Philip W. Ellis, the visionary brother

When Philip W. Ellis purchased the old Metcalfe property south of the Bedford Park Hotel in 1889, he ended the pattern of Toronto businessmen buying land in the area to serve as country estates or hobby farms.

For James Metcalfe, who died a few years earlier, ‘Knockaloe’ was his luxurious country escape from the grind of working in the construction business in the city. For Alfred St. Germain, owner of the property north of the hotel, his 200 acres represented his reward to dabble at farming after a competitive career running a newspaper.

But for P.W. Ellis, the pastoral area held the potential to support his vision to create a community of 1,500 bungalows with a large local industry as its centerpiece. He was Bedford Park’s first developer.

No one had any reason to doubt his “Bedford Park Company’ proposal would materialize. He was president of the largest wholesale jewelry business in the country, with a firm employing more than 100 people at Yonge and Temperance streets in Toronto. And he looked the part; an imposing, handsome man with a full tailored beard – looking remarkably like King George V (although the future king at this point was only 24, nine years younger than Ellis).

‘PW’ was born in Toronto in 1856, the son of W.H. Ellis of Liverpool who made his money creating The Penny Post, Toronto’s first cheap newspaper. Despite training as a teacher at the Toronto Model School, young Ellis chose instead to apprentice in the jewelry business. He rose through the ranks until forming his own firm, P.W. Ellis & Co. in 1872 with his twin brother Matthew.

Ellis embraced the potential of real estate in the late 1880s and bought the 100-acre farm wrapped around today’s Woburn and Bedford Park avenues. Along with Matthew and younger brother William, he created the Bedford Park Company.

Ellis set about fixing up the old Metcalfe mansion. Gutted by fire two decades earlier, the three-storey home had been abandoned. He poured money into it to bring it back to life.

But by 1895, he was starting to lose interest in the neighbourhood, turning the house and day-to-day property management over to his brother William. His interest waned further three years later when the Town of North Toronto torpedoed the idea of building a factory in the small community even though the residential lots were starting to sell.

Back in Toronto, Ellis’s biggest accomplishments were still in front of him. In 1905 he became a member of the province’s Hydro Electric Commission and the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission. His passionate belief in the potential of hydroelectricity resulted in his appointment as the first chairman of the Toronto City Hydro-Electric Commission (now Toronto Hydro) in 1911. He played a major role in its ambitious first project to install 100-watt streetlights every 80 to 100 feet in the city, making Toronto envy of other big cities on the continent.

He turned his attention next to public transit, becoming the first chairman of the Toronto Transportation Commission (now the TTC) in 1921. The new entity had the challenge to puling together nine amalgamated fare systems that existed within the city.

In 1928, his wholesale jewelry firm folded (although the retail business Ellis Brothers continued until absorbed by Ryrie Birks in 1933 to become Birks Ellis Ryrie, and later, just Birks). The following year, still at the helm of the TTC, Ellis died.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on November 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Ellis Brothers propose the first subdivision

In 1889, York Township Council was presented with a registered plan that proposed to turn the pastoral farming area north of Yonge and Lawrence into a busy factory/residential development.

Behind the plan were the enthusiastic Ellis brothers, wholesale jewellers from Toronto. They had recently purchased the decaying Metcalfe estate (where Blessed Sacrament Separate School now stands) and the more than 100 acres that went with it.

Most of their property was open pasture, providing lots of space for their Holstein cattle. But Philip William Ellis and his younger brother William Gordon Ellis had bigger plans in mind. Along with another brother, an uncle and other investors, they formed The Bedford Park Company and were proposing to carve their farm into 1,500 small housing lots with 20-foot frontages. These would be strung along two roads – Woburn Avenue and Bedford Avenue – running from Yonge Street west to today’s Bathurst Street.

The company’s name was probably borrowed from the Bedford Park Hotel to the north of the Ellis holdings. The office was located on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto, just east of Yonge.

Any buyer interested in a lot would have an opportunity to place a bid on a specific piece of property during one of the company auctions. The successful bidder could then purchase the lot for $120, requiring a down payment of 60 cents, with payments of 60 cents every Thursday until it was paid off – presumably in less than four years.

The Ellis brothers hoped to attract buyers looking for cheaper prices on the outskirts of Toronto, people willing to commute into the city to work. It would mean residents would have to make the one-kilometre walk down and up the hill to Glengrove Avenue to catch the horse-drawn streetcar to Toronto. But there was every reason to believe that the service would eventually extend north into the new community.

