On December 7, 1799, Duke William Kendrick formally announced the launch of the Bedford Park area’s first business with a plea that began “Ashes, Ashes, Ashes.” His ad in the Upper Canada Gazette indicated he was “about to erect a potash upon lot No. 7, west side of Yong-street.”
The venture, located near present-day Cranbrooke Avenue, hoped to take advantage of one of the hottest business opportunities in a wilderness area showing its first signs of habitation. Although Yonge Street was still an almost-impassable quagmire of stumps and mud, there were already about a half-dozen farms being hacked out of the forest between the Fifth Concession marker (Lawrence Avenue) and Big Creek (the West Don River at York Mills Road).
The first settlers included Duke – his first name, not an honorary title – Kendrick. Like other settlers, he had one year in which to build a log cabin 16 feet by 20 feet if he wanted free title to his 200-acre property. He spent most of his first year chopping down trees to clear a space for his cabin and a vegetable garden.
It was the same for all the new farmers along Yonge. Their cut trees would fall together in small piles. Then, they invited their neighbours to a logging bee. In return for free whiskey and a party, the farmers spent the day dragging the felled timber into larger piles. It was done with teams of oxen pulling on logging chains.
Once the best logs were set aside for house and fence building, the remaining trees were set on fire. The blackened logs that remained were then hauled into heaps and again burned. The surviving chunks of wood from this second blaze were thrown together and burned yet again. All that was left was ashes.
And that’s where the potash business came in.
To create potash, large vats were used to collect the ashes. Water was poured over them to drain off a salty gray liquid called ley. Boiled in large pots, the ley turned into salty rust-red ‘pot-ash’, which, after calcination, turned bright white.
Potash was used in the manufacture of dyes, soap, glass and baking soda. Europeans, in particular, were anxious to have it. Plenty of wood ashes were needed to make potash, and Europe didn’t have extensive tracts of trees to spare. But, Upper Canada had lots of tree that were simply in the way.
Duke Kendrick was prepared to pay nine pence per bushel for house ashes and six pence for field ashes. But, money was virtually non-existent, so Kendrick “conceives it his duty to inform those who may have ashes to dispose of, that it will not be in his power to pay cash, but merchandise at cash price.” Each bushel was worth only a few cents in today’s currency, but it was easy money.
Well, maybe not so easy. Within a year or two, Kendrick had abandoned his potash venture and moved back into the York village (Toronto). By the 1850s, the potash industry had virtually disappeared. Germany had begun to produce it for Europeans, and established farmers along Yonge Street found that their trees were now worth more as timber than as ashes.
This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Community Life.