George McCowan
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A Student Oral History Paper

Community and oral history studies are valuable learning tools in the broadest sense. This excellent high school paper was written by Shara Weaver of Laurier Collegiate in about 1990. Shara did a marvelous job of engaging herself in the process of historical research and report-writing. Shara supplemented her interview with George McCowan with notes from written materials such as "A Man and His Home: William Porteous McCowan".


George McCowan and the
William P. McCowan Homestead


George McCowan lived for thirty-four years on the McCowan fami!y homestead before it was sold in 1956. Yes, it was the same homestead that contained William McCowan's log house on lot 13, concession 4. Yes, the homestead contained William McCowan's two barns, and his wood framed house. Yet, George McCowan did not live on the homestead during the same time period which his "Uncle Willy" did. What was life like for George, as a young boy born in 1922, who lived through the "dirty thirties", the fourties. and the fifties, in the very same historical spot? The following is a look at the homestead, through young George's eyes.



In order to understand how George's presence on the homestead came about, his individual link with the McCowan family should be studied.

James McCowan, a coal miner from East Auchanbeg, Lanarkshire, Scotland. emigrated to British North America in 1833 with his family. His reason for emigration was, apparently, due to bankruptcy. His young son, William Porteous McCowan, whom we are familiar with, was only thirteen years old when the McCowan family immigrated to the New World's "wilderness". William's father and brother died from cholera soon after their arrival.

The three brothers, three sisters, and Mother, lived at the end of Lot 20, concessions B and C, at the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs. They were farming independently as early as 1836. By the end of 1842, William McCowan was the only brother farming the original McCowan settlement.

Around March 6th, 1848, William purchased the north half of Lot 13, concession 4 (100 acres), being the first McCowan to buy a farrn of his own. Wi1liam McCowan bought the south 60 acres of Lot 13, concession 1, from William Young in 1869. In 1894, he purchased lot 15 and the west half of lot 14, concession 5, together with road allowance between the two. In his 8th decade, William purchased the south half of Lot 14, concession 4. William died in 1902, owning 350 acres.

However, we cannot forget the rest of William's brothers. James Whiteford McCowan got married. While William was buying land, James was becoming a father, gaining 7 children. One son was named James. When William McCowan died, he left his homestead on lot 13 and two rods off the north end of lot 14, concession 4, to James, James Whiteford McCowan's eldest son.

James’s son, James Edward McCowan, born October 20th, 1883, married Isabel Anderson Spark, and had 4 children. One of these children was George Edward McCowan. George Edward McCowan, our focus, grew up on the homestead from 1922 to 1956. He can recall memories of growing up at the homestead.



The 1871 Census described William McCowan's farming operation, located on lot 13 Concession 4 and lot 13 Concession 1 as a typical Scarborough farming operation. William McCowan was said to be an unmarried Presbyterian owning 157 acres of land. Although an average farmer, William McCowan was very successful.

One reason for his success could have been the soil itself. George McCowan claimed the soil to be a clay heavy soil back when he was a young boy. There were not many stones from the fields.

In 1833, Deputy Surveyer John Galbraith recorded the presence of a swamp on Lots 13 and 14, near the line of the fifth concession. George McCowan remembers swamp in the north farm, but not in the south.

George McCowan, as a young lad, can recall stump fences separating the property. Rail fences and wire fences were also present. He also recalls some differences in the property from that of Uncle Willy's day. The north pasture went further south. Later, his father broke up 10 acres near the fifth concession (Passmore, as it is called today ). There used to be a road between the two farms for cars to travel. Now there is not.

George Hamilton, an early property owner of 300 acres in the area, noted the farm had a good Salmon fishing industry. It’s, however, not certain that William McCowan got any financial benefit from the creek. The creek being refered to is Wilcot Creek, off the main branch of the Rouge that runs through Lot 12. Jim Stirling remembers William having a bridge over the creek, which allowed him access from the house to the sideroad on the east edge of the farm.

Were the fields tile drained into this creek? George McCowan remembers the field on the east side being tile drained. He recalls his father draining it into the "little creek" that ran through the farm, which indeed was Wilcot Creek. George McCowan is certain that the west field was also tile drained.

