How an electrician’s visit led to the discovery of Toronto’s oldest home
The unassuming house sat on Broadview Ave. in Toronto’s east end behind a hedge for many years, not really attracting attention to itself.
Nothing was out of the ordinary except for some things that were out of the ordinary. The odd angle it had in relation to the houses around it, for example, or the generously large sash windows that faced south but didn’t let much light in, because they faced the next-door neighbour’s brick wall.
Then, one day in the 1990s, a previous owner hired an electrician who opened a wall and found that it wasn’t made of red brick, like the other houses on the street, but of solid logs with a wood finishing.
“It was a discovery by accident that he was living in a log house,” says Don Procter, one of the house’s owners.
Research traced the house to John Cox, a Loyalist who was granted hundreds of acres of land east of the Don River in 1796.
Built by 1807 (when Cox died and his widow, Mary Cox, sold the land), it may or may not be Toronto’s oldest building – that distinction may go to a log cabin a few years older that’s been a museum since 1879. There’s also a cabin in Scarborough (now a historic site) that historians have found it hard to date, and could possibly be older.
But as far as we know, it’s Toronto’s oldest home, in the sense that it’s still used as a home.
469 Broadview Ave. is one small handful of very old houses across Canada where people still live. (It’s by no means certain that we’ve found them all.)
The cabin, built to face directly south toward the lake almost a century before the street grid around it was laid out, is now at an odd angle in relation to the houses around it:
Cox lived about two miles from town. Today, it would take about three-quarters of an hour to walk the two miles to the busy urban spot that was the centre of York in his day, down the hill to the bridge at Queen St., past John Scadding’s cabin, the rough building that housed the colony’s legislature, and another mile or so into York. But using Upper Canada’s notoriously bad roads, it would certainly have taken him longer.
From his front doorstep, Cox would have had a sweeping view of Lake Ontario, with the sails of distant ships coming and going, rough fields divided by stump fences, the marsh at the foot of the Don River, and to the west, a huddled town consisting of a few dozen frame and log buildings.
Further to the west, on the far side of town, Cox would have seen a sturdy fort.
In April of 1813, the house shuddered as the fort’s magazine, which held hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, blew up. British troops, forced to abandon the fort to attacking Americans, had set a fuse to the magazine before fleeing.
The mushroom cloud was visible from Niagara. Cox’s cabin, high above the town, would have had a spectacular view.
American troops, embittered by what they saw as a British betrayal (they had the idea that the British were surrendering; the British were trying to destroy the powder, and the Americans were caught in the explosion more or less by accident) spent days in the town looting and burning. The cabin would have seen pillars of smoke as the occupiers burned the colony’s legislature and official buildings, while the defenders contributed more destruction by setting fire to a partly-built ship.
Later in the 19th century, the house was expanded and reoriented to face west, toward Broadview Ave.
As old as it is in relation to the city around it, people were living on the site long before it was built. In the 1880s, as the neighbourhood was laid out by developers, archaeologists excavated the remains of an indigenous village that had sat, overlooking the plentiful wildlife in the Don Valley, off and on for thousand of years until about 1650. David Boyle led a dig that uncovered slate tools, pottery and about a hundred graves.
(Modern archaeologists would be both more careful and more respectful – a newspaper account at the time noted that “the collection of skulls is very good.” One of the skulls was given to a newspaper editor, who kept it on top of his office doorway for years.)
The Royal Ontario Museum declined an interview request from Global News about artifacts from the site in their collections.
“It’s had some rough years,” Procter says of the house. “It’s been through some bad times, but somehow managed to never be torn down.”
“It feels very different to live in a house like this. It doesn’t fit in the neighbourhood, it’s not a semi, it’s not a tall, narrow house, It’s a wide, old-fashioned bungalow.”
Is it Toronto’s oldest home? Well, as far as we know – but it’s hard to be sure. Is there another one out there, a little small, a little odd, unlike the houses around it, that has a surprising story to tell if we know where to look?
In the meantime, Procter and partner Bev Dalys wake up every morning in a 210-year-old house.
“You’re only a caretaker for the house for the time you’re here,” Procter says. “You do what you can. You don’t try to do it all. It’s going to outlive you.”
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