The Ellises also hoped to attract buyers who wanted to not only live, but work, in the community. That was the thinking behind the proposed factory in the plan. What kind of factory doesn’t seem clear. Perhaps Philip and W.G. wanted township approval before getting into specifics.

It was an ambitious plan, but it collided with the recession that was starting to grip the country (sound familiar?). The intention to start building homes in 1891 didn’t happen. When Bedford Park became part of the Town of North Toronto in 1892, the brothers received approval for the housing plan. But the buyers were slow in coming. By 1897, there were still only 33 families in the area. And the following year, the town vetoed the proposal to build a factory.

Sales started to pick up; houses started to pop up along Woburn. By 1907, the company was still actively advertising the development to potential buyers. In 1912, there were still only 100 families in the whole area, which meant fewer than five per cent of the lots were occupied.

By the 1920s, many of the lots were filled with tiny white bungalows. However, none of those countless bungalows with their original white wood-frame siding exist today.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Community Life.

Home’s domed tower a landmark for 125 years

One of the community’s oldest homes is also one its most distinctive. Facing the Blessed Sacrament schoolyard on Bedford Park Avenue, the house is dominated by a large shingle-domed tower on the front east side.

When it was built in the mid-1880s, probably by Henry Mason, there was nothing else around it. The Mason farm, which ran between today’s Bedford Park and Woburn avenues, from Yonge to Bathurst, included just one notable feature: the gutted mansion that had belonged James Metcalfe (Blessed Sacrament school stands on the site).

To get to Mason’s imposing house, it was necessary to cross a wooden bridge spanning Lawrence Park Creek (now flowing beneath the schoolyard and the municipal parking lot). It was the first house to be built on the dirt road that was soon named Bedford Avenue and later changed to Bedford Park Avenue. Looking from his windowed tower, Mason had an unobstructed view to Yonge Street. To the south was Samuel Lawrence’s farm and a few houses at the Yonge-Lawrence intersection. These included the small-but-busy general store that had just been taken over by John E. Atkinson.

The house is actually better known as Houle House, named after Albert Houle, a florist who bought it in 1907. He moved into the neighbourhood after becoming manager of the Bedford Park Floral Company on the east side of Yonge. Although he held the job for only a year or two, he continued to operate as a community florist and remained in the house until 1922.

During that time, Houle’s family watched as a growing number of houses sprang up on Bedford and the streets to the north. This was largely the result of the major housing development by his neighbours across the street — Philip and William Ellis — who had restored the old Metcalfe place.

During the 20s the house sat vacant for a few years and was then owned by Norman Lockhart. In 1928, Toronto manufacturing agent James Bolton Reade bought the house and lived there for the next two decades. When he first moved in, the house number was changed from 34 to 31. The renumbering of houses in the early days wasn’t unusual. Reade’s house likely needed a new number to fall in line with Toronto’s practise of using odd numbers on the south side of streets and even ones for the north side.

In 1950, lawyer Frank Hogg bought the home and lived there until the mid-50s. He was followed by Toronto musician John Levis and teacher Hugh Fraser. Levis owned the house until the end of the 1980s. In the 90s, the home was largely restored to recapture its original grandeur.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 2:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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St. Germain farm included an Old Orchard Grove

The 185-acre farm of former Toronto publisher Alfred St. Germain may have had a Yonge Street address, but the estate itself probably wasn’t visible from the road. Despite its vista view from a height of land, the house was buried deep within the property.

The farm lane — which, no surprise, is today’s St. Germain Avenue — ran west of Yonge for more than a kilometre. At the beginning of the lane, off to the right, was a small two-storey white house that likely served as a farm worker’s home. After all, St. Germain’s property was a ‘hobby’ farm, not the sort of place a retired businessman would be operating himself.

The worker’s house still stands, one of the oldest buildings in the area. Located on the west side of the alley behind the Yonge Street stores between St. Germain and Melrose, the house also once served as the manse for Dewi Sant Welsh United Church around the corner.

St. Germain’s farm lane continued west, past today’s Elm Road and up the hill to what is now Avenue Road. The house was probably located around today’s Safari Bar and Grill. In 1907, the Toronto World newspaper described the home as having “two acres of lawns and a gravelled driveway, together with a brick carriage house.”

