This is the parallel stories of two Toronto historical societies whose identities were forged in their struggles to save old cabins. As society members transported, restored and interpreted the significance of the little wooden structures, they made history.
To “preserve the past for the future” is the York Pioneer and Historical Society motto. Ten years after its 1869 launch under the name York Pioneers, a cabin built in 1794 was donated to the group by the builder’s descendant. It was transported in pieces from its location just east of the Don River and south of Kingston Road to the Industrial Exhibition grounds where the Pioneers re-assembled it
The Pioneers who took part in this “moving bee” included such prominent citizens as William Rennie, Alex Hamilton, John Smith, George Ingleby, William Gooderham, Rev. Dr. Scadding and Daniel Lamb. They are captured below, holding their poses for the length of time required to expose the film, in an epic image that was contemporary tableau and timeless photograph.
"York Pioneers on way to Exhibition to erect cabins 1879" photograph, Toronto Public Library
The procession was repeated five years later as part of the ceremonies marking the semi-centennial of Toronto’s founding.
“Here come the Pioneers,” is passed along the line, and a long roll of applause greets their advance. Three sturdy yoke of oxen trudge placidly along, dragging a vehicle representative of early colonial days, and the Pioneers follow, as they followed many and many a day in the past. Then comes the series of tableaux, …(they) vividly tell the story of Toronto’s growth and Ontario’s progress. … One is unconsciously taken back to the unhewn forests, and brought forward, step by step, through the gradual processes of ever-growing civilization, until we behold Toronto, the Queen City of a great Province, the centre of a thriving, populous agricultural district, a growing, stirring unresting metropolis… indomnitable commercial pluck and vast material worth.”
Henry Scadding, Toronto Past and Present 1884
Henry Scadding, Anglican priest, chaplain to the Bishop of Toronto, and Classics Master at Upper Canada College, used the reminiscences of fellow Pioneers along with other sources in Toronto of Old (1873). The second, expanded, edition published to commemorate the city’s 1884 semi-centennial, highlights the Pioneers’ role in keeping Toronto’s origins a living memory. In his speech at the Exhibition, Scadding stated that the cabin-relic marked the humble beginning from which citizens could appreciate the measure of civic achievement that followed.
Founded in 1983, the Community History Project‘s “study area” covers a handful of districts. The zone of activity expanded from its initial base in Yorkville as members’ enthusiasm to preserve heritage assets drew them to neighbouring areas. However, it was the salvage and restoration of the Tollkeeper’s Cottage at the foot of Bathurst Hill that became the CHP’s defining challenge.
In June 1996 members sent out a letter to “the residents and community groups of former Ward 5”:
For the last four years you have been hearing of the growing excitement and concern for the Tollkeeper’s Cottage. …It now appears that this cottage, as a toll structure is unique in Ontario…This letter is to inform you that the new owner, Victory Estates, through their agent, has agreed to donate the cottage to us on condition that it be moved off its present site by 30 June. (1996)!
The appeal for help was successful and the following month the cottage was moved from upper Howland Avenue and temporarily situated in TTC Wychwood Barns yards. It would remain there for six years as the THP struggled to secure sufficient funding to carry out restoration.
The overall goal is to see the cottage permanently settled at or near its original location, fully restored as an historical artifact in its own right, equipped with displays about toll and plank roads and forms of transportation and life in the 1860’s and available to the community for local activities.
CHP letter June 1996
Like the Scadding Cabin, the Tollkeeper’s Cottage was intended to be both educational artifact and monument. Avoiding the narrative of progress-through-industry-thrift-and-sobriety favoured by the York Pioneers, CHP’s cottage interpretation emerged from members’ hands-on restoration of the structure, research by members and local residents and the attribution of the site’s meaning to indigenous people’s use of the route that later became Davenport Road.
Both historical societies documented the cabin/cottage rescue in image(s) and disseminated these to underscore their mission. The story of how a humble structure, about to disappear is saved and preserved for future generations is appealing in many ways not the least being the theme of citizen-led action in the face of official neglect. The urgency behind the salvage effort serves to rally the considerable volunteer effort and donations required to restore, enlarge, equip and operate the ensuing heritage facility.
Through their team spirit, resourcefulness and manual work the cottage volunteers payed tribute to “the pioneer”. Each members’ contribution is woven into the story of the cottage and so history. As the Tollkeeper’s Cottage website states:
All who contribute to the restoration in any way become part of the history and are recorded in a Donor’s Book and in a time capsule.
2. hewn wood from virgin forest
York Pioneers harrow made from bark of tree, Oct. 11, 1915 Toronto Archives
York Pioneers modern plow - ox yoke, Oct. 11, 1915 Toronto Archives
That these early log and frame houses have stood in such good condition down to the present time is due mainly to the excellence of their construction. Among the men whom Governor Simcoe brought with him to build his embryo city were timber men from Nova Scotia and other lower provinces expert hewers and dovetailers of logs, and Englishmen skilled in whipsawing and cutting joists and rafters. The wood too was good, consisting principally of oak and pine. … J. Ross Robertson Landmarks of Toronto, 1894 p. 135
The York Pioneers used tools and methods from the time of the cabin’s creation to re-assemble it on the exhibition grounds. The history of the dwelling, its date of construction and location were already recorded and well-known. The Tollkeeper’s Cottage on the other hand, because of the numerous alterations and re-locations, had a much more convoluted history to reveal.
In the summer of 1996 it seemed as if it would be easily “tagged”:
The little building moved today..is exceedingly rare. It is a tollkeeper’s cottage and it stood at the southeast corner of Davenport Road and Bathurst in the beginning, and was moved later as the area was subdivided and other houses were built. It may be as early as 1827 … (it) is the only remnant left in Ontario of the days of toll and plank roads.
