Category Archives: North York

Scenes From East Don Parkland

It’s all about the layers in the East Don Parkland. The residual landscape from the last Ice Age, the ravine, which stretches from Leslie and Steeles to Don Mills and Sheppard, has come to see pre-contact wilderness, colonial farming and industry, and post-war revitalization and reconfiguration.

But ‘East Don Parkland’ is a bit of a misnomer if only because it encompasses not only the east branch of the Don River but another – albeit smaller – tributary waterway.

German Mills Creek originates just to the north of Steeles in its historic namesake Markham community (sadly, now lost). The label is pretty literal, too: German Mills was once an industrious village along John Street founded by Bavarian-born William Berczy and a group of his countrymen and women. In addition to being a prosperous settlement, the community was instrumental in the early development of York too. The goods supplied by the mills aided in constructing the actual built form of the young town. The German Mills pioneers also cleared Yonge Street from Eglinton to Thornhill before the Queen’s Rangers finished the job.

East Don Parkland became part of Toronto’s parks network in the 1980s after efforts to remediate and rehabilate a river that had been worn out by European activity. Today, it is home to a number of flora and fauna, most notably salmon and white-tailed deer, the latter which are prominently displayed on the park’s signage. A neat tidbit: the deer’s precense in Toronto dates back to around 9000 years after the end of the last Ice Age.

Cummer Avenue bisects (or trisects?) East Don Parkland and offers more history. Unsurprisingly, the street’s name plays homage to the family who toiled around and built it – although to different designs.

Jacob and Elizabeth Kummer (the name was inexplicably changed to a ‘C’ around 1820), like the pioneers of Markham were of German descent, and came to the Toronto area in 1795, first settling near Yonge and Eglinton. They would relocate further up the main street to Willowdale where they would amass an extraordinary fortune. Their original property was a 190-acre lot fronting Yonge and stretching to Bayview. With subsequent generations of Cummers, their holdings grew to encompass not only large plots fronting Yonge but portions of the East Don Valley too. Whereas the former real estate was good for farming and commercial activities, the power of the river allowed the Cummers to engage in some industry. In 1819, they built and began operating a sawmill.

The Don property was interestingly significant in that early settlers as well as First Nations peoples took part in church and camp activities there. Through the meetings, the area was famously known as “Scripture Town” and “Angel Valley”.

East Don from Tremaine’s Map, 1860. Source: Toronto Historic Maps.

Around the 1850s, Jacob III, grandson of Jacob Kummer, built a farmhouse to overlook the valley. The home isn’t perfectly parallel to the street it rests on, making it a bit of an intriguing anomaly with the surrounding post-war subdivision.

To connect the Cummers’ Yonge and East Don holdings, a side road was constructed. Today, we know that road allowance as Cummer Avenue. Where the street crossed the East Don, it veered south to follow the curve of the river on its way to Leslie Street. The aforementioned mill was also located near this junction.

East Don River and Old Cummer, 1950. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

In the mid-1960s, Cummer was re-oriented away from the valley. A bridge that used to carry car traffic across the river serves as a reminder of its former course. One has to think of the vehicular ghosts when traversing the recreational trail that replaced the street.

A paved portion also leads to Old Cummer GO Station, where the street once passed through before the station’s construction in 1978. For years I puzzled about the station’s name. 

South of Finch Avenue, with golden foliage of fall to accentuate the walk, the trail winds on. 

So does the river, although not as it once did. Like Cummer Avenue, the Don’s history has come with some alterations. Along the way is at least one algae-covered oxbow – an orphaned or even ghost segments separated from the river’s course. This particular one was severed around the early 1950s.

East Don River, 1950. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

East Don River oxbow, 1965. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

One has to note the monstrosity of human construction that is the CNR Richmond Hill GO line looming above the park.

A fallen tree trunk spanning across the river instantly urges me of more pioneering connections. It reminds me of an Elizabeth Simcoe depiction of an early bridge across the Lower Don River.

Winchester Street, bridge over Don R. (Playter’s bridge), 1794. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Finally, at the park’s southern end is Old Leslie Street. Just like Old Cummer, Leslie used to take on a different route. Heading south, the street used to jogged west at Sheppard before continuing south, all presumably to avoid crossing the Don River.

Sheppard and Leslie, 1961. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The junction of Old Leslie and Sheppard was the nexus of the tiny, lost mill community of Oriole, named for George S. Henry’s homestead located off the Betty Sutherland Trail

Old Leslie Street and Sheppard, 1956. Source: Toronto Public Library. Oriole Wesleyan Methodist Church stood on the southwest corner from 1873 to the 1950s.

By 1969, the street was rerouted directly through Sheppard. Old Leslie remains mainly as a service road for the Leslie TTC Station, terminating across from North York General Hospital.