In time, the carriage house probably served as a garage for St. Germain’s automobiles, like his Still topless auto — probably one of the first cars in the neighbourhood. His interest in horseless carriages was evident when he ran a newspaper ad in 1898 promoting his planned First Canadian Autocar that would hold 25 people and effortlessly chug up the hilly ravines north of his farm. Nothing seems to have come of it.

The Toronto World article went on to talk about the estate’s “well-kept garden, with 6 acres of orchard.” That apple grove, to the north of the farmhouse, explains the name of the street two blocks north of St. Germain — Old Orchard Grove.

Alfred St. Germain became one of the publishers of the Herald in his hometown, Kingston, while still in his early 20s. He left it behind to follow the promise of the California gold rush, and later ended up in Toronto where he started Canada’s first one-penny daily newspaper, the Toronto Evening Journal.

The newspaper, which supported the party of John A. Macdonald in its march towards Confederation, helped make St. Germain’s fortune by attracting plenty of advertising at low rates and serving about 5,000 readers. When he retired in 1882, he began buying up most of the property on Yonge Street’s Lot 8 West, north of the Bedford Park Hotel.

In the 1890s, St. Germain played a leading role in North Toronto’s opposition to the high fares, poor service and shady practices of the Metropolitan Railway Company that had recently extended its electric railway service past his estate to Hogg’s Hollow. His letter-writing campaign helped prompt an inquiry, but neither fares nor service improved much in subsequent years. It’s a good thing St. Germain had that Still parked in his carriage house.

St. Germain died at his farm in 1908 and the following year his property was sold to the Melrose Realty Company to create a subdivision.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on September 2, 2010 at 1:01 am  Leave a Comment  

The neighbourhood named after a hotel

BedfordParkHotel1915

In 1873, Charles McBride built the most imposing commercial establishment yet seen in the neighbourhood: a substantial two-storey hotel on the west side of Yonge Street just south of Fairlawn.

No other building between the Lawrences’ farms and Hogg’s Hollow was as significant as the new Bedford Park Hotel. The stretch’s original hotel, the Durham Ox, just to the south, had perished in flames several years earlier, and James Metcalfe’s fine estate south of that had also been gutted by fire.

The question is: where did McBride come up with the name Bedford Park? It was a name that would spread to a street to the south, a post office at the corner of that street, and, ultimately, the whole community. The Bedford Park garden community in London, England, was still two years away from inception. The Bedford Parks in Illinois, the Bronx and Australia also did not yet exist. Whether McBride borrowed the name from elsewhere or created it, Bedford Park continues to be name most often used to define the neighbourhood.

Innkeeping was not new to Charles McBride. In 1858 he purchased the infamous Montgomery Tavern, site of the one major skirmish in Upper Canada’s Rebellion of 1837. Renaming it Prospect House, he managed it (or rented it out) for the next decade. York’s Township Council often held its meetings there.

McBride’s great-grandfather was the original doorkeeper and caterer to the first Legislative and Executive Council of Upper Canada. His grandfather acquired a huge farm in Willowdale where Charles grew up. It faced today’s Mel Lastman Square and stretched east all the way to Leslie Street.

In the early 1870s, Charles bought the farm on Yonge Street between Fairlawn and Brookdale that ran west in a narrow strip to today’s Falkirk Street. He then purchased the 26-year-old Finch’s Hotel at Yonge and Finch and promptly tore it down so he could use the timber to build his Bedford Park Hotel next to his farmhouse.

It was a grand wood frame building, boasting a two-storey porch and ornate metal eavestroughing. Additional rooms extended north over the driving sheds, giving the hotel an expanse that dwarfed the quaint bungalow farmhouse to the south.

For 35 years it thrived as a hotel, until 1908 when the area’s vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol turned the building into a temperance house. In keeping with its dry status, the Bedford Park became the first home of Fairlawn Avenue United Church seven years later.

In the 1930s, storefronts wrapped themselves around the front end of the hotel, burying the once imposing structure. And there the Bedford Park remained hidden until, exactly 100 years after its construction, it was replaced by a four-storey building now occupied by Black’s Cameras.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on June 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Confederation & Bedford Park

1867Families in the Bedford Park area grabbing a TTC family pass on Canada Day to head for Queen’s Park’s free entertainment, rides and crafts are repeating the very same excursion taken by area families 140 years ago.

