The Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837: Richmond Hill had a Ringside Seat

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal, September 24, 2020
by Jim Vollmershausen

While the events that led to the Rebellion of 1837 were unfolding, the citizens of Richmond Hill were not on the outside, looking in – they were right in the middle of it.

The Moodie House – courtesy Richmond Hill Public Library

In the decades following the arrival of the first settlers, the Richmond Hill area became a thriving agricultural community, served by many shops and businesses. By the 1830s, this prosperity began to attract a more affluent group of settlers who were buying up properties and beginning to influence local politics.

These newcomers tended to be British, Church of England, more well-to-do, and much more apt to turn to the ruling elite in York for assistance. The original settlers were much more self-sufficient. They had cleared land, built cabins, sowed crops and gained title to property. In their experience, the government in York did not have their interests at heart. By 1830, these two groups of Richmond Hill residents clearly represented the simmering conflict in Upper Canada between the ruling tories and the less-privileged reformers.

The man who came to lead the reformers was William Lyon Mackenzie. In the years leading up to 1837, Mackenzie worked tirelessly to effect reforms through his work in the assembly, his newspaper columns – he even took his grievances to Britain. Consistently rebuffed, by 1837, he was beginning to call for armed revolt.

Richmond Hill’s tory contingent – the Moodies, the Gappers, the O’Brians, and others – were not impressed with the reformers demands. Their view was that they were well served by the government in what was now known as Toronto.

Other families in Richmond Hill, however, were much more receptive to the reformers’ call for change. A couple of years of poor harvests, coupled with an economic recession that included tighter credit and the recall of loans made for very difficult times for farmers. By early December of 1837, MacKenzie’s call to arms seemed like a good option.

Emboldened by troops leaving Toronto to help suppress a rebellion in Lower Canada, men from Richmond Hill and areas to the north began to gather in response to MacKenzie’s appeal to take up arms. On Monday, Dec. 4, they began to march down Yonge Street from places like Holland Landing, picking up supporters as they went. Later that afternoon, Captain Hugh Stewart observed the marchers as they passed by Crews Tavern, just north of Richmond Hill, and raised the alarm. A number of loyalists met at Robert Moodie’s house, just south of the tavern.

David Bridgeford – courtesy Richmond Hill Public Library

After a first attempt to warn the forces in Toronto about the rebels failed, Moodie, his friend David Bridgeford, and others decided to ride south. Moodie, Bridgeford and Captain Stewart made it as far as Montgomery’s Tavern, near Eglinton Street, where the rebels were gathering. After being confronted by rebel guards, shots were fired, Moodie was fatally shot and Stewart was captured. David Bridgeford was able to evade the rebels and made it to Government House. By Dec. 7, there had been one skirmish south of Montgomery’s Tavern and a final, albeit short battle at the tavern itself – and the rebels were defeated.

In the end, Richmond Hill saw it all. The village contributed tory loyalists and rebel reformers to the Rebellion of 1837. A tory stalwart, Robert Moodie, was killed on the first day of action, and many rebels were captured and imprisoned. Though the rebels were defeated, their reform views did not disappear. In the thirty years between the rebellion and confederation, many of their issues were part of the ongoing process of change.

-Jim Vollmershausen is the president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society

Richmond Hill: Rose Capital of Canada

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal, July 30, 2020
by Andrea Kulesh

H.J. Mills florist operation in 1948. – Richmond Hill Public Library Archives

At the beginning of the 1900s, Richmond Hill hadn’t changed much since its incorporation as a village in 1873. The population had actually reduced in size and in response the village council met to discuss strategies to encourage industry to move to the “Hill”. The village offered easy transport for goods and people with the Metropolitan Radial Line on Yonge Street and the nearby CN railway.

In addition vacant land was ready to be developed. William Lawrence, known for building Lawrence Park, was one of the first to take advantage of the council’s invitation. He also ran a floral business in Toronto and wished to expand, and it turned out that the available land in Richmond Hill was perfect for building greenhouses.

He moved his family to Richmond Hill in 1912, and built his first conservatory at the corner of Roseview and Pugsley Streets. He built his home at the west corner of the property where it remains today. John H. Dunlop (a former President of the Canadian Horticultural Society) was encouraged by his friend Lawrence to join him in order to expand his business. Dunlop was a keen horticulturalist who loved growing roses. The Bedford Park Floral Company soon followed, with Henry Arnold at the helm, and H.J. Mills built his first greenhouses in 1912, as well.