Useful Links

City in the Trees – Retrospective: Sheppard, Leslie, and the Don

Discover the Don – Walk The Don – East Don Parkland 

City in the Trees – Treasures on the Doorstep

Hiking The GTA – Old Cummer Road 

Lone Primate – Closed Old Cummer Avenue

Patricia W. Hart – Pioneering in North York: A History of the Borough

Richard Fiennes-Clinton – Muddy York: A History of Toronto Until 1834

Scott Kennedy – Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy 

Scenes From Lansing & Willowdale

Outside of a McDonald’s and 7-Eleven at Yonge and Sheppard, there’s a blue plaque. The City of Toronto and TTC marker commemorates the 1860 Joseph Shepard/Dempsey Brothers Store which once stood at this site. The plaque tracks the building’s history as a nexus in the historic Lansing community – from the residence of the pioneering Shepard family (for which Sheppard Avenue is named) and post office which gave birth to Lansing to the long-standing hardware store of the Dempseys.

Joseph Shepard House plaque

The funny thing is the building still exists – just not here. The store was transplanted to Dempsey Park on Beecroft Road in 1996.

Yonge looking north at Sheppard 1911

Yonge Street looking north at Sheppard Avenue, 1911. Joseph Shepard House/Dempsey Brothers Store at left. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Nearby, the Joseph Shepard Government Building, built in 1977, also pays tribute to Mr. Shepard (albeit, sometimes  spelled with inexplicably added “P”).

Joseph Shepard Building
Despite running parallel to it only 300 metres to the east, Doris Avenue is noticeably more quiet than Yonge. It offers a great view of its tower-filled skyline.

Yonge Street Doris Avenue

Also on Doris: Willowdale Park. In addition to a large central space with tennis courts and playgrounds, a curving path continues north, crossing a few residential streets.

Willowdale Park

Willowdale Park 3              Willowdale Park 2

The linear park is a little peculiar to me – until I realize that the indent in the land and the sewer grates probably signify a buried waterway.

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek 2

As it turns out, Wilket Creek flows under Willowdale! A section of the creek running northwest from York Mills and Bayview was buried and put into storm sewers in the early 1970s.

Lansing Willowdale 1916

Lansing & Willowdale from the Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Willowdale 1966

Lansing & Willowdale, 1966. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Willowdale 2016

Lansing & Willowdale, 2016.

Another surprise in Willowdale Park: Lee Lifeson Art Park! The soon-to-be art and green space honours founding Rush members and Willowdale natives, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. The park was conceived by the local city councillor and voted on in 2014. Construction began the following year. It – river and all – awaits opening some day.

Lee Lifeson Art Park 1

Lee Lifeson Art Park 2

Lee Lifeson Art Park 3

Across the street, Princess Park looks like a grand courtyard leading up to 1999’s Empress Walk mall and condos. It’s probably my own impression, but something about it seems a little too “planned”.

Princess Park
I suppose it functions well for a park, though: things to see, places to sit and linger. No skateboarding, however.

Princess Park 4

The focal point is a restored hose tower, part of North York’s First Fire Hall. A plaque dates it to 1941. It was moved here from Yonge & Empress.

Princess Park Hose Tower 1

North York's First Fire Hall plaque

A second plaque tells the story of North York’s First Municipal Building, completed in 1923 on the south east corner of Yonge and Empress. The building is largely  gone, but its facade was built into the mall’s eastern entrance.

North York's First Municipal Building plaque

There’s also a floor tile with what looks like a plow. An homage to Willowdale’s farms.

Princess Park 2

If one thing comes out of Princess Park, it’s that Yonge and Empress was a historic nexus. But you’d never know it. As is the case with Dempsey Store, it’s great that the fire hall and civic building still exist in some capacity, but the transplanting of the buildings and plaques away from Yonge Street literally pushes heritage to the side. Their context is diminished.

Yonge and Empress

North York Fire Hall 1957

North York Fire Hall, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

North York Municipal offices 1957

North York Municipal Offices, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The intersection is surrounded on three sides by towers and the mall. On the remaining corner: a much more modest two-storey shop. A cornerstone dates it to 1929. Uptown Yonge has a few of these tiny older stores mixed in with the towers, but the street doesn’t have the character of downtown Yonge, whose history as a retail strip still prevails even among intensification.

North York Waterworks Yonge Street 1
The store, a beauty supply shop, was oddly enough the North York Waterworks. Again, you wouldn’t know it. A parking lot surrounds the building; one wonders how long it will last before another condo takes over the corner.

Waterworks Yonge and Empress

North York Waterworks, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Finally, on Parkview  Avenue, there’s the John McKenzie House, a beautiful Queen Anne/Edwardian/Arts and Crafts farmhouse built in 1913. The McKenzies were pioneers in Willowdale who in 1884 purchased a portion of land from the Cummers, the original European settlers of Willowdale in 1797. The McKenzie farm came to amass some 140 acres from Yonge to Bayview.

