The Ellis Brothers propose the first subdivision

In 1889, York Township Council was presented with a registered plan that proposed to turn the pastoral farming area north of Yonge and Lawrence into a busy factory/residential development.

Behind the plan were the enthusiastic Ellis brothers, wholesale jewellers from Toronto. They had recently purchased the decaying Metcalfe estate (where Blessed Sacrament Separate School now stands) and the more than 100 acres that went with it.

Most of their property was open pasture, providing lots of space for their Holstein cattle. But Philip William Ellis and his younger brother William Gordon Ellis had bigger plans in mind. Along with another brother, an uncle and other investors, they formed The Bedford Park Company and were proposing to carve their farm into 1,500 small housing lots with 20-foot frontages. These would be strung along two roads – Woburn Avenue and Bedford Avenue – running from Yonge Street west to today’s Bathurst Street.

The company’s name was probably borrowed from the Bedford Park Hotel to the north of the Ellis holdings. The office was located on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto, just east of Yonge.

Any buyer interested in a lot would have an opportunity to place a bid on a specific piece of property during one of the company auctions. The successful bidder could then purchase the lot for $120, requiring a down payment of 60 cents, with payments of 60 cents every Thursday until it was paid off – presumably in less than four years.

The Ellis brothers hoped to attract buyers looking for cheaper prices on the outskirts of Toronto, people willing to commute into the city to work. It would mean residents would have to make the one-kilometre walk down and up the hill to Glengrove Avenue to catch the horse-drawn streetcar to Toronto. But there was every reason to believe that the service would eventually extend north into the new community.

The Ellises also hoped to attract buyers who wanted to not only live, but work, in the community. That was the thinking behind the proposed factory in the plan. What kind of factory doesn’t seem clear. Perhaps Philip and W.G. wanted township approval before getting into specifics.

It was an ambitious plan, but it collided with the recession that was starting to grip the country (sound familiar?). The intention to start building homes in 1891 didn’t happen. When Bedford Park became part of the Town of North Toronto in 1892, the brothers received approval for the housing plan. But the buyers were slow in coming. By 1897, there were still only 33 families in the area. And the following year, the town vetoed the proposal to build a factory.

Sales started to pick up; houses started to pop up along Woburn. By 1907, the company was still actively advertising the development to potential buyers. In 1912, there were still only 100 families in the whole area, which meant fewer than five per cent of the lots were occupied.

By the 1920s, many of the lots were filled with tiny white bungalows. However, none of those countless bungalows with their original white wood-frame siding exist today.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Community Life.


The neighbourhood named after a hotel


In 1873, Charles McBride built the most imposing commercial establishment yet seen in the neighbourhood: a substantial two-storey hotel on the west side of Yonge Street just south of Fairlawn.

No other building between the Lawrences’ farms and Hogg’s Hollow was as significant as the new Bedford Park Hotel. The stretch’s original hotel, the Durham Ox, just to the south, had perished in flames several years earlier, and James Metcalfe’s fine estate south of that had also been gutted by fire.

The question is: where did McBride come up with the name Bedford Park? It was a name that would spread to a street to the south, a post office at the corner of that street, and, ultimately, the whole community. The Bedford Park garden community in London, England, was still two years away from inception. The Bedford Parks in Illinois, the Bronx and Australia also did not yet exist. Whether McBride borrowed the name from elsewhere or created it, Bedford Park continues to be name most often used to define the neighbourhood.

Innkeeping was not new to Charles McBride. In 1858 he purchased the infamous Montgomery Tavern, site of the one major skirmish in Upper Canada’s Rebellion of 1837. Renaming it Prospect House, he managed it (or rented it out) for the next decade. York’s Township Council often held its meetings there.

McBride’s great-grandfather was the original doorkeeper and caterer to the first Legislative and Executive Council of Upper Canada. His grandfather acquired a huge farm in Willowdale where Charles grew up. It faced today’s Mel Lastman Square and stretched east all the way to Leslie Street.

In the early 1870s, Charles bought the farm on Yonge Street between Fairlawn and Brookdale that ran west in a narrow strip to today’s Falkirk Street. He then purchased the 26-year-old Finch’s Hotel at Yonge and Finch and promptly tore it down so he could use the timber to build his Bedford Park Hotel next to his farmhouse.

It was a grand wood frame building, boasting a two-storey porch and ornate metal eavestroughing. Additional rooms extended north over the driving sheds, giving the hotel an expanse that dwarfed the quaint bungalow farmhouse to the south.

For 35 years it thrived as a hotel, until 1908 when the area’s vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol turned the building into a temperance house. In keeping with its dry status, the Bedford Park became the first home of Fairlawn Avenue United Church seven years later.

In the 1930s, storefronts wrapped themselves around the front end of the hotel, burying the once imposing structure. And there the Bedford Park remained hidden until, exactly 100 years after its construction, it was replaced by a four-storey building now occupied by Black’s Cameras.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on June 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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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)  
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An 1850 view of Yonge Street

1846It’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.

