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 (29)  
Tags: , , ,