Ontario Historical Society John McKenzie House

In 1993, the Ontario Historical Society took the house on as their new headquarters, saving it from demolition. Before moving in, the City of North York agreed to  fund the $600,000 restoration of the heritage house. In 2016, the John McKenzie House is getting a new roof.

Useful Links

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From North York Centre, Gibson House Museum, and Mel Lastman Square”

Scott Kennedy – Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy

Toronto Star – “John McKenzie House a part of North York history” by Shawn Micallef

Vanishing Point – “Wilket Creek Storm Trunk Sewer”

Scenes From The Peanut, Parkway Forest, and Graydon Hall

When I was first told about a place in Toronto called the Peanut, I laughed. The Peanut? What kind of name is that? I was then explained that it really looks like a peanut.

Peanut Aerial Looking South Late 1960s

The Peanut Aerial Looking South, Late 1960s. Source: ERA Architects

But even after being told that and looking it up on a map, I still had no visual conception of it. Don Mills and Sheppard itself isn’t completely unfamiliar to me – I’ve known it since my childhood as the home of Fairview Mall. My family doctor is also located here. But Don Mills heading north toward Finch – no clue.

The peanut is the nickname given a development of high-rises and townhouses along Don Mills Rd. - because of the shape of the road in it when seen from the air. Most of it has been built in the past 10 years. Ratepayer groups say the high density of population has aggravated social problems. Two groups oppose a proposed condominium development nearby but other people say development is inevitable and developer should be asked what he would provide for recreation.

The Peanut Aerial Looking South, 1976. Source: Getty Images.

And thus, I begin at the top. Van Horne Avenue. To the north, the street consists of lanes of north-south traffic. To the south, the street splits off into singular direction-flowing lanes on either side of a giant curving island.

The Peanut 1

It’s not an original thought to suggest The Peanut isn’t very pedestrian friendly – even now, getting to its centre is unusual. A Walkability Study by Paul M. Hess and Jane Farrow goes into great detail about the issues – good and bad – about living and walking the Peanut. But even without defined criteria, one can see with one’s own eyes – and feet – how awkward traversing the Peanut can be. Walking toward the mall, I can already see someone jaywalking the southbound curve.

The Peanut 2

Peanut Plaza displays no obvious charm, but seems to hold a bit of meaning to the people that know it. Aesthetically, it’s clearly of another era: the mid-1960s, much like the rest of its surroundings. (The skylight inside, though, is commendable.)

Peanut Plaza 1
Peanut Plaza 2

It’s notably anchored by Tone Tai Supermarket, but every bit of positive word of mouth I’ve heard about the Plaza lies in its eateries – specifically Allan’s Bakery and Mr. Jerk, which have been described to me as having the best Jamaican patties and food in the city. Imagine that: such an unsung landmark in suburbia with some of the best food in Toronto.

Peanut Plaza Mr. Jerk

The rest of the Peanut houses Georges Vanier Secondary School and Woodbine Junior High School. The latter is notable to me (and perhaps only to me) for its naming. Woodbine Avenue currently exists as two main stretches – one running south of the River Don and one running north of Steeles. The portion in Markham once extended south to the 401 and beyond. It was replaced by Highway 404 in 1976.

Woodbine Junior High School

Peanut Woodbine DVP Aerial 1966

Aerial of The Peanut & Parkway Forest, 1966. Woodbine Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway on the right. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Created in 1963, The Peanut is the embodiment of post-war suburbia in Toronto: car designed streets, apartment buildings, strip malls, and minimalist looking schools.

I don’t venture into the residential streets, but in his exploration of the Peanut and the larger Don Valley Village, The Toronto Neighbourhood Walks Project‘s Jason points out the side streets add a new twist to the cookie cutter subdivision. Instead of the same house repeated over and over, it’s the same four in a row, creating a false sense of diversity. (As the comments point out, though, even the residents know this and are trying to instill some individuality to their homesteads.)

Peanut Aerial Looking Northeast Late 1960s

Peanut Aerial Looking Northeast, Late 1960s. Source: Vintage Toronto.

Don Mills West and East converge at Fairview Mall Drive, which houses Fairview Library and Theatre. For the longest time, I knew it as a great library branch – and an architectural slab of grey concrete. In 2013, a glass addition was added to its 1972 exterior. Only months after reopening, though, a flood shut down the library again.

Fairview Library 1976

Fairview Library, 1976. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Fairview Library 1

Fairview Library 3

Across the parking lot is Fairview Mall. It was opened here atop farmland in 1970. Its anchors at the time were Simpson’s and The Bay. I think it might be the only major Toronto shopping centre that never had an Eaton’s.

It has grown a bit since my childhood; the tenants are different, the food court’s moved, and there’s no more Rainbow Cinemas and their cheap matinee movies. Even the parking lot is different. There are now fences separating the mall from the library and medical building lots.

