clause by clause, a bill going through the provincial legislature.

She kept up this pace during the four-day convention, attending all the business meetings and technical lectures. She also went to most of the social functions, from a roof garden tea for the member’s wives to a square dance for which prospectors were urged to recapture “that old-time mining spirit” by bringing their sweethearts and leaving their ties at home. Nobody was surprised when she was re-elected president for the fourteenth time. The day after the convention Mrs. MacMillan was back in Miami. As George MacMillan remarks, “If you want to see Viola, you’ve got to get up early and catch her on the run.”

Viola MacMillan seems to have been in a hurry ever since she was born on an Ontario farm in 1903. She was one of the youngest of the twelve children of Thomas Huggard, of Windermere. In spite of her small stature, she could always cope with jobs usually labeled “a man’s work.”

During World War 1 three of her five brothers were in the army, so Viola had to help in the fields and haul gravel down to scows at the lakefront. She took a commercial course in North Bay and at seventeen went to Windsor to work as a clerk, then a telephone operator and finally a legal stenographer with Rodd, Wigle, McHugh and Whiteside. After she’d been in Windsor two years she met George MacMillan at a dance. He was working in the express department of the CNR. They were married in the fall of 1923.

Before she met her husband, Mrs. MacMillan can’t remember having any particular interest in mining. But George’s father, “Black Jack” MacMillan, had several claims in northern Ontario. The summer before their marriage the MacMillans went north to visit George’s relatives and to “look over” some of his old sweethearts.” On that trip Mrs. MacMillan caught a feeling of excitement around the mining camp at Cobalt that she had never known before. The next year she was eager to go north again when an uncle of George’s asked the couple to do the work required by law to maintain some claims he’d acquired.

For the next five or six years she and her husband prospected without profits in northern Ontario and western Canada. In the winters in Windsor, Mrs. MacMillian ran her own real-estate office until business fell off; then she sold Christmas cards and took in boarders. In the meantime she was reading everything she could find about mining. George MacMillan was out of work for a while and just after he got a job as a customer’s man with a brokerage house, his wife decided that full-time prospecting was in the books for her. One Tuesday in 1929 she recalls, “I told George I was leaving for the north Friday morning. If he wanted to come along, it would be okay. If he didn’t I’d be all right alone.” George decided to go along.

The MacMillans weathered some hard years at the beginning and they still hate to think about one summer when they were forced to supplement their diet of beans with large quantity of the onions that grew around their shack.

Hunting gold by flashlight

Their first big success came in the early Thirties. They had come out of the bush into Kirkland Lake, Ontario to take a sick prospector to a doctor. Mrs. MacMillan went into a store for supplies and the grocer told her about rumors of a gold rush in nearby Hislop Township. As quickly as possible she and her husband set out in their old car for the gold field. They got there at four o’clock in the morning and began immediately to drive claim stakes by the light of a flashlight. They didn’t stop staking even to eat or sleep for the next twenty-four hours and ended up with two thousand acres of claims recorded in the MacMillan name. Mrs. MacMillan swapped some of their claims for others and by organizing syndicates of prospectors, acquired interest in the prosperous Hailnor Gold Mines.

For the next fifteen years the MacMillans prospected right across Canada. They worked in northwestern Quebec, New Brunswick, northern Ontario, The Yukon and the Northwest Territories. At first they were looking mainly for gold but in 1946 switched their search to base metals.

They really didn’t make big money until 1949 when, by borrowing forty thousand dollars, they acquired a group of old lead-silver-zinc claims in British Columbia. The first truckload of ore paid a whopping thirty-five hundred dollars and after the excitement subsided, Mrs. MacMillan spent part of the money for dynamite for further blasting. This was typical. It is also typical that she goes after whatever metal is most in demand. In 1957 it’s uranium, so the big thing on her schedule this year is the development of the uranium claims she owns at Lake Cinch, Saskatchewan.

She says the other main interest in her life “beside keeping the wolf fro the door” has always been the Prospectors and Developers Association. The organization was formed twenty-five years ago and the membership covers a wide field, including prospectors, mockers, promoters, engineers and mining stock holders. John Carrington, a mining engineer and editor of the Northern Miner, states flatly, “If it hadn’t been for Viola MacMillan, it would have bumbled along casually. But after she took hold of it, the association became a power in the mining world.”

The MacMillans joined the association in 1933. George was president from 1941 to 1943. During these years his wife was secretary. The next year they traded offices and Viola MacMillan has been president ever since.