When asked about the bridge, George McCowan claims that the bridge was needed in the south end due to the deep banks. In the north end, it was not needed as the water was shallow. George remembers the bridge "going out" every spring, forcing his Dad and himself to go down the line fence, bring the planks back and put thebridge back again. "This happened when the flood would come and the planks would catch on the line fence." The bridge, to George's memory, was later removed.

William McCowan's stock in the 1871 Census included 15 bushels of spring wheat, 160 bushels of barley, 200 bushels of oats, 84 bushels of peas, 12 bushels of turnips, 2 bushels of grass and clover seeds, and from 2 acres, he drew 180 bushels of potatoes. This variety of crops was sure to add to William's success as a farmer.

James McCowan grew fields of hay such as alfalfa, timothy, or clover on some fields. On others, he may have had mixed grain, such as barley and oats. George recalls some fields as just having oats, and some just having corn for silage (feed for livestock stored in silos) George McCowan explained that "If the twitch got ahead of you" buckwheat would be used as a smother crop. The buckwheat would rid the field of twitch grass for a few years. These crops which James McCowan tended to were not that different from those of William McCowan. George believes that his father’s farming techniques were not that different from old Uncle Willy's either. George McCowan states that the crops were rotated, meaning that the crops differed on each field each year.

William McCowan's farm consisted of 46 acres of pasture, 35 acres of hay, and 2 acres of orchard. According to the 1871 Census, this orchard was a factor which contributed to the fluorishing farm. This orchard produced 2 pounds of grapes, 55 bushels of apples, and 5 bushels of pears, plums, and other fruit. Tbe orchard was south of the house and west of the barns.

George McCowan claimed the orchard to be exceptionally good. He remembers many varieties of apple trees, including Calvert, Ontario Spies, Northern Spies, Russets, Talman Sweets, Wealthies, Astrachan, Baxters, Tetoffskees, Duchess, Transparent and Alexanders. But the variety which he remembers most was a "no good variety", the Ben Davis. Ben Davis apples would not sell on the market as they were neither a good cooking apple, or a good tasting apple. George recalls days when he’d run down to the orchard, as a small lad, and look at the nice, bright apples. When he'd take a bite, they'd be "as nice as a rock, and not too tasty". Fortunately, when re-named "Malvern Beauties" at the market, they would all sell. George McCowan remembers cherry, plum, and pear trees, as well as apple.



In 1848 William McCowan moved into the log cabin on the homestead. The builder of the cabin has not been positively identified, although it has been said to have been built by Paul Wilcot in about 1807, making it, perhaps, the 3rd oldest building in Metropolitan Toronto.

The original location of the cabin indicates an early date of construction. First of all, it was situated far from the four roads which were eventually cut: Neilson, Finch, Staines and Passmore roads. Instead, probably due to no neighbours to build roads with, he constructed his cabin near the medicinal springs. He must have made a trail to the nearest public road.

The log cabin was altered once or twice before William McCowan moved there. It was a low, one room structure when first made. The second floor was created later.

George McCowan was born twenty years after William McCowan died. Therefore, the log cabin was hard for him to recall, as it was immaterial to him. When questioned about the interior walls of the cabin, however, George recalls them being neither painted nor whitewashed.



From 1848-58, William McCowan, and his sister and mother, lived in a three-cramped room log cabin. The hired man slept in the barn. William could have built a larger house of stone, but it would have been too expensive. Instead, he modified the cabin to use as a kitchen / hired help wing and built a new frame structure. This.way, old Uncle Willy’s farming continued and his hired man kept his job. The frame addition was apparent during John Thombeck's restoration of the cabin on Lot 11, concession 3. The roof construction revealed two complete roof assemblies.

The development of the frame house relates to a story George heard when he was young, about Uncle Willy. William McCowan apparently had trouble with the neighbouring family of the Crawfords, although George claims his grandfather and father never did. It all began due to the fact that William McCowan's cabin was perpendicular to the property line, facing south. The two bedrooms in the east end were the furthest from the property line. For Uncle Willy, it would have been easier to build a frame addition off the west end, as he could then use the west end as a kitchen, as it had always been a kitchen. The two bedrooms could have, then, been used for the hired men. Apparently, the Crawfords believed there was insufficient space between the cabin and the property line for an addition. This resulted in a dispute between the neighbours. Uncle William, it appears, wanted the fence moved back (west) so that he'd have room for his new frame house addition.