Fairview Mall

Walking south to Sheppard Avenue, you have to be a mindful pedestrian. There are cars turning in and out of the mall as well as buses turning into the station.

Fairview Mall 2

 

Don Mills apartments
There is a neat find in a plaque devoted to Northern Dancer, a revolutionary thorough-bred horse ‘foaled’ (word of the day?) in 1961 at businessman E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Estate fronting Bayview Avenue. I question the very liberal use of ‘near this site’ (although the farm might have extended towards Don Mills), but it’s another unexpected tidbit of North York’s rural past.

Northern Dancer plaque
At the busy intersection of Don Mills and Sheppard, a look to the west produces the far off towers of downtown North York.

Downtown North York Skyline

Don Mills and Sheppard Looking South 1964

Don Mills and Sheppard Looking South, 1964. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

At the southeast corner, rainbow cones animate a nice walkup to the Emerald City condo complex. They are Douglas Coupland creations, and are the second occasion of his art showing up in Toronto suburbia – the first down the road at the Shops At Don Mills.

Emerald City 1       Emerald City Douglas Coupland

There’s also a Bell box covered in a jungled motif. I suppose that’s a reference to the ‘forest’ in Parkway Forest. The ‘parkway’ is naturally the Don Valley Parkway, completed here in 1966. Parkway Forest has its origins that year too, but after 40+ years was in need of revitalization and re-urbanization.

Parkway Forest Bell Box

Don Valley Village is a bit of a misnomer, because I’ve been to actual Greek villages and there’s very little continuity between them and the ‘villages’ in Toronto. Emerald City – or, at least, its street layout – to me approaches that compact community feel. Coupland’s striped pencil crayons dot the streets, sprinkling new life into a space whose previous incarnation, according to the author and artist, was comparable to a World War I trench. Ouch.

Emerald City 3         Emerald City 6

Emerald City 4

There’s an interesting dynamic within this community because there are the new towers of Emerald City and then the old Parkway Forest apartments. It’s got Toronto’s two tower booms in one place – the 1960s to 1970s and 1990s to now.

Parkway Forest Ad July 21 1972

Parkway Forest Ad, Toronto Star July 21, 1972. Source: Toronto Star Archives.

Parkway Forest Apartments
On George Henry Boulevard, there’s a pit awaiting the next phase of Emerald City.

George Henry Boulevard Emerald City Construction
Following Forest Manor Road down, one comes to Parkway Forest Community Centre, which looks every bit like a Diamond Schmitt creation: swanky, glassy, and energy efficient.

Parkway Forest Community Centre 1           Parkway Forest Community Centre 2

Leaving Parkway Forest, a venture south on Don Mills is a notable one. First, one can see the faint outlines of downtown Toronto and the CN Tower in the distance. Second, it treacherously (for me, anyways) runs over the 401, where the Peace Lady in White (I had no idea about her) has been known make her presence.

Don Mills over 401 2

Don Mills over 401 1
South of it, the community of Graydon Hall is named for the main landmark in the area, the Georgian-style Graydon House, which was constructed here in 1936. It was designed by Allan George and Walter Moorehouse for broker Henry Rupert Bain.

Graydon Hall Manor 2

In Casa Loma-esque fashion, Graydon House is situated on a hill east of Don Mills Road, which makes for an amazing view of the gardens but also a slight feat to reach the manor.

Graydon Hall Manor Rear Henry Rupert Bain, 1950s.

Henry Rupert Bain in the gardens of Graydon Hall Manor, 1950s. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Graydon Hall Manor gardens

The hilly Graydon Hall Manor estate, undated. Source:Graydon Historical Archive.

Its historical driveway did not lead to and from Don Mills, however, but Woodbine Avenue. Until 1964, Don Mills stopped at York Mills and was continued north when new communities – The Peanut, Parkway Forest – necessitated its existence.

Graydon Hall 1963

Aerial of Graydon Hall and area, 1963. Source: City of Toronto Archives. Graydon House is located in the top centre. Highway 401 is north of it. Woodbine Avenue on the right. Don Mills & York Mills, bottom left.

Henry Rupert Bain died in 1952, and his manor and estate was sold to developer Normco Limited in 1964, who constructed the surrounding high-rise and residential community. Today, the house functions as a wedding and event venue.

Graydon Hall

Graydon Hall Ad July 29 1972

Graydon Hall Ad, Toronto Star, July 29, 1972. Source: Toronto Star Archives.

Around the corner from Graydon Manor is one of the first landmarks in the new community, George S. Henry Secondary School (now Academy). Built in 1965, it celebrates its 50th year in existence in 2015. I took Saturday language classes at G.S. Henry in my teens and haven’t been back since, so it was a treat seeing the school (and actually seeing what the rest of the area looks like). Its namesake, George Stewart Henry, was a farmer of the area and a former premier of Ontario. His former residence, Oriole Lodge, is situated west of Don Mills Road near the East Don.

