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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The Lawrences

1829For nearly 100 years, various members of the Lawrence family played prominent roles as farmers and merchants at the corner of Yonge Street and the Fourth Concession. So, it’s not surprising that the concession sideroad eventually came to be known as Lawrence Avenue.

But long before that, the route went by a variety of names. When the first Lawrence — Peter — turned up in the neighbourhood in 1812, the pathway was often referred to as Hale’s road. Jonathan Hale owned an impressive 400-acre farm on the southwest corner of the intersection (now Lawrence Park). It was certainly much more impressive than the half-acre Peter occupied on the west side Yonge, facing Hale’s. Peter lived there with his new wife, Elizabeth Cummer (her Willowdale family would evenually have a street named after them as well!). By the 1820s he was operating a small tannery.

John Lawrence farmIt wasn’t until 1829 that Peter had the means to buy his own farm, 95 acres on the northeast corner of today’s Yonge and Lawrence. Seven years later he bought the farm across the street on the northwest corner and was the local justice of the peace. He also played a key role in building the first Methodist church in the area, at the top of the hill south of his farm (at Yonge & Glengrove).

Jacob Lawrence, possibly a son, built a sawmill in the Don Valley (at today’s Glendon College) and eventually operated the tannery on the southwest corner of Yonge and Lawrence. Still another Lawrence — George — later ran a general store and post office on Yonge; likely on the Peter’s property.

William Lawrence, who was born the year his father Peter bought his first large farm, ended up marrying the granddaughter of Jesse Ketcham, an original setller in the area who went on to become one of Toronto’s first successful industrialists.

In 1865, William bought the north half of the old Hale estate for $8,400. It included the stately ‘Kingsland’ home on the crest of a hill, built by the previous owner, Samuel Huson. His wife eventually inherited The old Ketcham property next door (the south half of the original Hale farm) was eventually inherited by William’s wife.

He expanded the ‘Kingsland’ house and outlying buildings until they encompassed the entire inner circle of today’s Lawrence Crescent. An expansive treelined drive ran from Yonge Street up to the house. Today it is Lympstone Avenue.

His son, John, sold their estate in 1907 for $47,000 to Joseph Montgomery who, interestingly, flipped the property a year later to Erie Realty for $1 and “an unidsclosed consideration.” Soon after, it was pruchased by Wilfred Dinnick to form the centrepiece of his ambitious suburb development: Lawrence Park.

Even as elegant new homes began to dot the Lawrence Park enclave, the road along the northern boundary of the subdivision (Lawrence) was still a dirt road with meadow grass growing down the centre. It remained that way until the 1920s.

Photo: Harvest time at the John Lawrence farm on the northwest corner of Yonge and Lawrence about 1895. ©Toronto Public Library.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on December 24, 2007 at 6:09 am  Comments (4)  
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