Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: York

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published on Torontoist on November 1, 2012

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A block west of Mel Lastman Square, the greenery of York Cemetery provides an escape from the endless concrete of North York’s central strip. Amid its gardens and monuments reside tales of heroes, rebels, and royalty.

History

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The property was settled around 1805 by Joseph Shepard, one of several people Sheppard Avenue may have been named after. The site passed to his son Michael, a farmer who operated a mill near the present-day North York IKEA. Michael and his brothers were prominent supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

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The Shepards are said to have hidden the rebel mayor before he fled to the United States after his uprising fizzled. When Michael and his brother Thomas were released from jail after a brief stay, they followed Mackenzie south. Michael was pardoned in 1843, and he returned to the farm. By 1850, he had completed the farmhouse that currently serves as the cemetery’s office.

The property was purchased in 1916 by the Toronto General Burying Grounds, the forerunner of the Mount Pleasant Group, but no one was interred until July 1948. Some of the Shepard land, between Beecroft Road and Yonge Street, was later sold to build the North York Civic Centre and its associated projects.

Grounds

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The entrance from Beecroft Road is a divided boulevard dominated by a massive war-memorial cenotaph, dedicated in 1963. It bears a quote from 19th-century politician Joseph Howe:

A wise nation preserves its records—gathers up its muniments, decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead, repairs its great public structures and fosters national pride and love of country by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the past.

In 1986, the width of the roadway prompted then-city controller Howard Moscoe to ask North York council to study turning it into an extension of North York Boulevard, as a way of relieving traffic. Deemed an “intolerable desecration” by a fellow controller, the idea was quickly rejected. An apology letter was sent to cemetery officials.

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The grounds are dotted with special memorials ranging from a section devoted to the military to a monument to the Hungarian community. Near the office are a waterfall-laden “Garden of Remembrance” and a recently built columbarium, powered by solar and geothermal energy.

Like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, York is divided in half by a busy street. While the section east of Senlac Road is flat, hills dot the western portion.

Notable Names

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You won’t find stacks of coffee cups or empty doughnut boxes placed beside the grave of Tim Horton. What you will see is the epitaph “T.T.F.N. Daddy-O.” (That is, ta-ta for now.) Architect Uno Prii, also buried at York, was responsible for the curving modernist apartment buildings of the Annex. Broadcaster Barbara Frum’s gravesite bears an ornate gate and is lined with red stones. Percy Saltzman’s tombstone recognizes his role as “Canada’s First TV Weatherman.”

Favourite Spots

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Not far from Tim Horton’s gravesite lies genuine royalty. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was the youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and cousin of King George V of England. Forced to marry an older duke, she had the unconsummated marriage annulled by her brother in 1916 to wed her true love, Colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky. After the Russian Revolution, the Kulikovskys fled to the Crimea, which prevented them from being murdered by the Bolsheviks alongside the Tsar’s family. There were close calls on their flight out of Russia. (After being arrested, they were saved when officials argued at length over executing the couple.) They stayed in Olga’s mother’s homeland, Denmark, until 1948, where the duchess was often called upon to debunk pretenders, like the woman who claimed to be her niece Anastasia.

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Fearing assassination by the KGB to extinguish the her claim to the Russian throne, the Kulikovskys moved to Canada in 1948. They settled in Cooksville, where the duchess preferred to be known as Olga. She developed a reputation as cat lady, and showcased her art at Eaton’s College Street store. Before her death in 1960, Olga briefly lived with friends above a beauty salon on Gerrard Street East. She is memorialized with a sizable cross and a special plaque.

Sources: The Final Word: The Book of Canadian Epitaphs by Nancy Millar (Victoria: Brindle & Glass, 2004), the November 25, 1960 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 4, 1986 and August 26, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, November 25, 1960.

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Toronto Star, November 25, 1960.

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“Last farewell: Carrying Tim Horton’s casket to burial plot in York Cemetery yesterday are pall bearers (clockwise) Dave Keon, Bobby Baun, Allan Stanley, Billy Harris, George Armstrong and Dick Duff–all former Maple Leaf teammates of Horton.” Photo by Ron Bull, originally published in the February 26, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0055643f.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1974.

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Gravesite of architect Uno Prii, noted for his space-age, curvy apartment towers in the city

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More photos from my 2012 stroll through the grounds. 

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: St. John’s Norway

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece, which led off the series, was originally published on Torontoist on October 25, 2011.

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As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life. There are tantalizing hints amid tombstone epitaphs of our forebears’ fascinating stories. Informational plaques and thoughtfully designed monuments attest to the importance of historical figures and business tycoons (or the amount of money they had to toss around). Lovers of flora and fauna can enjoy manicured gardens, vibrant fall colours, or spot specimens of urban wildlife. Park-like atmospheres lend themselves to cycling, running, walking, or other forms of exercise meant to delay a permanent move to the graveyard.

Our series begins with a trek out to the east end to wander around St. John’s Norway Cemetery at Kingston Road and Woodbine Avenue. While other local burial grounds have attracted grand, ego-boosting monuments, St. John’s has always been humbler in fulfilling its role as a place where average Torontonians can remember loved ones in a low-key setting.