July 1, 1867 may have marked Canada’s transition from colony to nation, but for the farm families north of the Lawrence properties it was a day off from chores. Many of them hopped into their wagons and buggies to make the trip down Yonge Street to join in the planned celebrations. They passed through the villages of Eglinton, Davisville, Deer Park and Yorkville on their way to the city.

The party would have been underway for hours by the time they arrived. Celebrations began the previous midnight with the tolling of the steeple bells at St. James Cathedral. A 21-gun salute took place before dawn, followed the long slow roasting of a whole ox over a bonfire; it would later be carved up and distributed to the poor. The 9:30 morning service at the Mechanics’ Institute behind the cathedral to bless the new Dominion was also likely over.

But there was probably still time to catch part of the military parade down city streets and join the picnics taking place down by the lake. A highlight was taking advantage of special boat trips around Toronto’s islands.

In the evening, many moved on to Queen’s Park to hear the concert band. As the sun set, Chinese lanterns added a fairytale atmosphere to the park. For those farm families prepared to make a late night of it, there was fireworks before they had to make the long trip back up Yonge in the dark.

It’s probable that two of the neighborhood’s most prominent landowners stayed overnight in Toronto in order to take part in a special banquet at the Music Hall above the Mechanics’ Institute. William McDougall and James Metcalfe, both Members of Parliament for the new Canada, likely watched as the featured speakers — John A. Macdonald and George Brown — buried their longtime political rivalry and concentrated on optimistic rhetoric to capture the excitement achieved in creating a new country.

McDougall didn’t spend much time on his farm at today’s Yonge and Ranleigh streets. He was actually representing Lanark County in Ottawa and had just been appointed to be Macdonald’s Minister of Public Works. Across the street from the McDougall farm was Metcalfe’s Knockloe estate (on the site of today’s Blessed Sacrament school). As president of the Royal Canadian Bank, Metcalfe had been encouraged to run for federal office for York East. He now represented all of York County east of the Yonge (on McDougall’s side) as well as Yorkville, Scarborough and Markham.
The MP for the west side of Yonge was William Pearce Howland, a prominent miller on the Humber River and finance minister in the former colony of Canada. He was named a minister in Macdonald’s cabinet, but would soon step down to become Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor.

Canada was now a country, but the cluster of farms north of the Lawrences wouldn’t become a village for another 25 years.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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James Metcalfe: peacocks roamed his farm

1858The story goes that James Metcalfe, on returning to Toronto in 1858 from Australia, gave a large banquet to which he invited all the people he owed money at the time he’d left about five years earlier. Under each guest’s plate was a cheque for the full amount owed — with interest.

Whether true or not, the anecdote nicely captures the highs and lows of Metcalfe’s varied career. At the time of the dinner — if it happened — he was definitely on one of his highs, busy building an impressive new home on a farm property north of Lawrence. Located on the site of today’s Blessed Sacrament Separate School, the impressive two-and-a-half storey estate was surrounded by landscaped gardens and a menagerie of exotic Australian birds: peacocks, cockatoos and pheasants. Everything was fenced in, including his prized horses and Holstein cattle, with the Crown jewel being his garishly carved white gates on Yonge Street, imported from England.

He probably never envisioned such wealth when he arrived in Canada West as a 19-year-old in 1841. Over the next 10 years he built a solid reputation as a contractor, having a hand in building St. James Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall. One of his last projects was the quick construction of Trinity College on Queen Street, an alternative university established by Anglican Bishop John Strachan’s in response to the sectarian status given to the new University of Toronto by the provincial government. The original college is long gone. All that remains, perhaps no surprise, is Metcalfe’s monumental gate, sitting at the south end of Trinity Bellwoods Park.

In 1851, he dissolved the business. It was heavily in debt and he decided now was a good time to take advantage of the Australian gold rush. With his wife, Ellen Howson (probably a distant cousin) and their three-year-old son James, he ended up in Melbourne where his silk purse turned out to be not gold, but more construction. In a four-year period he built many of Melbourne’s impressive civic buildings before deciding to return to Canada.

As Metcalfe adapted to the life of a country squire in the Yonge-Lawrence area, he continued his contracting work and branched out into real estate. It was a comfortable life. In 1864 he became a local Justice of the Peace. The next year he was elected president of the Royal Canadian Bank. With the creation of Canada in 1867, he was urged to seek election as the first Member of Parliament for York East. He represented York East as the Reform Party member for the next 11 years, winning two elections by acclamation.