To end things, I make my way through the residential community and down to Duncan Mill Road. I opt for another visit to the Duncan Mills Ruins, located at the Betty Sutherland Trail.

Duncan Mills Ruins 1

Two years after first looking into them, the industrial relics are still a mystery to me, but it seems they might be connected to the Graydon House story. Amongst their possible uses, Jason Ramsay-Brown of Toronto’s Ravines And Urban Forests speculates that they likely were a pumping station for Henry Rupert Bain’s estate. Neat!

Duncan Mills Ruins 2

Useful Links

ERA Architects – Michael McClelland at the Getty: Toronto Towers

Get Toronto Moving – The Don Valley Parkway

Graydon Hall Manor Facebook Group – From the Graydon Historical Archive

Heritage Toronto – Wes Farris – From Brewing to Horsebreeding: E. P. Taylor and Windfields Estate

Hiking The GTA – Graydon Hall

Paul M. Hess and Jane Farrow – Walkibility in Toronto’s High-Rise Neighbourhoods

Satellite Magazine – Graeme Stewart, Josh Thorpe, & Michael McClelland – The slabs vs. the points: Toronto’s two tower booms

Scenes From A City – Scenes From The Betty Sutherland Trail

Scenes From A City – Scenes From Crescent Town

Scenes From A City – Scenes From Duncan Mills Ruins

Scenes From A City – Scenes From Shops At Don Mills

Toronto Neighbourhood Walks Project – Don Valley Village

Toronto Public Library – Shawn Micallef – The Great Toronto Peanut

Toronto Star – Shawn Micallef – Following North York’s Yellow Brick Road

Toronto’s Ravines And Urban Forests – Duncan Mills Ruins

Vintage Toronto Facebook Group – Don Valley East, Fairview Mall Area

Scenes From East Don Trail

The East Don Trail goes by a few names, each having something to do with its layered history. Entering from Wynford Drive, the path begins with a long corridor and a steep enough descent.

East Don Trail (2)
East Don Trail (3)
It’s not long before a railroad – the Canadian National Railway, to be specific – runs its course overhead.  Under it, there’s an installation by Robert Sprachman entitled ‘High Water Mark’ which presents a message about the Don’s changing water levels over the years.

East Don Trail Canadian National Railroad 1

East Don Trail High Water Mark (1)
Not a short while later, another towering railway intersects the way. This is the Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s the same one that stretches to British Columbia and the same one that was promised to the province in exchange for joining Confederation. It started operation in Toronto in 1884. On the other side, there’s some more art.

East Don Trail Canadian Pacific Railroad 2 (2)

East Don Trail Art (1)
Past those, there’s a man made wetland. I’ve seen them in other Toronto ravines. They’re meant to ranaturalize the spaces with birds and other wildlife.

East Don Trail wetland
Speaking of, as I’m examining it, a smiling traveler alerts me that it’s my lucky day: the heron is out! I have a long look at the spot he points me to, but there’s no heron. Darn.

East Don Trail look out
The path splits off and I make a left, passing a bridge over looking the Don. This leads to the famed Rainbow Tunnel, a Toronto landmark in my eyes. Anyone that uses this stretch of the Don Valley Parkway, which opened here in the 1960s, knows the Rainbow Tunnel.

Rainbow Tunnel (1)

 Rainbow Tunnel (2)
The inside is immaculately painted with streetscape and winter scenery.

Rainbow Tunnel (3)

Rainbow Tunnel (6)
There’s a second tunnel too that passes under the DVP, although this one is less ornate. It does offer some political insights, though.

DVP Tunnel (2)

DVP Tunnel (4)
Past the tunnel is the Moccasin Trail. I’m not sure about its naming, but it’s here I pause to have my lunch as I watch as joggers traverse the path.

Moccasin Trail
Circling back under the tunnels and over the bridge to where I came from, there’s a staghorn sumac to greet me.

East Don Trail Sumach (2)
As the path curves with the river on one side and fortifying armor stone on the other, this might be a good time to mention that the East Don Trail bookends the Charles Sauriol Conservation Area, a natural preserve that stretches from Lawrence Avenue to the Forks of the Don.

Charles Sauriol Conservation Area (5)
Its namesake was a fierce environment advocate who actually had a cottage at The Forks. Sauriol’s story and the grand story of the Don is recounted in excellent detail in Reclaiming the Don by Jennifer Bonnell, which is a 2015 Heritage Toronto Award recipient. (And while I’m plugging books, Jason Ramsay-Brown’s Toronto Ravines has a great chapter on the East Don Trail.)

Charles Sauriol Conservation Area (2)
A highlight of the trail is a tranquil little rest stop overlooking a pond. There’s a couple of few bird-themed markers leading up to it.

