by Howard Moscoe
This is the first of a series of articles on the history of our community.
Have you ever wondered what Downsview looked like 150 years ago?
The Township of York had its beginnings in 1793 when it was carved out of the bush by Governor Simcoe. The township’s rugged farmland fed the growing town of York, the capital city of Upper Canada on Lake Ontario.
By 1825, four small villages dotted the farmland in the north west part of the township: Downsview (Keele and Wilson), Elia (Keele and Finch), Kaiserville (Jane and Steeles), and Fisherville (Dufferin and FInch).
Downsview was later established as the site of the district post office, and the name came to be applied to the entire district. Many local residents still remember the old post office – now closed- at Keele and Victory Drive. Many, like me, still give their mailing address as Downsview.
In 1800s Downsview, farmland consisted of 200 acre lots that sold for $60 to $250. Lots with hardwood were worth more than those with softwood. As a Downsview farmer, you would earn your livelihood growing wheat in the summer and harvesting trees in the winter.
Villages were organized around the mills- grist mills where you took your wheat to be ground into flour, and saw mills where you dragged your logs to be sawn into timber. In the village of Elia, you could have your lumber cut at John Wilson’s saw mill north of Dufferin and Finch on the west branch of the Humber or grind your grain at Wriggitt’s grist mill south of Finch. Other local businesses included a carriage and wagon shop and a blacksmith shop.
Construction cranes have now replaced the mills as the most visible symbol of economic activity in Downsview, but its residents still retain the same pioneering spirit. Over the years, land has changed hands many times. First, English soldiers of the Queen’s Rangers were granted lots by Simcoe when he moved he capital from Niagara to York in 1872. Later, land was sold to Pennsylvania Germans who came north in Conestoga wagons between 1798 and 1805. Successive waves of immigrants have carved out new opportunities for themselves and their families, transforming a once quiet village into a busy multicultural hub, where more than half of all households now list a mother tongue other than English.
New communities are now maintaining the vibrancy of historic centres of community life. The Episcopal Methodist Church was erected by the early pioneers as a frame building in 1851. The present building – a brick structure erected in1901- is now occupied jointly by the Reform Hungarian Church and the Church of the Lamb of God with services in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.
Elia Middle School still bears the name of the historic village, but the old brick schoolhouse that once proudly stood at the northeast corner of Keele and Finch has long succumbed to the forces of change. I am sure that the first teacher, Jacob Hoover, would be surprised to see a subway station being constructed on the site where he taught arithmetic an spelling to eight grades.
And yet, Downsview has long been a communications and transportation hub. First it was the post office that kept early residents connected. Later innovators would bring the airstrip (stay tuned for a future article on Downsview’s aviation history).
With the new subway extension, our community will play a key role in linking Toronto and York Region. History continues to be made in Downsview. Jacob Hoover would be proud.
(Much of the information in this article comes from Pioneering in York, by Patricia W. Hard, General Publishing, Toronto, 1968.)