CHP letter July 1996
The cottage served as a workshop for volunteers to learn about historical wood construction methods. As the layers were peeled back, it was found that the pioneer-hewn wood of the early third of the 19th century was present in only fragmentary form in one single interiour wall of the structure.
Following a museological tradition launched with the presentation of a pioneer cabin at the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition, the York Pioneers and 120 years later the Community History Project, celebrated the material culture of the pioneers in their cabin presentations.
Alan Gowans, Looking at Architecture in Canada, 1958
The use of wood from primeval forests and endangered art of constructing with simple tools is enshrined in the prototypical architectural form of the cabin.
3. identifying the story, shaping it, and presenting it visually
Henry Scadding (1813-1901) was the founding president of the York Pioneers. His Toronto chronicle gave proper due to the “old boys”, a number who, in the semi-centennial procession were confidently marching into the annals of civic history.
Subsequent histories of Toronto borrowed heavily from his account. The Scadding Cabin’s identity as the icon of Toronto’s pioneer past was enhanced most notably by the lithographic illustrations of the 1894 Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto.
Scadding took an active part in curating the exhibits in the Scadding Cabin. Each year he made a selection of books for the cabin bookshelf to represent settlers’ mental habits and reading tastes as he understood these. Other material in the cabin included portraits, maps of Toronto and period furniture including the chair and table reputedly used by the city’s founder, Governor Simcoe who had employed the cabin builder as an assistant.
With the popularity of postcards, the cabin’s status as an emblem of Toronto past reached a mass audience.
The Tollkeeper’s Cottage, unlike the well-preserved cabin, was a mash-up of building materials and styles. This reflected the fact that it had been a mere service building, not associated with the public face of an individual but temporary living quarters for a series of toll company employees and their families. Albert Fulton was among the local heritage enthusiasts who contributed research on the cottage. He brought evidence of the appearance and location of the cabin to the CHP that helped to determine historical moment that would be the basis of interpretation.
As Wychwood Park archivist, Fulton was in the habit of searching out artworks and information relating to this celebrated heritage district located just north west of the Tollkeepers Cottage site. At an art auction in 1999, he came across a small oil painting by Arthur Cox showing the Tollkeepers Cottage as it appeared in 1875. In his News from the Archives newsletter, he wrote of this work’s contribution to CHP’s interpretation of the cottage’s history.
Albert Fulton Fonds, Toronto Archives.
The 1875 painting by Arthur Cox showed the Tollkeeper’s Cottage and tollgate at the intersection where from the south, Cruikshank’s Lane (later Bathurst Street) met Davenport Road. … On the left, curving around the hill, is the Yorkville and Vaughan Plank Road with a couple of figures walking northward. (text caption below framed colour photocopy of the painting inside the cottage.)
However, Cox was painting not the cottage but the view. Cottage volunteers identified the same view represented in a William James photograph dating from about 35 years after the painting and printed it in one of their educational pamphlets. The image served to point out to visitors the changes effected by the city’s advance north.
Bathurst Street looking south from above Davenport Road, 1907 Toronto Archives
The photo’s composition echoes that of the Cox’ painting, underscoring that the summit of the northwest side of Bathurst has been a scenic look-out for people where one can appreciate Toronto’s spatial relation to the lake and also its rural northwest district. This perspective is now blocked by trees.
The mesh fence at the foot of the hospital’s lawn on the east side of Bathurst Hill traces the path of the long disappeared plank road. A vestige of the road appears in spring in richer green tone of grass that grows where the wood road once stood.
4. home alone with local history
Each year, the second Thursday of the Exhibition week was “Pioneers and Old Settlers’ Day” and featured a program of settlers skills and crafts demonstrations.
CNE Opening 1907 Toronto Archives
The summer of 1900 a Toronto Star reporter wrote with certain ambivalence of the day’s events, the reverence that was due to the Pioneers is nowhere in sight.
“The pioneers did not commence to arrive until about noon, and up to that time the attendance was not very large…the extreme southwestern portion of the grounds, whereupon is situated Governor Simcoe’s log hut … has been almost entirely isolated. The locality is out of the beaten path of the fun-lovers and far removed from the noise and clamor of the side-shows. …one can sit in quietness…with the beautiful panorama that Lake Ontario presents in the foreground.
Today the old gentleman who has charge of the log cabin was all excitement. The annual meeting of the York Pioneers Society was held within the building, and the O.G. had the place, which is always a model of neatness, looking like the traditional new pin. “
Local historical societies have always struggled to recruit younger members to their ranks. CHP member William Kindree insists that the barrier to participation by a different demographic than the white, retired professionals that dominate is simply that younger people lack the time to become involved. He adds that, unlike the more glamorous neighbouring historic sites, Spadina House and Casa Loma, the Tollkeepers Cottage represents the story of a working class household.
A testament to the perseverance of CHP members and the charm of the site, every Saturday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tollkeeper’s Cottage volunteers in period dress relate the story of the family that lived in there in the early 1860s. In the attached meeting room, information panels, pictures and a diorama give information on the construction of wooden buildings, the Davenport Road, the tolling system, the nature of the escarpment and the evolution of the surrounding area from dense forests to subdivisions.
Albert Fulton’s sense of responsibility as steward of the historic character of Wychwood Park, in the end, brought tragedy. Incensed that some residents were parking along the sides of the Park’s picturesque winding road, he began a systemic vandalizing of their cars under cover of darkness. He was charged when surveillance footage revealed him as the perpetrator. Before the matter was came to trial, Fulton took his own life.
The archives he assembled was donated by his wife to the Toronto Archives in 2009. As I sat in the Research Hall poring over his documentation of the Tollkeeper’s Cottage saga, not far from the spot he customarily occupied, I felt awe for the passion that local history inspires.