"They say the Crawfords would move the fence in the day time, and the next morning, it would be back where it was. Uncle Willy and his hired men would get up at night and move it back."

However, it turned out that William McCowan did not gain the more favourable side to build his addition. He ended up building it on the east side, and the cabin floor plan was completely reversed. Although the change in floor plan must have aggravated William McCowan, he did save more money by these new accomodations, than by building a brand new house.

George and his brother Jim McCowan recall memories of the framehouse and the cabin. George remembers 50 years ago, sheep and heifers wandering in and out of the small rooms closest to the pantry. The log walls in the pantry were covered with boards. The staircase was gone. The original fireplace, in the bedroom where Jim said his father slept, was also boarded up. Jim McCowan remembers the east end of the cabin containing the kitchen for the cabin and the frame addition. He also remembers two bedrooms at the east end, and a large room at the west (beside the kitchen / cabin). This room was a living room or parlour and was plastered and had baseboards. The hired man would sleep in the bedroom at the rear left. The shed, according to Jim McCowan, was attached to the west end of the cabin. There was a full length veranda.

George McCowan claims that the house and the cabin were connected on the first floor. Access to the framehouse was found through a door from the kitchen. There was no second storey in the cabin. The ground floor of the house was several steps higher than the floor of the cabin.

William's heirs occupied the cabin and frame house for a decade, and later moved to a brick house one mile to the north. But what happened to the old house? George McCowan remembers a fellow by the name of Jack Claude who occupied the house during the late 20's and early 30's. Jack was not employed and never payed rent. "Dad never kicked him out." Jack did very little for the McCowan family. When Ed McCowan needed him to help during the haying, "he made himself scarce". George does, however, recall him going sucker fishing in the spring. When he came back at noon, he'd bring fish with him. "My mother would ask him to stay for dinner." Jack Claude was the last occupant of the house.

When questioned about the house’s maintainance from the 1920's to 1956, when the property was sold, George McCowan laughs. "You don't have to be out of a building too long before it starts to deteriorate." George admits the house was never painted or re-shingled as far as he can remember. The white interior walls of the house were beginning to rot. The basement (of the addition) was starting to cave in. George claims, "I didn't go down much." And what about Jack Claude? Did he maintain the house when he was dwelling there? George answers: "No. As long as it kept him warm, that's all he cared."



When William McCowan died in 1902, Scarborough was full of large bank barns. Old barns were being pulled down. William had left his own old barn behind. He never built a new modern one. George McCowan relates that the design of the barns were of an early style. Unlike the late 19th century barns which were built on a stone foundation, enclosing a full-length stable, Uncle Willy's two barns rested on stones. Both barns were 60 feet by 30 feet and ran north and south, facing each other, about 200 feet south-east of William's house. An old log barn (according to their father ) joined the two barns at the north ends. The late Jim Stirling, whose Uncles David and William Crawford had 100 acres of land immediately west of William McCowan's farm, recalls an "old style" barn and a "strawshed" in the barnyard for cattle.

What were these barns used for? When George was a boy, these barns were simply used to store hay. When the bailer came along, the family didn't need them anymore, and there was plenty of extra space. He remembers going to school in the winter and seeing his father and the hired men going down in the sleigh and drawing up two loads of hay.

There had been a place for cattle which William McCowan must have used. After all, William's farm in 1871 was said to contain five horses over three years, four colts and fillies, five milch cows, four horned cattle, and fourteen sheep, totalling a respected 32 head herd.

In William McCowan's time, horse-drawn implements were used frequently. Many of William's livestock would have been used to pull implements. The granary and implement shed occupied the south and north ends of the east barn.

George McCowan remembers the horse-drawn implements well, as he used them himself. The mower, which cut the hay, was stored in the south barn. The binder, which cut the grain, was stored in the south barn, also. "Were they well maintained?" I asked him. "Well, I would say they were. If we didn't keep them well maintained, we couldn't cut the hay or grain." Eventually, tractors came into use and the horses were not needed to pull mowers or binders anymore. The mowers and other implements that were hooked up onto the horses were eventually phased out.