During World War Two she was a member of the government’s War Metals Advisory Committee. She stormed across Canada with four geologists, organizing meetings of prospectors as part of the government’s educations program. Canada needed metals and Mrs. MacMillan felt sure that the only quick way to get them was to teach prospectors how to go out after them. Classes were held in big towns and small mining camps: the fee for the course was only a dollar but some of the Depression-stricken prospectors couldn’t afford even that. Since the war the Prospectors and Developers Association has continued to foster educational programs for prospectors.

Mrs. MacMillan’s influence has also been reflected in provincial and federal mining legislation during the last ten years. People in the mining industry like to talk about her remarkable facility for opening the ears of cabinet ministers. One of her projects was the early war-time tax-law amendment granting deductions for exploration expenses, a measure that encouraged expenditure on prospecting.

She often complains about the regulations and restrictions governments have imposed on mining and punctuates her speeches to the prospectors’ association with such dramatic statements as, “We must rise and cast off our shackles,” and “A free market for gold is the industry’s only hope of survival.”

She is just as outspoken in her dealings with individuals. When she phoned John Proctor, vice-president of the Imperial Bank, last year to ask him to speak to her association, she gave him explicit instructions: “Make it short make it snappy and make them like it,”

At an association dinner last March, Joe Rankin, representing the executive, presented a silver tea service to Viola and summed up her activities in his presentation speech: “To our president, a fine lady, a hard worker and a hell of an organizer.”

Easy-going, slow-spoken George MacMillan has encouraged his wife in everything she has attempted. Among mining people he is given credit for being a competent businessman but it is often said that he likes to hide behind the vivacity and drive of his energetic wife. At the March dinner Mrs. MacMillan presided over a head table that seated more than a hundred government officials and mining men and their wives, all wearing evening clothes. George, in a business suite, sat in the body of the convention hall, with two secretaries from the MacMillan’s office.

One of his favourite stories about his wife concerns an incident in the late Thirties when they were prospecting in Quebec. This is the way he tells it:

“As everybody knows, Viola likes to look after her own business. We were both out staking claims and had recorded some in each name. Within a couple of hours Viola was smart enough to find a buyer for her share. It was a big deal – she was going to get fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. She took the buyer to the records office but the clerk refused to transfer her claims because, as he explained, under Quebec law everything she had belonged to her husband. Mad as she was, all Viola could do was go and fetch me to sign over her share.”

After a pause George MacMillan adds, “That was really the only time I ever had her over a barrel.”

The MacMillans have adapted their way of life to their business interests. Two years ago, when they moved into their new office on the fourth floor of the Knight Building in Toronto, they leased the thirteenth-floor office and turned it into a penthouse apartment. They lunch there and hold evening business conferences in the dinning room. When her husband is out of town, Mrs. MacMillan spends the night in the apartment rather than in their large home on Toronto’s Oriole Parkway.

Almost everything in the penthouse, from the broadloom to the ice bucket and the paper napkins, is pink – the pretty pink that is used often in the scented interiors of expensive beauty salons or the frilly nurseries of suburban bungalows, but is rarely associated with the harsh technical world of mine-making. Ceiling-high mirrors and bleached furniture add to the general impression of lightness conveyed by all the pinks. There is a small piano in the living room – Mrs. MacMillan plays hymns on it – a television set and a hi-fi phonograph. The only book to be seen is a hard-cover pamphlet put out by the federal Department of Mines, called Out of the Earth.

“I’d be as happy in a tent”

The MacMillans are proud of the penthouse but Mrs. MacMillan says she has kept it impersonal deliberately so that if she ever has to leave it she can do so without a qualm. She maintains that striking it rich hasn’t changed her much. “I’m just the same as I always was. I’d be every bit as happy in a tent.” She’d sooner talk about the garrulous old prospector who shared tea and sandwiches with her, then explained that he never had to wash dishes because his dogs licked them clean, than discuss the dinner dance she gave at the Surf Club in Miami last winter when her guests included the wife and two daughters of Louis St. Laurent.

During the last two years she has lost about twenty pounds and has acquired chic gowns that are very different from the dungarees and tailored suits she used to wear. But she still prefers to talk business and she’s willing to add special precepts for women to her formula on how to get ahead. Last spring four girls, geology students from the University of Toronto, were looking for summer jobs and Mrs. MacMillan gave them this advice: “Be prepared to carry your own load and don’t expect any favours because of your sex.”

She’s proved her theory, John Carrington of the Northern Miner, claims that except for some old die-hard prospectors whose feeling is the natural resentment of the male for the intrusion of a woman into a strictly masculine world, mining men give her due credit for her accomplishments. “Most people respect her for what she is,” says Carrington, “a smart tremendously energetic woman.”

Mrs. MacMillan says herself that she never regrets not having been born a man except when she’s left out of stag parties, because “that’s when men are at their ease and talking shop. It’s probably the very best time to do business.”


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