Charles Sauriol Conservation Area (9)

Charles Sauriol Conservation Area Toronto Bird Flyways

Charles Sauriol Conservation Area Owl
Charles Sauriol Conservation Area pond
To add to the name game, this part of the East Don Trail is known as Milne Hollow or Milneford Mills, a one-time 19th century industrial community. Two Heritage Toronto plaques tell the story of the area’s rise & fall.

My mind draws comparisons to Todmorden Mills further down the river. It too was a former industrial community with mills running along the Don. Both sites have been renaturalized too. But whereas (some of) Todmorden’s structures survive, there’s practically nothing left of Milne Hollow.

Heritage Toronto Milne Hollow Plaque 1

Heritage Toronto Milne Hollow Plaque 2
A short while later, at the end of the trail, a long green pathway leads to the Milneford farmhouse, one of the last historical remnants of Milne Hollow. It’s looking worse for wear, and, because of it, is surrounded by chain-link fence. The Gothic Revival house dates back to about 1865 and is undergoing restoration (I hope). Perhaps its new life will it see as a community museum, in the same vein as Todmorden Mills.

Milne Hollow

Milneford House (2)
Old Lawrence Avenue winds up to the main street and is my exit point on this hike. This excellent Urban Toronto piece recounts its past as the original route of Lawrence Avenue, including the original bridge that spanned the Don.

Old Lawrence Avenue

Charles Sauriol Conservation Area fish

Note: These adventures were had late September.

Useful Links

Walk the Don – Milne Hollow Self-Guided Walk

Scenes From North York Centre, Gibson House Museum, and Mel Lastman Square

North York Centre. Lansing.  Uptown. The House that Mel Built. What was intended as a simple errand at Yonge and Sheppard turned into a tour of this downtown away from downtown.

It’s been a few years since I frequented the area on a semi-regular basis, so I was slightly shocked at the amount of growth since I was last here. At Yonge and Sheppard – the fortuitous cross-section between two subway lines – towers in differing stages of development have displaced the Metro-flanked strip mall.

1. Yonge and Sheppard towers

2. Yonge and Sheppard towers

Walking up the street, I can see even more cranes with upcoming condos in the distance. Below them, big box stores and restaurants line the streets. My destination is Gibson House Museum – one of the few historic sites operated by the City of Toronto that I have not visited. The towers I saw earlier surround the museum and tell me that a certain Gibson Square is coming to the corner of Yonge and Park Home. I’m compelled to do me a little look around of the museum to see the extent of the ‘takeover’. From Park Home I can see the hint of the brick building beyond the construction site. I continue to Beecroft, where I pass a parkette . I would examine it better after my museum visit. I notice a a house across the street which I immediate recognize as being of an earlier architectural style. I snap a photo and make a note to ask the Gibson House staff about it.

3. Dempsey House on Beecroft

4. Gibson House back Condo

Moving around Gibson House via Basil Hill Court, I’m struck by the contrast of the back of the house and the condominiums going up in front of it. I circle to the front of the house where I’m greeted by a familiar blue plaque. This marker was erected by the Ontario Heritage Trust (interestingly known as the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board in the text) to commemorate David Gibson. I take a few steps back to admire the entirety of the house – but am stopped by the construction wall behind me. Finally, I go around to the side where the entrance is a modern addition to the back the house.

5. David Gibson Ontario Heritage Trust

6. Gibson House front

7. Gibson House side

I’m greeted at the desk by a nice administrator and I immediately mention my observations while getting to the museum. She concurs that it’s tough situation being “landlocked by condos.” It has affected their foot traffic. I pay my 6.29 for an adult visit, she takes my bag to store while I take the guided tour, and I wait for a costumed interpreter in the Discovery Gallery, reading up on textiles and the Gibson story.

This was not the first home the Gibsons owned on this property. A wood frame house stood here, but after the rebellion of 1837, Gibson – a traitor – fled to the United States and the house was burned. Was he returned in 1850, he built this grand Georgian house.

We start in the living room where Claire tells me about Mr. Gibson and the room we are in. He was a land surveyor, which caused him to be often away doing work . This allowed the family the ability to be financially stable enough – not rich, not poor. Of the room itself, Claire tells how the idea was to give off that the impressions they were well off – “perception becomes reality” at work. It sounds like a pompous attitude to have, but it’s a dynamic I have seen in my own life in the 21st century, so perhaps it’s become somewhat normalized. The room is seperated by doors, which divide the room into an entertaining space for guests and an area where the children could play. The public/private divide comes up again later in my tour.

8. Gibson House Living RoomThe room is decked out in Christmas decor,  although a tree would have been anachronistic for the time. Christmas as a whole was not a big deal; perhaps a meal was had and that was it. Hogmanay was the big holiday celebration. Although, if there were adult drinks involved, at least Eliza Gibson was not involved in them, as she was temperate (I think?).