But, one year after Metcalfe was first elected, his house on Yonge Street caught fire. Rather than attempt to rebuild, he abandoned the blackened hulk for a new address in Yorkville.

He never returned to the community, died in 1886 and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. His son became a Methodist Church minister. His Yonge Street estate was later restored to its former glory by the Ellis brothers, who sold it in 1926 to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

The photograph of James Metcalfe is from Archives Canada.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Community Life.

William McDougall, a true Father of Confederation

1851Standing sentinel behind the Locke library, a federal plaque pays tribute to the Honourable William McDougall, one of Canada’s most interesting Confederation characters.

In the 1860s, McDougall’s 200-acre farm on Yonge Street sat between Bowood and Snowdon, running east through the Don valley to today’s Bayview Avenue. Born in 1822 on his grandfather’s farm south of Lawrence, McDougall spent his youth playing in the ravines that are now Alexander Muir Gardens. He was 15 when he witnessed the burning of nearby Montgomery’s Tavern during the Rebellion of 1837.

Following an education at Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, he returned to Toronto to study law in the firm of another neighbour, James Hervey Price. In 1845, he married Amelia Easton, daughter of Joseph Easton who owned the farm north-east of Yonge and Lawrence. They began raising a family on the Easton farm and McDougall started honing his interest in journalism and politics.

Two years later, he not only became a lawyer but also helped establish a sophisticated farm publication which evolved into the Canadian Agriculturalist. He was able to draw on his own experience working on his father-in-law’s farm, where, by 1851, he had also built a sawmill near today’s Rosedale golf club.

William McDougallBy this time, he was also actively involved in the Reform movement trying to achieve responsible government. He helped found the Clear Grit wing of the Reform Party, launching its first publication, the North American. McDougall and the Grits were looking for “common sense democracy” like that in the United States.

In 1855, he sold the North American to his Reform competitor, George Brown of The Globe, and joined Brown’s staff. Three years later he closed down the Agriculturalist and finally won a seat in the legislature, representing Oxford North (vacated by Brown). Over the years he would represent a variety of ridings around the province.

A proponent of federalism, McDougall took an active part in the talks that ultimately led to the creation of Canada, thus making him one of the Fathers of Confederation. In some ways it was surprising. Although he was admired as a brilliant orator, he was an eccentric politician who was aloof and ambitious. Not a great team player, his unreliability ultimately earned him the nickname, Wandering Willie. That trait arose in 1862 when he abandoned the Grit platform to join John Sandfield Macdonald’s Reform government.

While serving in cabinet, he was again a witness to history as part of the crowd listening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in Pennsylvania.

In 1867 he changed parties again, becoming Sir John A. Macdonald’s first Conservative minister of public works. He braved the accusations of former colleagues to steer through Parliament the acquisition of western Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company. For his efforts, he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor designate of the North West Territory.

The timing was bad. His wife had died and he had four children at home. All four joined his entourage travelling to the west. At the Manitoba border, they were stopped by Louis Riel’s Metis government. McDougall’s posting became invalid while the HBC negotiated with the Metis. Returning to Ontario bitter and shocked, he soon shifted his political energy to provincial politics.

McDougall later returned to the federal scene and moved to Ottawa in 1880. Even after losing several elections, he continued to leave his cantankerous imprint on Canadian politics. He died nearly penniless in 1905.

Beneath the ravine near his plaque in Lawrence Park runs the now-underground McDougall Creek, named after the farmer-journalist-politician who lived here for over 50 years.

The photograph of William McDougall is from Archives Canada.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on September 1, 2008 at 4:29 pm  Comments (26)  
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An 1850 view of Yonge Street

1846It’s a beautiful spring day in 1850, so what could be nicer than walk up Yonge Street, starting at the Fifth Concession (today’s Lawrence Avenue).

For more than half a century, settlers and farmers have been taming the wilderness in the area, but there is still no community. In fact, looking north, there is nothing but farm fields on the right. On the left, more farms and the occasional business that breaks the landscape.

The intersection is dominated by the Lawrence farms. Peter’s farm on the northeast corner is representative of the agricultural changes taking change. The days of battling nature to clear stumps, figure out the soil and cope with a short growing season are mostly gone. Now, farmers are experimenting with new implements like the horse-drawn mechanical reaper that can harvest an acre a day — something that previously took ten days for men with scythes. Wheat is the primary crop, but oats and garden crops like potatoes are also grown.

