A Goodbye and Tribute to Madeline Johnston

October 9, 2020

by Donna Smith

In these transient days of people moving from one place to another, it is refreshing to write about our friend Madeline who has lived in Richmond Hill for 78 years! And in the same house for 76 years!

Madeline Johnston, an only child, came with her parents to live on Carrville Road in 1942 when her Father began working on a large fox farm located between Carrville Road and Major Mackenzie Drive, Yonge and Bathurst Streets. Two years later, the family purchased their home at 99 Mill Street and Madeline has lived there ever since. She married and had a son; he married and had a son who both moved away from Richmond Hill, but Madeline remained in her childhood house. She is moving to Lakefield where her son has bought a house and he has made an ensuite apartment for her.

Madeline has been an active member of our community all these years. She has been a member of Richmond Hill United since arriving, and has been especially active with the United Church Women’s organization. Willing to help wherever needed, Madeline has served on their Executive and for 25+ years has arranged for the food and volunteers for funeral receptions. Her creative skills have been shared making crafts for sales and table centre-pieces for many luncheons. One has to wonder just how many casseroles, cookies, sandwiches, squares, and her famous salmon loaf, she has made and brought to share! And for so many events, she has found her participation willingly washing dishes, saying that being short in stature, she was just the right height for the sinks!

Madeline has been a member of the Richmond Hill Garden & Horticultural Society for many years, attending meetings, bringing food to share and helping where she felt able. Her home is on a large lot and she has filled it with gardens, both floral and vegetables, starting plants from seeds and cuttings and nurturing them to beauty and harvest. About ten years ago, Madeline and two volunteers from the “Hort” went out to judge nominated gardens in their assigned area for recipients of a Front Garden Recognition sign, sponsored by the Hort, Royal LePage Realty and the Town of Richmond Hill. After a long, hot day together that July, both friends commiserated how exhausted they felt on their way home, just wanting to put their feet up and rest but not Madeline, who said as she got out of the car, she still had time that afternoon/evening to cut the grass on her large lot…. I hasten to add that the other two ladies were much younger than Madeline!

The Richmond Hill Historical Society has been another interest of Madeline’s for many years, attending meetings and helping with food and events. She has been the “go to” person to ask about Richmond Hill’s past.

These words are a quick snapshot of the person who is loved by many neighbours and friends in her community. Madeline will be missed, her willingness to help causes and people in need, her very positive attitude and happy disposition which she shows in her smile and sense of humour. Many have Madeline as a role model, but it is very hard to keep up with this 97 year old wonderful person and citizen!

Message from the President (Sep 17, 2020)

In my last message, some weeks ago, I spent a fair bit of time worrying about uncertainties, decisions the Society might have to make, and decisions we all will have to make about getting together. I asked you to think about that last issue, and let me know your views. I’m pleased to say that many of you responded, and your views were clear – you would prefer virtual meetings

The Executive had similar views, so we proceeded to set up a Zoom meeting for last Thursday. Thank goodness Marj Andre was able to facilitate the whole thing, and we actually had our first Executive meeting by Zoom. It wasn’t perfect (I couldn’t get my audio to work, so I was on the phone), but we had a good meeting nonetheless and covered quite a bit of ground.

One of the more important items we discussed was responding to your preference for virtual Society meetings. Feeling we probably needed more time to get our (my) technology up to speed, we agreed that we would hold our first Zoom regular meeting on Monday, October 19th, which is when we would normally have met. So please mark the date. We’ll be in touch well in advance to give you some information on connecting to a Zoom meeting. I’ve participated in Zoom meetings on my cell, and I know my tablet will work as well. I think most laptops have cameras built in, and I have a webcam attached to my desktop monitor – so there are several ways to connect.

Another important item on our agenda was the question of 2020 and 2021 fees. We decided that, since 2020 was going to be sort of a non-year in terms of the Society, we would simply roll any fees that were paid for 2020 over to 2021 Some of you may choose to leave your 2020 fee in place and still pay for 2021 – that’s totally up to you. But we felt it was important to acknowledge the loss of our 2020 activities, and give our members a choice.