Published in: on August 17, 2008 at 5:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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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Yonge Street never popular as a toll road

1837As angry farmers trudged out of Hogg’s Hollow on their way to Montgomery’s Tavern for the primary battle of Upper Canada’s Rebellion of 1837, it’s unlikely they were stopped at the toll-gate on the hill’s crest.The toll-gate, located near today’s Loblaws, was a tiny two-storey building on the west side of Yonge with a roof stretched over the roadway to a support on the far side.

Pedestrians were exempt from paying the toll, but the gatekeeper usually collected a few pence for a horse-drawn carriage by extending a bowl out the window in rougher weather. Some keepers may have extended half a coconut shell, although it’s doubtful coconuts were an easy commodity to come by. If the keeper was on duty in winter, sleighs were charged a similar toll.

The gatekeeper was usually a local landowner who had won the bid for the government contract. He was typically poorly paid, but one keeper — a local chicken farmer — complemented the wage by selling eggs to travelers and locals. Another keeper, Charles McBride, later became the owner of the local Bedford Park Hotel.

Initially, the tolls were used to help pay for the transformation of Yonge Street from mud to crushed stone. The street’s first toll-gate was erected at Yorkville in 1820, and 10 years later the second one, in our neighbourhood, was built. Three more turned up later, at Gallow’s Hill (just south of St. Clair), and at Langstaff and Elgin Mills roads.

But the income collected never came close to matching the construction costs — not surprising since travellers weren’t keen on paying to use a road that wasn’t yet fixed. In 1837 it was necessary for the government to kick in an extra £100,000 to keep the construction moving.

West Rouge tollboothBy 1845, the government cut off further funds and construction stopped. As a result, fewer people used the road north of Toronto and it became necessary for the government to compensate the gatekeepers who often didn’t collect enough to make it feasible.

To get out of the financial quagmire, the government sold Yonge Street (along with Dundas Street and Kingston Road) to a private company. But the resurfacing continued to absorb cash until the company defaulted on its interest payments, passing the roads back to the government. In 1865, the gates were sold to York County — for a quarter of the price they were worth 20 years earlier.

Over the next 30 years, opposition to the gates continued to mount because the collected tolls were no longer being used to maintain the roads. So, the government abolished them in the 1890s. Toll-roads disappeared for the next 100 years. With the advent of tolls on Highway 407 in 1999, coconut shells were replaced by transponders.

The Kingston Road toll-gate was very similar in design to the one that stood at the top of Hogg’s Holllow near today’s Loblaws.

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

Published in: on January 28, 2008 at 3:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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Hill’s tavern reflects an imbibing society

1811Thomas Hill opened the neighbourhood’s first tavern – near today’s Toyota dealership on Yonge south of Lawrence – in 1811. It was the latest in a string of inns that now peppered the Yonge Street route up to Newmarket and beyond.

There was already a tavern almost within sight of Hill’s to the south, operated by John McDougall. And the widow Valliere had recently opened one down in the hollow to the north (Hogg’s).

Muddy Yonge already had more drinking holes than any other road in Upper Canada. The stump-infested character of the road no doubt contributed to the need to stop for a drink, then stop for another.

Hill originally settled (probably squatted) on the property in 1797. But when the lot was formally granted to someone else, he uprooted his family and headed up Yonge Street to what is now Sheppard Avenue. Hill opened a tavern there, but two years later bought the property he’d left and returned to this area. It was only a matter of time before he decided to open another tavern.

The enterprise was likely little more than a log cabin with a water trough out front for washing and for the horses. Inside, the air was heavy with the smell of stale alcohol and smoke. Whiskey could be purchased for a penny a glass, or five cents for a grunt (the amount a person could drink without taking a breath). Adjoining the barroom was a tiny kitchen.

Most taverns were also inns, so there were likely a few beds in a small loft on the second floor. Travellers would often have to share a bed that boasted planks instead of a mattress. In the summer, there were mosquitoes to contend with. In the winter, the challenge was the sopping wet floor from the snow tracked in on people’s boots.

Drinking wasn’t limited to establishments like Hill’s. It was a rampant reality in many aspects of pioneer life. There was usually a jug of it on the table at every meal. Children grew up drinking whiskey. The men took it with them to the fields. A visitor at the time suggested that those who couldn’t hold their liquor should avoid Canada altogether.

Whiskey, the preferred drink of the working class and farmers, was cheap (25 cents a gallon), readily available and often lethal. Amateurs could – and did – make it at home. It was the octane that ignited building bees – these gatherings were eventually abandoned because the cost of drink and food exceeded the cost of simply bringing in efficient craftsmen.

Alcohol also fueled fights. Many of the assault charges in the early years had their roots in drunken behaviour. A positive side to this was the Stump Act of 1800 that required a convicted drunk to remove a stump from the road. As the drinking got worse, Yonge Street became smoother.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on December 1, 2007 at 1:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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The neighbourhood 200 years ago

1804Attempting to describe what most Bedford Park area properties looked like exactly 200 years ago isn’t too difficult. Trees. And more trees.

Most of the land was still forest, covered with beech trees and some pine. The golden-bronze carpet of beech leaves on the forest floor was steadily turning brown in November 1804. The only break in the canopy of branches and pine needles was a single muddy road (Yonge Street) and a few paths, like the one along the Fourth Concession Line (Lawrence Avenue).

