It’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.