There were a number of other items discussed, as well:

  • I expect many of you saw the article in the Liberal about Richmond Hill’s Rose industry I’m pleased to let you know that the next article – on the Rebellion of 1837 – has been submitted. So keep your eye out – hopefully, it will appear soon.
  • I should have mentioned this in my last message, but we did determine that, as long as I am sending out these messages, we would forego our newsletter. Normally, another newsletter would be coming out around now – so don’t look for it.
  • We did get some information (thanks again, Marj) on two buildings we have been interested in. There has been no new developments regarding the Jefferson Schoolhouse – a demolition permit was denied by Council, and now we’re waiting for next steps. Also as you probably know, Dr. Duncomb’s Hall on Yonge Street was demolished, though I believe the Society helped ensure that original materials from the front façade of the building were salvaged and are stored at the Operations Centre. I’m not aware of any interior material that was salvaged.
  • Some of you may be wondering what became of the Bert Hunt Heritage Award this year – it would normally have been awarded at the Strawberry Social in June. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and it’s been decided to just wait until June 2021, when we can hopefully make the presentation in person.
  • And finally, you may have noticed that there are by-elections underway for York Region School Board Trustees in Wards 1, 2 and 4. It may be out of sync, and the pandemic will certainly influence how voting occurs, but I would urge you all to look for information and be sure to vote.

The last thing I wanted to mention was the availability of Walking Tours in Richmond Hill in October. Maggie Mackenzie is organizing these tours, and there are still spots available. I’ve included a lot of information about the tours below.

So that’s it for this message. I hope you found it useful. I’ll be sending out another one in a few weeks.

Thanks for your attention, and keep on staying safe.

I really hope I’ll see you soon.

Jim

Walk and Learn Heritage Tour Series

Enjoy fresh air, exercise and a healthy physically distanced walk through a historic neighbourhood and discover your community heritage! Tours are approximately 1.5 -2 hours long and take place rain or shine. Pre-registration required. COVID protocols will be in place.

The Village Backstreets

In contrast to the present-day traffic and commerce along Yonge Street, Richmond Hill’s side streets have historically been a quiet refuge. It was on these village backstreets that the ordinary citizens of the Victorian and Edwardian community lived in their comfortable but unpretentious houses. The village backstreets remain a desirable place to live, with large shade trees lining the streets, picket or plated fences, beautiful gardens and many fine old buildings.

Tuesday Oct 6, 10:00 AM
$4.20 per person
Elgin Barrow Arena Parking Lot
E-Reg Code: 60760

North Yonge Street

North Yonge Street in the village core is a unique part of the city featuring a history of politics, education, medicine and the arts!

Tuesday Oct 13, 10:00 AM
$4.20 per person
Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Art Parking Lot
E-Reg Code: 60761

Mill Pond History

Today’s Mill Pond is a place of recreation, but did you know when it was first created in the mid-1830s, it was a hub of industry and commerce.

Tuesday Oct 20, 10:00 AM
$4.20 per person
Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Art Parking Lot
E-Reg Code: 60762

Pre-Registration required for all tours. Please go to www.richmondhill.ca/en/find-or-learn-about/Heritage-Programs.aspx

Message from the President (Sep 1, 2020)

The last time you heard from me was in our May – August Newsletter, when I had the opportunity to reflect on the challenges we were all facing in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown. When I look back on my comments at that time, I’m struck by how I was looking forward to getting back to some kind of normal, when we could have meetings, share our stories of how we coped with isolation and social distancing and generally carry on from where we left off – always the optimist.

Well, it’s now a few months later, and we are still faced with a lot of uncertainty. As much as Stage 3 has allowed us to experience a greater degree of normalcy, albeit with continued social distancing, the wearing of masks, and limits to social gatherings, we still don’t know when we might see the end of COVID-19 restrictions. We certainly don’t know when the Executive might be able to get together, or when we’ll be able to schedule our regular meetings. Even further, we don’t know what kind of decisions any of us will be making about how we live our lives. We all have our own circumstances to consider, which, in terms of the Society, will lead to very personal choices about whether or not we would even be comfortable in attending any kind of a meeting in the near future.

I thought it was important to let you know that, in spite of all the uncertainties, we have been thinking about how and when the Historical Society can get back into business. Based on discussions with the Church, we know that the earliest possible opportunity to use Wallace Hall for a meeting would be October, though we don’t know what limitations and protocols we might be faced with. I’m also concerned that circumstances might make any fall meetings unlikely.

Perhaps more importantly, we also don’t know what your views about attending a face-to-face meeting might be. This is something I would really appreciate your feedback on – how comfortable would you be to attend a meeting? Another option we have is to go high-tech and try a virtual meeting via ZOOM. I know that this is a very manageable option, and if you would prefer to give it a try rather than go to a meeting, I would be happy to set it up. My understanding is that it would be available to anyone with access to a computer.

So please get back to me on the question of whether you would prefer a face-to-face meeting or a virtual meeting via ZOOM. I will react accordingly.

