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.

Remembering the Fun of Mid-century Snow Games in Richmond Hill

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (January 2019)
by Andrea Kulesh, President

You don’t have to go back too far in time to see playing outside in wintertime has changed considerably.

A Sears advertisement for snow saucers and toboggans. – Courtesy of RHHS
A Sears advertisement for snow saucers and toboggans. – Courtesy of RHHS

As a child from the 1950s, I have wonderful memories of playing in the snow. Sounds of snow crunching and the scuffing of snow pants rubbing together remind me of the fun we made for ourselves — even catching snowflakes on our tongues and eating snow was a thrill. Winter was exciting — imagination reigned and any game was possible. Winter seemed endless — snow on tap for our pleasure. To me — everything was covered in it — telephone poles on Yonge Street — piled half way up after the plows went by and the wires dipping heavily with ice.

Snow transformed outside into a huge playground. That meant building forts, tunnels, and sledding!
Neighbours flooded their backyards for skating. We’d lace up our skates and glide around for hours, shinny, figure eights and lots of races! Ours had a hill — that only the brave would take on!

Looking north near Westwood Lane and Charles Howitt Public School in Richmond Hill in the mid-1950s. – Norman Derry photo

We’d venture out in the cold, dressed in snowsuits with scarves tied tightly around our hoods, stranger-danger nor traffic was as big a worry at that time. Nowadays — safety is a key concern for children and most would not be allowed to wander around a neighbourhood.

Tunnelling into drifts, we created our own secret caves. Making snow angels was wonderful and with good packing snow, we could build forts and have snowball fights. Opposing sides, with each army waging battle — snowballs as ammunition. There was always a spoil sport, putting ice or stones in the snowballs so they became lethal weapons and the game would come to a very bad ending …

Bragging how big we could roll the snow, we built endless snowmen. Sledding was the best. Cardboard was great, or sliding down a slope head first, snow flying in our faces. At the farm, where Langstaff High School stands, there was a long hill. We slid on our metal “saucers” uncontrollably — especially if the bottoms were waxed! Wooden toboggans were heavy, but you could squeeze lots of friends on. There was screaming and laughing all the way down and a lot of arguing who was going to drag it back again.

On steep hills, it was particularly precarious especially on the homemade sled my father made with old wooden skis, as we hurtled down the slope at the Thornhill Golf Club and ended up sliding across the creek at the bottom … but wasn’t that the whole idea?

I guess, in retrospect, a little safety never hurts!

—Andrea Kulesh is president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society and has been a member since 2004. The society can be found at http://www.rhhs.ca.

Richmond Hill’s Communities Within a Community

In 2018, the Richmond Hill Liberal ran a 4-part series series looking at communities within Richmond Hill that have retained their deep roots and identity.

Riding the Radial Line in Richmond Hill

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (November 2018)
by Andrea Kulesh, President

Historically, Yonge Street has undergone constant improvement since its early beginnings. Currently, the town is experiencing construction of the new Metrolinx transportation system, “an integrated multimodal regional system that puts the traveller’s needs first.” In 1795, John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor, made similar plans, by engineering a highway using Aboriginal trails leading to Lake Simcoe, naming it after his friend, Sir George Yonge. This route would be a protected inland passage which had strategic and commercial potential. His troops cut away heavy bush to create a safe route for military and settlers alike.

Radial Line Waiting Room at Lorne Avenue and Yonge Street – Courtesy of Julian Bernard

Beginning as a muddy, stumpy walking trail, it slowly evolved and in the later 1800s was given a flattened gravel surface. People walked, rode horses and wagons to reach the new land opened up to settlers who were building farms, villages and towns along the route.

In 1894, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company proposed a new technology — an electric service connecting towns north of the city. Construction was completed in 1897 and Richmond Hill welcomed the new Radial Line as a link with established industrial and commercial activity. The line began in north Toronto and in time, eventually made its way to Sutton on Lake Simcoe. Service was four daily round trips between Richmond Hill and Toronto’s city limits. A one-way trip took 45 minutes, for 40 cents (65 cents, return).

Visiting Bond Lake Park by the Radial Line. – Courtesy of the Richmond Hill Central Library

In early 1930, the TYRR Metropolitan Division decided that the service was no longer viable and was closed down. The line was losing money and road competition was the main reason. Between 1925 and 1930, auto and truck traffic increased along Yonge Street from 4,925 to 11,163 per day, and bus traffic from two to 188 per day. Reeves from Richmond Hill, Markham, Vaughan and North York joined together and began the North Yonge Railway using the abandoned lines, with the new service beginning in July 1930. For 18 years this electric “streetcar” continued to move people around for work and pleasure, finally ending in October 1948 — replaced with TTC buses. This was the last surviving Toronto “Radial” — the end of an era, a mode of transportation that indeed put the “traveller’s needs first.”

—Andrea Kulesh is president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society and has been a member since 2004. The society can be found at www.rhhs.ca.

Susannah Maxwell: A Life Well Lived

This past February, Richmond Hill Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Librarian Peter Wilson shared the story of Susannah Maxwell, one of Richmond Hill’s prominent historical figures with the Richmond Hill Liberal.

Susannah Maxwell, circa 1880s (courtesy of the Richmond Hill Public Library)

At the time of her death in February of 1923, she had reached the astounding age of 117 and only a month short of her next birthday. She was likely the oldest person in Canada at the time of her death, made even more remarkable by the life she led. Born to free black parents in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she barely escaped being captured and sold into slavery after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She and her family escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, eventually settling in the Brick Tenement on Yonge Street across from St. Mary’s Anglican Church.


Lot 3 on Yonge Street (courtesy Richmond Hill Public Library)

While Susannah could earn what was known as a York Shilling, or about 12.5 cents per day in Richmond Hill, she could make as much as 50 cents per day 7 miles away in Markham. To support her family she would make the trek until she collapsed on her way home in a blizzard. She likely would have died if she had not been found by a dog who alerted others to her location. She eventually ran a laundry business out of her home with two of her daughters, Mary and Matilda, or Tillie as she was known. Mary died in 1899 and the Village Council agreed to pay for her funeral and grave in the Presbyterian Cemetery. Tillie died in 1920.

Susannah was an early orphan, and early widow and a mother who outlived all of her children.

Read the full story in the Richmond Hill Liberal. The story was also picked up by CityNEWS and was broadcast on February 28, 2019 and is viewable through their website.

The Richmond Hill Public Library has a number of items related to the story of Susannah Maxwell in the Mary-Lou Griffin Local History Room.