We go to the upper level where Claire tells me about the hired hand David Gibson employed to run the farm (because Gibson was often away). His room was sizable enough for a comfortable enough living, and was situated far away from the children’s bedrooms (locked as well). Claire says there is speculation about his relationship to the family – whether it was strictly an employer-employee dynamic or the family and their good friend. His room faces westward and allowed him a view of the property he managed. The Gibson farm extended all the way to Bathurst from Yonge but wasn’t very wide. He could look out and see all flat fields. Today, the view presents a challenge in interpreting the site because as Claire mentions one sees “a lovely building” when one looks out today.

The children’s bedroom – consisting of a boys and a girls – are low-key in their appearance. And this was on purpose. Nobody went into the bedrooms save for the children themselves and that was in the morning and at night. All the bells and whistles, with the notable exception of the master and guest bedrooms, were reserved for the public areas of the house. The idea, as Claire presented it, was to create a facade for guests: impressing them into thinking they were better off than reality.

As mentioned before, the Gibsons weren’t poor, but they weren’t the elite of the elite. They owned this great house that, if not for the lack of indoor plumbing, might suit a family today. These facts prompt to ask myself – and Claire – “If the Gibsons were nothing special, why does the family’s story survive, as opposed to other comparable households in the area?” The answer includes a couple of factors working together. First, because of his line of work, David Gibson wrote a lot of things down that inform us about the family and their lives. Unfortunately Gibson House records do not include records from the other occupants (Claire says it is not even known if Eliza Gibson was literate), but his paper trail is sizable enough. Second, it helps that the house itself survived. Being brick, it did not burn down like other residences. It also survived demolition even after the farm was broken up for development. During the Centennial celebrations of 1967, the Canadian government alloted money to restore historic houses and turn them into museums. The Dempsey Brothers Store/Joseph Shepard House that I saw on Beecroft might very well have been a museum, but the Gibson home instead was commemorated.

In addition to these rooms, there is a place for the seamstresses hired by the family, as well as a guest room (which is the nicest of the non-master bedroom rooms).

Downstairs, Claire takes me through the Gibson’s office, the kitchen, and dining room. The former is populated by the man’s surveying equipment (not original, of, course). In the kitchen, my guide takes me through the Gibson’s diet (a lot of potatoes) and says Eliza Gibson took care of the kitchen herself, no help. The focal point of the room is the fireplace. One can only imagine the difficulties in cooking an entire meal on it – and worrying about the real hazard of not catching fire. (Tidbit: museum workers and volunteers need safety training just for this reason). The nearby dining room is a showcase of how great the Gibson had it (or were believed to have it, anyways. It also houses two original artefacts: a clock and a cabinet.

9. Gibson House Office

10. Gibson House Kitchen

11. Gibson House Dining Room

Our tour ends where it began. Claire shows me a posted map where visitors have plotted their place of origins on a map. Also presented to me is a full family tree of the family. I heard about it upstairs, but I need to visualize it. Interesting fact: Eliza and David Gibson were related before they married. I forgot the exact connection, but perhaps it was 2nd cousins. My guide says they didn’t grow up together, so it might alright by today’s standards? I might agree with that.

12. Gibson House Archive Photo

13. Gibson House Family Tree

I thank her and she leaves me to browse a little bit. After that I pay my appreciation to the staff and head my way. My adventure in understanding the area and the museum is not done, however. I head down to Gibson Park to see some public installations related to the Gibsons. You may read about that here.

After the park, I head back to Yonge. My final stop for the day will be Mel Lastman Square. This is the Nathan Phillips and Albert Campbell Squares of North York. The former civic heart of the borough and a cultural gathering place. Just to note a few events associated with it, it hosts skating, a farmer’s market, and Canada Day celebrations. Lastman himself was a former mayor of North York and the first mayor of the Mega-City. His fingerprints are all over the borough.

I have a look around, noting the North York Central Library, where I ventured to on a few occasions during university, and a gazebo of sorts. Satisfied, I head for the subway.

14. Mel Lastman Square

15. Mel Lastman Square Rink

16. North York Central Library

17. Mel Lastman Square sign 18. Mel Lastman Square

19. Mel Lastman Square gazebo

 

20. Mel Lastman Square

 

A Grand Geographic Timeline of Toronto History?

This is just me trying to get down some ideas. It may be rough and unclear, but hopefully something to build on.

As a follower of Toronto’s history, I come across a lot of dates – when something was built, when a town is incorporated, when a park is founded etc.

What’s interesting, though, is I’ve started noticing how certain years come up in different stories across the city.

Take the year 1854 as an example. A storm splits Toronto Peninsula to create the Toronto Islands. 26 km to the northeast John Hill founds a post office in Agincourt which signals the start of that community.

It’s fun to think about what was happening in different parts of the city at the same time. You have communities with no formal connections to each other growing alongside each other. Communities that eventually form the modern City of Toronto.