The Depression which hit in the late 1920's, affected George's family and the McCowan farm. Because George’s grandfather had passed on, George's father had to give $6,000 to both of his sisters due to financial problems. George explains how his father tried to sell the two farms for $l2,000. However, there were no bidders. The family was forced to continue farming in a financially unstable state.

George McCowan now realizes his family was actually lucky. Many farmers in Scarborough lost their farms as they couldn't pay their taxes. The McCowans did not. He recalls the northern farmers trying to separate from the southern area. The reason was due to Birchcliff's high population of 15,000 which created a large deal of relief in the area, which led to rising taxes.

Yet, when George was questioned as to whether he prefered the present 1990’s to the harsh times of the depression, suprisingly, George McCowan supported the depression. He believes that our decade in some respects, is just as harsh. Todays’s high mortgages and unaffordable housing problem in Toronto are frustrating young Canadians who are in need of homes, as the depression frustrated the farmers.

George McCowan believes that some farmers may have lost their farms back in the 30’s due to mismanagement. However, he is aware that farmers are still losing their farms today. He spoke of the past few years when bankers foreclosed on farmers who worked in factories during the day and farmed at night. He believes their money became tied up in the costs of machinery. George McCowan concludes, "I’ll be honest, I'm glad I was born when I was."



What kinds of things would an average 17 year old, like myself, be doing back on the McCowan farm during the time George McCowan was growing up? Would I be slaving on the fields? Would I be going to school?

George McCowan described some of the activities a person my age would be engaged in. Garden parties were popular. Dancers and singers would keep your eyes wide and attentive. The bush league hockey team also collected many spectators and participants. Spring "Gold Watch" tournaments attracted teams not only from Markham, but from Highland Creek and Toronto. And, don't forget, there were the ball teams in the summer.

What other happenings would keep a young boy busy? Euchre was a favourite pastime of George’s. He also recalls going to church to watch the dramas and plays.

A typical day for George McCowan would begin early in the morning in the barn, where cows were to be milked and stables were to be cleaned. George would then be off to school in Box Grove, a mile and a quarter north of Steeles. George eventually went to high school, right in Markham. As he became older, he attended calf club and grain club meetings where he'd show off his livestock and grain. He remembers the school and fall fairs being huge events. His area’s fair usually was held in Unionville. Here he displayed sheaves of barley, wheat, oats, and containers of seed in the hopes of winning a prize.

Now, would growing up on the homestead have been all that bad? I don't think so.



William McCowan was no different from the average Scottish settler of his time. George McCowan’s family was no different from the typical farming family which survived the Great Depression. Yet people like William and George McCowan have made a large contribution to the history of our city here in Scarborough. We learn from William's log cabin and the frame house, by comparing them to the construction of our buildings today. We can improve our farming techniques by learning the ways of William's prosperous farm. George McCowan gave us further knowledge of the homestead, before and after William McCowan's death. The Depression and the impacts it had on the homestead can prepare us for our own harsh times in the future. Through increased knowledge of the McCowan family we can make more assumptions, more ties, and more discoveries as to what life was really once like in Scarborough.

After learning new details of the McCowan's homestead, by the use of oral and literary sources, I ask myself a question "have people really changed very much over the years"? At first, I think not. Compare Uncle Willy’s crops to those of George McCowan, or even to farmers today. They are so similar. But, I hold a second view that times have changed. I look at William McCowan's thriftiness, as he did not simply abandon his old dwelling, but built onto it to make more room for his occupants. Today, I doubt the head of the household would do such a thing. He would probably, simply, move to a brand new, larger dwelling.

There is one thing however, I can conclude. The restoration of the McCowan Log Cabin into a public museum will be a beneficial learning tool for all of us and I commend the McCowan family for their dedication and struggle to preserve their family name. Yet, more work must be done. As D.B. McCowan says, "The value of history is neither that which is written nor that which is preserved. Rather, the value of history is that which may be learned."

However, how can we learn if there is nothing remaining from the past to learn from? History is ever-changing. If we do not record and preserve it, much of our past will be lost.

Shara Weaver
Student, Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate


The Scarboro Heights Record   V13 #2