In 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.