In the meantime, we are looking to get an Executive Meeting organized soon (either face-to-face or virtual), where we will discuss such issues as budgets, fees, timing and scheduling, programming and speakers, and the format for a first meeting. When we have more information, I will let you know. Until we are back on a regular schedule, I intend to stay in touch with you through these messages – I hope you find them useful.

Thanks for your attention, and keep on staying safe – and please let me know what you prefer – real meetings or a ZOOM meeting.

RHHS Meeting Cancelled – Monday, April 20

Just a reminder that the Richmond Hill Historical Society has cancelled our monthly meetings until further notice. Our next meeting had been scheduled for April 20, 2020.

Protecting the health, safety, and well-being of our members and our community is our primary concern. This is the second consecutive meeting cancelled for the Society this year – this is in itself an historic moment – in our 46th year of our existence in the community.

We know that you all look forward to our great speakers each month and our Society’s fellowship. We will notify the membership when we will be able to return to Society meetings at Wallace Hall.

Stay safe.

RHHS Meeting Cancelled – Monday, March 16

With the ongoing and developing situation surrounding the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the Richmond Hill Historical Society has made the decision to cancel our regular meetings until further notice.

Our next meeting was scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020 but will no longer be held.

We have made this decision out of an abundance of caution and will provide updates on future meetings as the situation continues to develop.

Jefferson School House Decision

Jefferson School House

The Richmond Hill Historical Society was pleased with the outcome of the Wednesday, February 12, 2020 City Council meeting, when Council voted unanimously to deny an application to demolish the Jefferson Schoolhouse. Council also passed a motion asking City staff to look at options for preserving and restoring the Schoolhouse, including the option of the City purchasing the property.

During their deliberations, Councilors discussed a few of those options, including one that would see the building restored and used, perhaps, as a new school, or one that would see the building restored and become part of a larger development on the site. The Historical Society was also pleased to have been part of the efforts to save the Schoolhouse. The Society was a delegate at Council’s meeting on January 22nd, when Council first discussed the application to demolish, and presented a petition to Council advocating for the Schoolhouse’s preservation. The Society also spoke to Council at the meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 12th, urging Councillors to save the building.

Needless to say, we were happy with the result.

Richmond Hill goes to war — In 1812

A special ceremony at the Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church in 2013 honours the Richmond Hill veterans who participated in the War of 1812. The graves were re-dedicated and identified. – York Media files

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (August 31, 2019)
by Jim Vollmershausen, Vice-President, Richmond Hill Historical Society

The men of Miles Hill responded well to Gen. Brock’s call to arms, writes Jim Vollmershausen

In 1812, most citizens of Miles Hill, then a small community a couple of days travel north of York in Upper Canada, were aware of a war that Great Britain was engaged in with France. Many of them also knew that Britain’s naval blockade of France had angered the United States and dragged the young country into the hostilities, against the British.

Britain’s military leadership in Upper Canada, fearing an American attack, was busy fortifying strategic locations along the border, including Kingston and York. As part of this effort, in 1812, Gen. Isaac Brock called for the muster of all available men in the Miles Hill area, and he came to Miles Hill to inspect them. They were formed into a company of the 1st Regiment York Militia, and their superior officers included Capt. John Arnold, Lt. James Miles, and Sgt. John Langstaff.

A special ceremony at the Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church in 2013 honours the Richmond Hill veterans who participated in the War of 1812. The graves were re-dedicated and identified. – York Media files

The York Militia was heavily engaged in the war, and saw early action at Fort Detroit and Queenston Heights, and later at Fort Niagara, Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane and Fort Erie. In the winter and spring of 1812-1813, the regiment was in York, waiting for an American attack. When it seemed that an attack was not imminent, most of the Miles Hill men in the company were allowed to return to their homes, a day or two away up Yonge Street, to prepare for spring planting.

On April 27, 1813, the Americans did successfully attack York, and though there were many killed and injured on both sides of the battle, most of the Miles Hill men missed the action. Capt. Arnold was involved in the fighting but was captured and kept as a prisoner, though later released. Another Miles Hill resident, Capt. David Bridgford of the 3rd Regiment York Militia, was injured when the Fort York magazine exploded.

A special ceremony at the Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church in 2013 honours the Richmond Hill veterans who participated in the War of 1812. The graves were re-dedicated and identified. – York Media files

The men of Miles Hill responded well to Gen. Brock’s call to arms, and they acquitted themselves well in the fighting at a number of locations. By 1815, the war was over, and the Miles Hill veterans were able to get on with their lives, and many of them made lasting contributions to what was to become the City of Richmond Hill.

— Jim Vollmershausen is vice-president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society. The society can be found online at http://www.rhhs.ca.

