The 1930s were a difficult decade; dark, dirty, dangerous, and destitute, albeit laden with alliterative possibility. In America the population posed picturesquely in sepia-toned breadlines, while Europeans brooded over the tragedy of the Great War and plotted a rematch. The people of Toronto, like much of the rest of the world, wallowed in a cesspit of poverty and misery from which no number of Shirley Temple films could extricate them.
However, in the depths of those cheerless days of the Depression, the post-mortem whimsy of an idiosyncratic millionaire sparked a competition that fired the imagination of the public and captured international headlines—the Great Stork Derby.
Also known as the Baby Race and probably by other, ruder names, the Derby was the brainchild of Toronto lawyer Charles Vance Millar. In life Millar was a practical joker and he continued to indulge his eccentricities even after his death at the age of 73 in 1926. Lacking dependents, he disposed of his earthly possessions through a series of capricious bequests of uncertain legality, most notably the famous clause ten, which mandated that the bulk of his estate should go to the Toronto woman who birthed the most children in the ten years following his death.
When Millar died in in 1926, the 20s were still roaring, and Canadians were living the high life selling bootleg booze to DT-addled Americans. However, within a few short years, the stock market had crashed, Prohibition had ended, and times were tough.
By that time, thanks to some perspicacious investments, Millar’s baby bonus had grown to about half a million dollars—a huge sum in an era when $1.25 bought a steak dinner complete with dessert and coffee. Given that many people had time on their hands and enjoyed fornicating anyway, the competition soon became a ray of hope for the fortuneless and the fertile.
Not surprisingly, the outcome wasn’t cut and dried. After the ten-year anniversary passed in 1936, the will continued to wind its way through the courts for 17 months before a decision was made. Ultimately, four women who had each given birth to nine legitimate and properly registered children within the designated decade received about $125,000 each, enough to keep them in diapers for a few years. Two other women with especially prolific uteri were awarded a kind of consolation prize of $12,500 each, missing out on the big bucks in one case because five of her kids were born out of wedlock, and in the the other because two of her ten were stillborn (that mother, a Mrs. Kenney, may well have scored her windfall out of pity; a 1934 article in Time magazine reports that one of her young children had been killed by a rat the year before).
In 2002 the story, like all Canadian stories, was turned into a film starring Megan Follows. (Sarah Polley, Catherine O’Hara, or any member of the cast of Traders would also have been acceptable.)
The Great Stork Derby seems almost outlandishly quaint these days. Even though the advent of fertility drugs means that the winner of a similar contest today could probably push out 20 or 30 kids in the same time frame, a ten-year competition is far too leisurely to hold the public interest in an age where reality TV has trained us to enjoy our sittin’ and judgin’ in neat seasonal packages with a climax every 47 minutes. Still, it’s a good story, and likely the kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids of Millar’s infant army today number in their hundreds or even thousands—not a bad legacy for a life-long bachelor.
Photo of Charles Vance Millar’s will from Archives of Ontario.