Banner photo is of Weston Road looking south in 1956. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Toronto, as we know it today, is made up of a number of former villages – Parkdale, Brockton, Leaside, Swansea, Mimico to name a few. Some were absorbed by the city early on, while others were swept up in the amalgamation of 1998; the one that made a municipal Frankenstein’s monster of Toronto, East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and just plain old York. But wonderfully, many of the old villages seem to have held firm to their identity and visiting them can feel like a jaunt to an exotic place – well, quasi-exotic, at least. Anyhow, I was recently reminded of this when I set off to explore nearby Weston and, specifically, a lovely old building which my friend Meaghan had alerted me to.
For me, the story of Weston is rooted in the major road that leads through it – Weston Road as we know it today – as well as in the Humber River which once divided it.
Settled in the 1790s, Weston’s first 50 years were predominantly spent on the west side of the Humber. It wasn’t exactly bustling but it was a fair sized burg with just over a dozen homes, a mill and some essential services of the day – a blacksmith, weaver, cooper, saddler, two general stores and, of course, a tavern. By comparison, the east side of the Humber, with just three homes, must’ve been Sticksville. But Mother Nature has a way of shaking folks off her back when it pleases her and in 1842 a freshet (which means a flooding river but sounds like a moist towlette) doused the village and severely damaged several buildings. And like the wild, untamed thing it was, it kept on doing it. By 1850, the west side was so beaten up by the continuous flooding that the residents finally hitched up their skirts and trousers and crossed over to the safer, drier east side.
Almost as if in preparation for this exodus, a firm with the starkly informative name The Plank Road Company set up shop on the east side of the river. As you’ve no doubt already gathered, their business was roads – plank roads – and their aim was to improve the stretch from Albion to Dundas W. When it was done, the new thoroughfare was christened, yes, Plank Road. These were a practical people.
Well, as neighboring Toronto was learning through a lot of trial, error and injury, wood streets are not a great idea. Combine them with the extremes of Ontario’s weather and a whole lot of tromping horses and you’ve got yourself a road with the structural integrity of swiss cheese. At a cost of approximately $1,000 a mile, they were also pretty expensive and, believe me, that was with the workmen making peanuts. To offset the cost, tolls were set up at the north and south ends of the road and travellers were charged a nickel to use it. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough traffic to pay for it, or for the costly and constant repairs that followed, and so gradually the road was redone with gravel. Do you know what they called it during this period? Yeah, the Plank and Gravel Road.
While the Plank Road Company’s labours are long gone, they did leave one lasting testament to their time in Weston:
Built in 1841 as the Plank Road Company office, this beauty reminds us of the teachings of the Three Little Pigs: Straw? Pfft, hope you like wolves. Wood? Mmm, better but no. Brick? Say, you’re a pretty smart little pig. So while the plank road’s long gone, this brick beauty is celebrating its 175th year.
Of course, the Plank Road Company was not the last to occupy it. By the turn of the century it had become G. M. Lyon’s West End Dry Goods and Grocery store.
I’d imagine that’s G.M. himself in front, though the picture doesn’t do his moustache justice.
There, that’s better.
The caption notes that he was a president and, while he was undoubtedly the president of his general store, it actually refers to his position in the Officers of Weston High School Ex-Pupils Association. And were they a proud bunch. To celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary in 1907, they published a booklet called “Souvenir of Weston” which simultaneously celebrated, seemingly, every past pupil as well as the entire village itself. It also documents that at the 1900 Weston Reunion picnic, our G. M. Lyons was a bit of a stand-out in the fashion department:
Here we have an ad that Lyons placed in the The High School Budget, circa 1905:
The “Budget” was actually a collection of poems, stories and jokes (at least I think they’re supposed to be jokes) written by the students. Here’s a taste:
“Does a girl ever think of anything but marriage? Only that, and how to get married. “
“When a girl refers to a “sad courtship” what does she mean? She means that the man got away.”
Anyhow, the excitement stirred up by Weston High’s 50th anniversary was probably just dying down three years later when, in 1910, an event of unparalleled proportions rocked the little village.
Yes, in early July 1910, an aviation exhibition was held on William Trethewey’s farm. If you live in the area you’ve likely heard this name plenty, being the name of a major road now. (Personally, I’ve always had trouble with the name – it sounds like you’re trying to get something bad out of your mouth.) Trethewey who’d made a fortune by striking not one but two silver mines in Cobalt, Ontario, had established a remarkable farm in Weston that featured its own airfield. It was this airfield that hosted the “First Toronto Aviation Meet” and an enraptured public turned up in droves to see it. Though, not everyone had their eyes on the sky – some realized it was an opportune time to make some extra dough:
Enterprising villagers aside, the exhibition gave the people what they wanted – big thrills. And these were doled out by some big names including J. G. Stratton from Montreal and four pilots who flew for the Wright brothers, including Ralph Johnstone.
But the scene stealer was, of course, Count Jacques De Lesseps who’d found fame by being the second pilot to cross the English Channel – the first being his teacher, Louis Bleriot.
It was actually during this Weston trip that De Lesseps met his future wife, Grace Mackenzie. (On the ground, of course – not mid-flight.) While Jacques may have been a catch being a Count and all, as well as the son of the man who built the Suez Canal, Grace was no slouch either. She was the daughter of William Mackenzie, owner of the Toronto Street Railway (which became the TTC) and builder of the Canadian Northern Railway. During their courtship, De Lesseps took Grace for a spin in the clouds over New York and she became the first Canadian woman to fly.
By now, of course, Weston was a much busier place than it’d ever been and it was practically humming with a number of industries, like the Canada Wire Mattress Co and CCM bicycles, that had followed the Grand Trunk and Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railways into town. This industrial growth brought new residents which, in turn, led to a whole lot of building – some of it more exciting than folks had been expecting…
In 1911, the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s flock had swelled enough that the need was felt for a separate Sunday school. The site chosen was on Main St (as the Plank Road was now known) near Lawrence Ave. Well, no sooner had the builders started excavating for the foundation than they realized they weren’t digging down so much as they were digging something up.
The bones, which were dated back to 1425-1450, were part of an ossuary left by the aboriginal peoples that had travelled along the route for hundreds of years before the arrival of the first Europeans.
I wish I could tell you what became of the bodies unearthed that day, but unfortunately I haven’t a clue. I’d like to think they’ve been re-interred, respectfully. (Something tells me, no.) But what I can share with you – or rather show you – is the Sunday school they built on the site:
In an interesting twist – practically a déjà vu – a church in the same Weston and Lawrence area was doing a bit of rebuilding in 2014 and stumbled upon the forgotten graves of dozens of early Westonians under a parking lot. The earliest burials were dated back to 1866, but it’s entirely likely that some of the folks buried there were around when the aboriginal ossuary was disturbed just over a hundred years earlier.
In 1914, blossoming Weston made the leap from being a village to being incorporated as a town. It enjoyed this status until 1967 when it was absorbed into the borough of York. As I mentioned at the beginning of this ramble (seems ages ago now, doesn’t it?) York was soon swallowed up in the 1998 rejigging of Toronto. So while I can say I remember a time when Weston lay outside of the city, I’m glad to now have an excuse to share some of its tales – even if it’s only as a sort of step-sister, municipally speaking.