There’s another Lawrence farm on the northeast corner, although it’s partly obscured by John Russell’s store close to the street. The white frame house is a supplies magnet for the neighbourhood, particularly in the early evenings when the farm work is done.

Heading north on Yonge is effortless, thanks to the relatively smooth crushed stone and tar surface that replaced the muddy potholes several decades ago. It’s probably best not think about what it has been costing the Baldwin-Lafontaine government to maintain the improved roadway. Clearly it’s a lot, because last year the colony sold Yonge Street to the Toronto Road Company. It’s owner, James Beaty, is already making noises about the heavy costs of construction exceeding what he’s pulling in at the tollgates, one of which is just beyond our sight up ahead.

Once past Russell’s store, the landscape is mostly open fields until we reach the most substantial building on this stretch of road, the Nightingale family’s Durham Ox hotel. The two-storey inn is on the same property (near today’s Cranbrooke) that boasted the area’s first business: a short-lived potash business started in 1799 by Duke William Kendrick to turn settler’s ashes into soap and other products. Across the road is the open expanse of farms belonging to Joseph Easton and Daniel Brooke.

Near today’s Snowden Avenue are a few workers’ houses, survivors of a cluster of tiny homes that probably housed staff who toiled at the long-gone Seneca Ketchum store across the street.

More farms — worked by families with names like Nightingale, Shaw and Marsh — dot the landscape until we reach the crest of the hill down to Hogg’s Hollow. This is the location of the dreaded tollgate that has been helping travellers part with their money for nearly 15 years.

Looking back down Yonge it seems like nothing will change quickly. And, in fact, that’s the case. Even though the population north of Toronto will grow dramatically in the next decade, it won’t significantly change the character of the street north of the Fifth Concession. It will be 40 years before our tranquil stretch of Yonge Street gets its first wallop of urbanization.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on August 17, 2008 at 5:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Russell and the Atkinsons: merchants for over a century

1846In the five years following 1846, the population along Yonge Street between the Fourth Concession (Eglinton) and Sixth (York Mills) would double.

There was little evidence of that at the Fifth Concession (Lawrence). Things hadn’t changed much in 50 years. It was still a farming community, with only one commercial operation of any size: the six-year-old Durham Ox Inn a half-kilometre to the north of the intersection.

That changed in 1846 when a shoemaker, John Russell, bought three acres of land from Peter Lawrence on the northwest corner of Yonge and Lawrence and built a general store. From the front, the white-frame building appeared to be one storey, but was actually two and a half storeys. The second level was at street level while the lower level opened to a backyard down the embankment.

The store provided a community focus for the neighbourhood; a focus that had been lost with the disappearance of the Seneca Ketchum store (at Fairlawn) many years earlier. Area farmers were able to by food and clothing staples without having to take longer trips to Eglinton or Hogg’s Hollow.

Russell operated the store for 26 years before it was passed on to his son, James, who served the community at the location for another 13 years. He sold the store to John Atkinson in 1885.

Atkinson would spend his days working as a farmhand for the Lawrences while his wife ran the store. He would join her in the evenings when the number of visitors would typically increase when the farmers were free to come in and barter for supplies.

It was a pattern that continued for 13 years, until the Atkinsons moved the store into the oldest commercial building still standing in the community: 3164 Yonge on the south side of Bedford Park Avenue. The substantial two-storey brick building had been constructed seven years earlier by local businessman Philip Ellis who had been granted permission to open a Bedford Park post office in 1891. It reflects the popular architecture of the time with rounded arches over the windows.

The Atkinson store was to operate at this location for 61 years, selling food, clothing, hardware, penny candy and just about anything else the area farmers required. An extension was added to the back of the building (today’s Mr. Bill’s) which was used to store the feed for the farmers’ livestock.

The building also continued for many years to serve as the Bedford Park post office and was the mustering point for the volunteer fire brigade. Members of the Atkinson family lived in the apartments on the second floor. Behind the building was a stable that housed not only the delivery horses but the family’s cattle.

Over time, the number of urban residents who worked in the city began to eclipse those with farms, but the Atkinsons continued to meet their needs. At first it was John and his wife. Later it was their sons Gordon and Harry. By 1959, when the store closed, it was surrounded by many other businesses offering services that, for decades, could only be had at Atkinson’s.

The Atkinson family poses outside their store at the northwest corner of Yonge & Lawrence in 1894. Photo on loan to the Toronto Public Library from the Atkinson family.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on April 4, 2008 at 3:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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