David Dunlap Observatory Declared National Historic Site

Exciting news as the David Dunlap Observatory is declared one of eight new national historic sites by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Read the full article online by Sheila Wang of the Richmond Hill Liberal.

Photograph by Peter Wilson
Photograph by Peter Wilson

Burr House Awarded 2019 Bert Hunt Heritage Award

The Richmond Hill Historical Society is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2019 Bert Hunt Heritage Award is Burr House.

Burr House is being recognized for the remarkable achievement of 45 years of enrichment to the community, helping to shape the Cultural Heritage of the City of Richmond Hill. From the early preservation and subsequent restoration of Burr House, established in the Town of Richmond Hill in 1974 ~ through to 2019, Burr House along with The Richmond Hill Spinners & Weavers and Hill Potters Guilds, has made an ongoing contribution to the conservation and preservation of Richmond Hill’s heritage and an effort to raise awareness about the value of that heritage to the community and its citizens, making Richmond Hill a better place.

The Guild Hall at Burr House (photograph P. Wilson)

The Society offers this award as a Public Declaration to the citizens of the City of Richmond Hill, of Burr House’s continual and ongoing cultural service to the community.

This award acknowledges outstanding contributions to the preservation of Richmond Hill’s past and efforts to raise awareness about the value of that past to the community and its citizens. It also acknowledges the contributions made by the late Bert Hunt to heritage conservation efforts in Richmond Hill over many years. For complete details about the award and the outstanding contributions of Bert, please visit our awards page.

Burr House Spinners and Weavers (Photograph P. Wilson)

The award was presented to Burr House at the Society’s Strawberry Social held on the evening of June 17th, 2019. Learn more about Burr House and all of their events and activities by visiting their website.

Jerry Smith: A Man in His Time

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (April 2019)
by Mary-Jane Celsie

A look back at Richmond Hill’s internationally renowned watch and clock maker by Mary-Jane Celsie

The cover to a book published about Jerry Smith in 1998 that was co-written by Mary Jane Celsie and Jerry Smith’s daughter Audrey Smith. – Courtesy of RHHS
The cover to a book published about Jerry Smith in 1998 that was co-written by Mary Jane Celsie and Jerry Smith’s daughter Audrey Smith. – Courtesy of RHHS

When Jerry Smith, Richmond Hill’s internationally renowned watch and clock maker, died in January of 1953, the Liberal paid tribute in these words:

“In the passing of Jerry Smith, the Village of Richmond Hill lost a distinguished citizen. In him were combined rich qualities of heart, and mind, and soul which made him unique and outstanding. More than 50 years in business in Richmond Hill he was a landmark of this village, and his integrity and workmanship brought honour and credit not only on himself and family but to the whole community.”

Jerry Smith was born at Edgeley, now part of the city of Vaughan; his great-grandfather had made the trek from Somerset County to York County in a Conestoga wagon in around 1799. Perhaps prophetically, a prized possession that made the trek with them was a large grandfather clock that remains a family heirloom to this day.

The young Jerry Smith was not interested in watchmaking as a boy. He wanted to be a telegraph operator, and even built a working telegraph key from household objects like an old lever watch plate and a door lock bolt at age 11. He worked with the Grand Trunk Railway for eight years. However, at age 24, he enrolled in the Canadian Horological Institute on King Street in Toronto — the foremost school for watchmakers in Canada — and graduated with a Diploma Grade A 1, one of only three students in Canada to achieve this level.

Jerry Smith’s shop and home in the building that remains in situ beside the Yonge Street entrance driveway to the McConaghy Centre now. It has had many changes made over the years. – Courtesy of RHHS
Jerry Smith’s shop and home in the building that remains in situ beside the Yonge Street entrance driveway to the McConaghy Centre now. It has had many changes made over the years. – Courtesy of RHHS

Jerry Smith set up shop in Richmond Hill in 1899, first in the Lorne Block on Yonge Street and shortly after that in the yellow frame house that still stands on Yonge St., directly south of McConaghy Centre. In 1900, he married Effie Hollingshead. The couple had 11 children: nine girls and two boys. He was a warm and involved father — his youngest daughter, Audrey Smith Koenig, recalled that he himself cut the girls’ hair, even singeing the ends with his butane lamp to prevent splitting.

Known for his precision — as well as his innovations in creating timepieces — Jerry Smith’s expertise was sought after by clients as far away as Quebec, British Columbia, England and even India. At the time of his death, he was recognized the world over for his skill and craftsmanship. It’s perhaps fitting that his last words were, “What time is it?”

— Mary-Jane Celsie is a member of the Richmond Hill Historical Society and the director of content with the Richmond Hill Central Library.