History

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The cemetery dates its beginnings to 1853, when local landowner Charles Coxwell Small (whose middle name lives on in a nearby avenue) deeded three acres to the Anglican church. The new religious institution was intended to serve the growing village of Norway, which was centred at the present-day intersection of Kingston and Woodbine. Bishop John Strachan consecrated both the cemetery and the original church building on July 1, 1855. Both spots were alternately known as St. John’s Norway and St. John’s Berkeley—some accounts note that Small tried to enforce the latter name for the community rather than the enduring one, which was inspired by the local Norway Pine harvesting industry. The cemetery underwent major expansions in 1905 and 1925. Though the cemetery has always been administered by the St. John’s Norway Anglican Church, it is considered a non-denominational burial ground. The grounds have been used as a set for films like To Die For and The Virgin Suicides.

Grounds

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Walking through St. John’s feels like a stroll through a small-town cemetery. There aren’t the massive monuments to millionaires that dot Mount Pleasant, nor the plaques that accompany notable historical figures in Cabbagetown’s graveyards. What you will find among St. John’s 35 acres are row upon row of tombstones on the higher elevations of the cemetery, and flat, nearly grown-over markers in the lower area. Roads within the cemetery are well-marked, though two-way traffic is impossible even for bicycles through the narrowest stretches.

Notable Names

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Beyond families who left their names on local landmarks, such as the Ashbridges, the most recognizable figure buried in St. John’s Norway is Roland Caldwell Harris. During his reign as Toronto’s Commissioner of Public Works from 1912 to 1945, Harris supervised the construction of much of the city’s infrastructure, including the Prince Edward Viaduct and the water treatment plant that bears his name. His epitaph: “No ostentation mark’d his tranquil way. His duties all discharged without display.

Others buried here include architect Frank Darling and athlete/journalist Ted Reeve.

Favourite Spots

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The area devoted to those who fell during the World Wars is undergoing refurbishment by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to provide legible, uniform markers. The war memorial, installed by the Royal Canadian Legion in September 1967, is an intriguingly abstract representation of a soldier standing guard over a steep hill.

What the grounds lack in glossiness they make up for in human interest stories. After reading a number of the tombstones, we felt as if there were more heartfelt epitaphs than average. The final messages range from favourite hymns and notes of regret upon a loved one’s passing, to humorous pop culture references (such as the marker in the cremation garden that reads “Beam me up Scotty”).

In the nervous laughter department, we discovered the resting place of a couple who bore the last name Death. The epitaph reads “Some day we’ll understand.”

Vintage Toronto Ads: Eaton’s Remembers

Originally published on Torontoist on November 11, 2014.

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Globe and Mail, November 11, 1948.

They were Faithful unto Death
In proud remembrance of the two hundred and sixty-three members of the Eaton staff who made the supreme sacrifice in World War II, having gone forth valiantly to fight for the survival of freedom. Their names are here inscribed that all may read who pass this way. 1945
(inscription, Eaton’s war memorial plaque, 1948)

For Eaton’s employees, Remembrance Day held a special significance in 1948. The department store spent $25,000 installing bronze war memorials in Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg to honour its workers who died serving in the Second World War. Designed by sculptor Edward Watson, the plaque placed in the Eaton’s store on Queen Street West complemented a similar memorial erected years earlier to those who fell during the First World War.

During the fight against the Axis, Eaton’s president R.Y. Eaton revived the company’s policy of subsidizing enlisted employees, despite warnings that the model was financially unsustainable, given how many more employees would serve in the Second World War than served in the First. Married men were paid a salary that, combined with their military pay, equalled their regular income, while bachelors were compensated up to two-thirds of their normal salary. To comply with the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act passed in 1942, any employees honourably discharged were returned to their old jobs or given a suitable equivalent.

When the war ended, new company president John David Eaton ordered staff to organize a series of banquets across Canada to honour returning veterans. One of the first, held at the Eaton Hall estate near King City in September 1946, saw more than 2,500 vets bused in from the city. John David and R.Y. Eaton gave attendees 10-karat gold signet rings, replicas of which were later sold for $3.97.

Delayed due to a materials shortage, it wasn’t until November 10, 1948, that flying officer George Knox, representing the Eaton Veterans’ Association, unveiled the Second World War memorial. Reverend David MacLennan of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church conducted the quiet ceremony; attendees included Eaton’s company directors, war veterans, and families of the fallen employees listed on the plaque.

Afterwards, veterans’ committees representing Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg decided to offer John David Eaton a token of their appreciation. More than 95 per cent of Eaton’s employees contributed to buy a large silver punch bowl crafted in Denmark, which was accompanied by 24 goblets and a tray engraved with military crests. The notoriously private company president declined the gift on the grounds that he wasn’t owed anything. “Father didn’t think he was deserving of any gift from them,” his son Fredrik later said. “Those guys fought in a war.” The bowl sat wrapped in cellophane on a storage shelf for years before the Eaton family accepted it.

The Toronto memorial moved to the Eaton Centre store when it opened in 1977. Several years after Sears took over the site, the Eaton family requested the plaque be returned to them. They donated the memorial and its First World War counterpart to the Canadian War Museum, where it remains today.

Additional material from Eatonians: The Story of the Family Behind the Family by Patricia Phenix (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002); the November 11, 1948 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the November 11, 1948 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

After a nearly two-year break, Vintage Toronto Ads returned to Torontoist with this post. The column was revived to help provide material during an editorial transition period. Unlike the first incarnation of the column, this version tended to see longer entries, akin to shorter Historicists. This incarnation, which ran until July 2015, also provided me something to work on as a grew frustrated with a 9-to-5 job I’d recently taken on, a position at a large financial institution where I was paid to do nothing for two months. One would think that would have been enjoyable, but the boredom was killing me. My other freelance work soon picked up, and I left the job.