Dunlop won a first prize at the International Rose Show in New York City in 1914 with 50 of his “Richmond Roses” and repeated this success in Philadelphia, winning three first prize places. He developed rose varieties that were internationally acclaimed, helping to highlight this specialized industry that was “blooming” in the village. In 1914, the growers and a number of local residents founded the Richmond Hill Garden &Horticultural Society. The society worked to increase interest in all horticulture and to assist in beautifying the village, roles it continues to play today.

The industry flourished, and led to a rapid rise in population and a subsequent need for homes (27 new homes in 1918) in turn expanding existing businesses and encouraging others to move to Richmond Hill. Lawrence sold off unused portions of his greenhouse property, developing the “Roseview Gardens” subdivision. During these years, the greenhouses grew in number. The four largest growers covered several acres near the railway lines, north to Dunlop Street. Each had several buildings with huge chimneys for heating and exhaust and railway spurs to offload supplies and transport their products.

Roses were shipped across Canada at a time when there were no refrigerator cars. The flowers were individually wrapped in paper and boxed with ice to keep them fresh which allowed them to withstand a three-day trip to Edmonton. Mother’s Day was the biggest holiday and it would take every employee to be on hand to get the roses ready for transport. Often the companies would work together to fill large orders. By the 1930s Richmond Hill had attained its reputation as the Rose Capital of Canada.

As the floriculture industry grew, it became a more distinct part of the village’s identity and was even written into the village motto: “En la Rose Je Flouris”- “Like the Rose, I Flourish”. The industry thrived for many years but began to decline with global competition, local business taxes and poor economic conditions. Mills Roses was the last of this trade in the city, closing in June 1982.

Andrea Kulesh is the past president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society

We Will Remember

A brief history of the Richmond Hill Cenotaph by Peter Wilson

Originally published online by the Richmond Hill Liberal on April 14, 2020

Coun. Lois Hancey reads the names of donors during the laying of wreaths at the Nov. 12, 1972 Remembrance Day Ceremony. – David Barbour/The Liberal

For nearly a century, the Richmond Hill Cenotaph has stood sentinel in the heart of the city. At the time of its 1923 unveiling, Col. William Nisbet Ponton declared: “Their names are engraved forevermore in the stone of remembrance.” He added that, “the situation of the monument, in the centre of the loyal county of York, before a schoolhouse, where it would inspire the generations of future citizens was also most appropriate.”

The Cenotaph’s origins date to a village council meeting of Feb. 13, 1918, where Reeve William Pugsley suggested something to honour the memory of “our boys who have fallen in the war.” The reeve and village clerk A.J. Hume were directed to research a suitable memorial, and within a month proposals were received from several marble dealers. At the council’s Dec. 16, 1918 meeting, a motion passed to commission a monument similar to a model by the Thomson Monument Company.

Reeve Thomas H. Trench organized a meeting for June 9, 1919 at the Masonic Hall to launch a fundraising campaign. In addition to a subscription scheme, a resolution was passed asking ratepayers to co-operate with council’s holding a Field Day on Aug. 4, 1919; the first of many with proceeds earmarked for the building of a monument.

Fundraising and planning took another four years, in which the future of the Cenotaph was put to question. At the Field Day meeting June 26, 1922, considerable interest was voiced over having a Memorial Hall instead. But the majority of returning soldiers preferred a monument, a point well-articulated in a heartfelt November 1922 letter by Louis Teetzel to The Liberal. He wrote, “(the soldiers) have won a place in the world’s history for all time to come … we express ourselves in favour of a permanent monument … that will keep alive in the people the sentimental side of the memorial.”

To settle the matter, a referendum was held during the municipal election on Jan. 1, 1923. It was resoundingly in favour of a monument: 170 votes to 55.

Finally, the Cenotaph was designed by Toronto architect Charles MacKay Willmott — and built at a cost of $4,960 by Nicholson and Curtis (stonework), J. Reynolds (lettering), J. Sheardown (foundation), J. T. Startup (levelling and sodding), and the Architectural Bronze Co. (lamps).