Clinging to Yonge Street were a handful of farms. The west side, north of Lawrence, had been the domain of the four Kendrick brothers. But most of them had left. Joseph had just sold his corner farm (northwest Yonge and Lawrence) to Duncan Cameron, a fur trader. His brother Duke still owned the next farm, but since the failure of his potash business (near Cranbrooke), he spent most of his time at his home in the Town of York.

The next farm was Kendrick property in name only. Hiram never occupied the site, instead renting it to Seneca Ketchum, who ran a thriving general store/tannery/cobblery/agricultural rental business. In fact, if the area farmers needed something, chances are Ketchum arranged to make it available.

Only John, the oldest Kendrick brother, still lived at his Yonge Street farm at the top of the hill overlooking what would later become Hogg’s Hollow. Just this month (200 year ago, that is), his daughter Mary married blacksmith Leonard Marsh who likely lived with his brother William on the north side of the hollow.

The east side of Yonge was an even quieter scene. The farm on the northeast corner at Lawrence had belonged to Bernard Carey, a United Empire Loyalist. But in 1803 he sold it to his son-in-law Jonathon Hale who would later buy the 200-acre farm south of Lawrence as well.

All the remaining land on the east side – from present-day Ranleigh to Loblaws – was still Crown land, waiting for the first settlers to hack a dent into the leafy canopy.

The season for farming was over for the settlers. As they headed into the winter, they used the time removed more trees and stumps, build bigger dwellings and out-buildings, and take on tasks, like weaving, to supplement the family income.

Yonge Street was everybody’s lifeline. There were plenty of farms to the north and south, so traffic wasn’t unusual. But it was excruciating. The road was nothing more than a morass of mud, ornery tree stumps, and potholes, all churned up by fall rains.

Settlers heading south to the Town York, or north to the new mills on the Don River, usually made the trip on horseback. The thought of slogging along Yonge in carriages and wagons wasn’t a welcome one. But, soon there would freezing temperatures and snow – and, once again, travelling on Upper Canada’s first ‘street’ would become easier, for riders and sleighs.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on November 17, 2007 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Seneca Ketchum: the neighbourhood’s first merchant

1800When Seneca Ketchum arrived in the village of York in 1796, he really wasn’t in any position to buy land or qualify for free land being given out by the British.

Nor could the 23-year-old immigrant afford to rent property in town. Along with several members, he had walked from the Catkills in New York State to Lake Ontario, then taken a boat from Kingston to York. There wasn’t much money left over.

However, he was able to lease land on the new Yonge Street – north of present-day Lawrence – from Hiram Kendrick. The four Kendrick brothers owned all the land on the west side of Yonge from Lawrence to Hogg’s Hollow, but Hiram was the only one who never actually lived on his property: a government requirement if he wanted to keep it.

So, Seneca built a log cabin on the site (just north of Fairlawn Avenue) and as more settlers moved into the area, he opened its first store. He sold woven goods made by women in the area (and, in the winter, made by men as well). He built a tannery and cobblery so he could sell boots. Farmers could rent a team of oxen or hire someone to help chop firewood. Salmon from the Don River and deer meat was also available.

“He was trusted throughout the district,” notes Don Ritchie in his book North Toronto. “If you wanted to trade apples for butchered hogs, Seneca’s judgment was trusted.”

Jesse KetchumSeneca began to prosper. His younger brother Jesse joined him. He bought Kendrick’s property in 1804, then sold the north half to Jesse. He hosted Sunday morning services of the Church of England in his home and later played a major financial role in launching St. John’s Anglican Church, which now stands on Old Yonge Street north of York Mills Road. He helped found the first – if short-lived – school in the area, behind today’s Miller’s restaurant in the hollow.

And, he hired a housekeeper for himself and Jesse. Nancy Love, a young widow with a baby daughter, was soon seen as more than a servant to the young bachelors. Both men were keen to marry Nancy. To solve the dilemma, Seneca and Jesse agreed to draw lots to see who should have her for a wife – Nancy apparently didn’t have much say in the matter. Jesse won, married Nancy, and went on to become one of Toronto’s first successful businessmen. Jesse Ketchum Public School at Davenport and Bay is named after him.

It was a setback for Seneca, but not for long. He married a neighbour, Anne Mercer, and bought land from his father-in-law in Hogg’s Hollow to build the school that could also hold church services. He also bought the lot directly across the street from his.

Becoming an Anglican missionary, Seneca moved his family, and others, to Orangeville in the 1830s to found the first church in the area (it was behind the Toyota dealership now located on Highway 9). He tirelessly trekked the wilderness counties of Dufferin and Grey to bring the church’s message to setllers and died there in 1850.

When they left North Toronto, Seneca and Anne Ketchum left their Yonge Street property to the British Crown so that the proceeds of the sales could be used to build Toronto’s first mental asylum.

The illustration of Jesse Ketchum can be found on the Knox Presbyterian Church website, Toronto.

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Community Life.

Published in: on November 10, 2007 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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First business shortlived

1799On 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.

Published in: on November 3, 2007 at 1:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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