Wikipedia’s page on the History of Toronto has articles on History of Neighbourhoods, Historic places, Oldest buildings and structures, and Timeline of Toronto History. It would interesting to combine these into a giant timeline of events in Toronto’s history. More than that, because this relies on displaying information tied to places, I’d like to see the information displayed on a map (because really, who doesn’t like looking at maps?). I imagine being able to look at map of a given year and clicking on different nodes placed on that map. Then, being able to explore the map from the following year.

I imagine being able to draw observations about how the city developed, what was settled when, what areas were industrializing/de-industrializing, when and how natural landforms were shaped (think the burial of creeks) etc..

In all, it would be another way to capture the story of Toronto. Just an idea.

A View of York (Toronto) Upper Canada, 1820

Edmund Wyly Grier’s “A View of York (Toronto) Upper Canada, 1820”  Credit: Toronto Public Library

Scenes From Gibson Park

If I didn’t know the context behind Gibson Park, I would figure it to be an interesting place with creative yet seemingly senseless public art. Nothing is senseless, however, and I am well aware of its context. There were a few discoveries to be had – even a poetic display about discovery and exploration themselves.

Approaching the park from Beecroft, I see a random horse next to a pole with rings attached to it. This is Stephen Cruise’s 1998 One Hundred Links — One Chain. Several rocks populate its base while a couple of bushes – sadly succumbing to winter – accompany it at either side. I nearly miss the name of the park behind it.

Gibson Park One Hundred Links - One Chain

Of course, the rhyme and the reason lie in the park’s namesake – Mr. David Gibson – whose former Georgian-style residence (now a City of Toronto museum) rests nearby. Gibson was a land surveyor in the 19th century; the post with the trinkets represents his tools of the trade. The rocks aren’t just rocks either. A closer look produces geographic and UTM coordinates for the park. Pretty cool, eh?

Gibson Park One Hundred Links - One Chain

The horse? Well, that’s a reference to an archival photo of Gibson House taken of granddaughter Eva Gibson in a now lost path of the home.

Eva Gibson and Logo (Gibson House Museum).

Eva Gibson with Logo, circa 1905. Source: Gibson House Museum.

Traveling around the display, I see an ample amount of seating and chess tables. I have yet to see anyone play a game in public at any location. I think about doing it myself sometime…and then realize they would be pretty short contests because I am terrible.

Gibson Park Chess Tables

The parkette area is very nicely designed, and nearly makes me neglect the adjoining green space. It is a decently sized lot, but the construction wall at its eastern fringe has me considering the ‘City Within A Park’ motto yet again. More specifically, I doubt whether to even call this a ‘natural space’. Beyond the barrier, a tower rises above Gibson Park. There are a bunch of them springing up around the area as a whole. If I look hard enough into the distance, I can barely make out Gibson House.

Gibson Park (2)
I circle back, wanting to look at the art display again. In doing so, I cross perhaps the neatest  and unexpected installation I’ve seen in Toronto. I see a poem spread across five planks. They read:

“We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
‘Little Gigging’ Four Quarters
-T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot Gibson Park (1)

T.S. Eliot Gibson Park (2)

T.S. Eliot Gibson Park (3)

T.S. Eliot Gibson Park (4)

T.S. Eliot Gibson Park (5)
I sit down to ponder everything amazing about this find. The work of T.S. Eliot – one of the great literary communicators – finding itself into this little park in North York. And talking about exploration no less! What kind of exploration? I’m not sure. The city wanderer in me takes it as literal at first, but perhaps there’s something more symbolic to it. That is to say, life is an exploratory sequence of happenings – taking us from us from place to place and experience to experience. Perhaps when we circle back to our roots and to the core of who we are (were?) at the start of it all, would we recognize ourselves and everything?

Update: In 2015, the Gibson Square condo development by Menkes Developments finally wrapped up. The result was a completed, redeveloped Gibson Park, which opened in May 2015.

Gibson Park 2
The path to getting the Gibson Square Condos involved a Ontario Municipal Board challenge by Toronto City Council. Menkes won. To gain approval for their project, the developer also agreed to redo Gibson Park. The company turned over ownership of the park to the City of Toronto, but it handles all maintenance.

Gibson Park 3

Gibson Park 4

Worked into the park is neat granite mural which pays tribute to the Gibsons. It features Eva Gibson and Logo too.

Gibson Park mural 2

Gibson Park mural
Over on Yonge Street, the towers loom above Gibson Square. In the middle of the space is a Tolman Sweet Apple Tree, the last tree connect to the Gibsons’ historic apple orchard.

Gibson Square

Tolman Sweet Apple tree
Gibson House Museum

Related Links

Inside Toronto Beach Mirror – “NATURAL ROOTS: The Tolman sweet apple at Yonge and Sheppard is the last tree from David Gibson’s orchard” by Edith  George

Toronto Star – “Gibson Square revives historical spirit of North York” by Tracy Hanes