The Richmond Hill Cenotaph as it appeared in 2018, when we marked the centenary of the end of First World War. – Peter Wilson photo

It was dedicated on Aug. 5, 1923, during the Grand Reunion of the Old Boys and Girls. It originally honoured the six individuals etched on the bottom panels who lost their lives in the Great War. A seventh, Starr McMahon who died in 1918 with the Merchant Navy, was added later. And the five-sided stone recognizes 36 soldiers from the First World War, “who so nobly served and by the grace of God whose lives were spared.”

Sadly, the Second World War required the addition of 13 names along the top of the monument. Later plaques recognized those who died in the cause of peace in Hong Kong during the Second World War, as well as those who died in the Korean War and on deployment as peacekeepers.

We will remember.

—Peter Wilson is a member of the Richmond Hill Historical Society. He is also the Local History and Genealogy Librarian at Richmond Hill Public Library.

Names of the Fallen

The following heroes from our community made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War and the Second World War. These are the brave men whose names are etched on the Richmond Hill Cenotaph.

The First World War

C. Cleland Caldwell

William Case

Arthur C. Cooper

Earl Hughes

Starr McMahon

Wellington C. Monkman

Harold Rowley

The Second World War

Jack Beresford

Fred Carter

Jack Collin

Ernest Goode

Donald Graham

Fred Greene

George Hawkes

James Ley

Vernon Mitchell

Roy Russell

John Sloan

Ernest White

Eric Wilson

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

Richmond Hill’s French Aristocrats

‘The tenure of the French aristocrats in Richmond Hill was short-lived’

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (May 30, 2019)
by Jim Vollmershausen, Vice-President, Richmond Hill Historical Society

Historic plaque about the de Puisaye Settlement located in front of St. John's Anglican Church Jefferson.

The de Puisaye Settlement 1799

In the fall of 1798 some 40 exiled French Royalists under the leadership of Joseph-Genevieve, Comte de Puisaye (1754-1827), emigrated from England to Upper Canada. The following year they were given rations and agricultural implements and settled along Yonge Street in the townships of Markham and Vaughan. However, these members of the nobility and their servants were unable to adapt themselves to a pioneer existence and by 1806 their settlement, known as Windham, was abandoned. De Puisaye lived for a time on an estate near Niagara, but returned to England in 1802. Erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board.
The de Puisaye Settlement 1799 – Erected by the Ontario Archaeological & Historic Site Board at 12125 Yonge St. (positioned in front of St. John’s Anglican Church). – Richmond Hill Historical Society

Over 220 years ago, in 1798, a group of royalist exiles from revolutionary France arrived in Upper Canada and settled in what is now Richmond Hill. They were led by the Comte de Puisaye, a younger son of minor French nobility. De Puisaye, who fled to England during the French Revolution and subsequently led two unsuccessful military forays into France, was able to convince the British government to fund a plan to settle a group of French royalist officers in Upper Canada. Under this arrangement, this group of 41 settlers would receive the same land grants and assistance as the United Empire Loyalists who migrated to Canada following the American Revolution.

Portrait of the Comte de Puisaye in his later years.
Comte de Puisaye (in his later years). – Richmond Hill Historical Society

While some colonial officials were skeptical that these new high-born arrivals would be suited to the hardships of pioneer life, they nevertheless received Crown grants along both sides of Yonge Street between Elgin Mills and Stouffville roads, along with transportation, tools, and rations. Their arrival at their new holdings coincided with winter in late 1798, and the settlers, along with their servants, began the job of building cabins and clearing land under less than ideal conditions.

When spring arrived in the new settlement, named Windham in honour of the British official who had facilitated their new venture, some progress had been made — a number of cabins had been built, enough land had been cleared to think about crops, and a church was being planned. Spring, however, also turned Yonge Street into a quagmire. Supplies were much delayed, and a number of servants chose to abandon the primitive settlement for better opportunities. Progress ground to a halt as 1799 wore on, and the royalist pioneers seemed to be losing interest in pursuing their future in the wilderness. Early skepticism about their ability to prosper in Upper Canada’s hinterland was borne out.

Within a year of their arrival, a number of settlers simply left Windham for larger centers in the colonies or returned to Europe. Ten years after the first royalists arrived to start their new lives, only two families remained. Michel Saigeon became a successful farmer in King Township and Laurent Quetton St. George prospered as a fur trader in York. The tenure of the French aristocrats in Richmond Hill was short-lived.

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.