Learning Unit: Housing
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Housing, Homelessness, Heat and Hardship

Some Regional and Contextual Background Information

Please refer also to these pages:

  • Housing (and then follow the child links at the top of each page)

  • Great Depression

  • Our Search page -- use your language and thinking skills to define valuable search criteria


If you were to add an Expectation to the Ontario Curriculum documents regarding the importance of the evolution of shelter and housing in society, what would it be?  And then how would you go about your research to achieve that Expectation?

There has been a regular colony of gypsies down on the hill since Saturday. They have ten covered wagons and eight tents. Billy [McCowan] says there are at least thirty children, the youngest is four days old. When we went to church they were roasting six turkeys. They had two poles, three on each, and were turning them over the fire. When we came home they looked almost ready to eat.

Ruth McCowan Letters, April 21 1914 (In M. Carr, James McCowan Family from 1833, pg. 27)


Just a short letter tonight. Papa is out at a hunting meeting tonight and we cannot lock the door, so I am going to stay up for a little while to see that strangers do not enter.

Ruth McCowan Letters, October 3 1916


I have had a regular clean out and have given a lot of things away, things that we have not been using among which were your long boots. The boys thought it was too bad to send them off, but I thought they had not been used for over a year and it might be ages before you would need them again... They were sending a bundle to the fire district and I thought they might as well be doing someone some good.

Ruth McCowan Letters, October 22 1916


It has been storming all day and I think all of the roads must be full of snow. It is rather serious for those who cannot get coal. Harold was up at Drummond’s yesterday. They had three car loads come in and he said that it was like a fair. The people were there with hand sleighs and all sort of conveyances to take away coal. We have had zero weather all week.

Ruth McCowan Letters, December 16 1917


We have had six weeks of very severe winter and there is no sign of a letup. With the coal shortage as well, it is rather serious. Today Harold went for coal and Drummond told him that all coal dealers had been ordered not to sell to farmers. He got 1500 pounds of furnace coal.

Ruth McCowan Letters, February 5 1918


I think we are all right as far as fuel is concerned. Harold got a load apiece for us last week. Drummond said that if they wouldn’t let him sell to the farmers he would quit the business.

Ruth McCowan Letters, February 11 1918


A “Modern” Farmhouse

Our house was built in 1914 before my Dad and Mom were married. It was a beautiful large brick house with a kitchen, pantry, dining room, living room and parlour. The woodwork, doors, stairs and banister were solid oak. Upstairs there were five bedrooms and a bathroom as well as a linen cupboard with a laundry “chute”. There were three rooms in the attic. There was hot water heating with radiators in every room. The basement had two big rooms and a furnace room.

We didn’t use the parlour very much. Mom’s grandmother’s parlour settee pieces and the piano made up the furniture. We practised our music lessons there. In the pantry Mom had a huge metal flour can (bigger than a modern metal garbage can) which sat in the corner by the dumb waiter. It was handy to perch on while we ate “short cakes” (tea biscuits) and honey after we got home from school.

Across the front of the house there was a verandah which, in later years, we closed in to make a lovely sunroom. I remember when I was about six, we were sitting on the verandah with company on a Sunday afternoon in the summer when the traffic on the single lane (each way) Kingston Road was fairly busy. One of the guests went “Oh!” and pointed to the road and there was my little brother, Bill, toddling onto the road. The oncoming car stopped in time to avoid hitting him.

Helen McCowan Thomson, 1990


The Thirties

The depression did not seem to affect us too much. We had our own milk and butter, grew our own vegetables and had a big apple orchard. My Dad was always very careful of the “pennies”, so we were quite used to doing without many things which he considered unnecessary. Hardly a week would go by that we didn’t have a “tramp”, as they were called then, at the door for food. Mom always fed them. Sometimes they would sleep in the barn -- after handing over their matches and smokes. Dad would return them in the morning.

Helen McCowan Thomson, 1990


The Forgotten Debt

During the depression, a distant cousin of mine bought some hay from us. He didn’t have enough money at the time however and couldn’t pay -- which was actually fine -- we were happy to help out. The years went by. Whenever we saw this cousin at an auction sale or at some other local Scarborough event, he would quickly turn away and pretend that he didn’t see us. We really couldn’t understand why.

Then one day, again years and years later, he came to the house with an envelope. He had come to pay for the hay. We had completely forgotten about it. But now we knew why he had been avoiding us. Farmers were a proud bunch and there seemed to be a certain shame about owing money during the depression.

Jenny McCowan, as told to Bruce McCowan, ca 1975


Riding the Rails -- Mike O’Brien

The term "Riding the Rails" is rather synonymous with "The Great Depression" of the 1930's. A short distance from the tracks that ran through the McCowan farm in Scarborough was a woodlot which, one day, caught the attention of a transient sitting on a box car...

The Canadian National Railway running from Montreal to Toronto, being double tracks, was a very busy line before transport trucks and super highways became popular. When we were in the fields we could tell the time by the whistles of the passenger trains -- one in the morning going to Montreal at 9:40. The 12 o'clock whistle at the Ford assembly Plant on Danforth at Victoria Park told us it was dinner time. There was a 4:20 Flyer to Montreal and a 4:55 Flyer from Montreal as well as a Flyer around 9:30 at night.

At our farm the Scarborough Bluffs were over 300 feet high -- the highest point on Lake Ontario. Union Station in Toronto and Port Union near the Rouge River mouth were both at lake level. In either direction, it was too big a climb to our farm for one steam engine pulling between 80 and 100 freight cars, so an extra engine stayed at Port Union to help pull the train up the hill to Brimley Road (just past our place) where there was a siding. There the extra engine was often taken off, and the train was let run down the hill to Union Station. There was, of course, an extra engine at Union Station to pull freights up to Brimley from Toronto .

The freights going up past Scarborough Golf Club Rd and Scarborough Village were not going too fast, and some of the boys would jump on and off the cars. One boy, Len Orr, slipped and had his leg cut off. He was quite young at the time -- I always remember him at S.S. #9, Scarboro Village School, using a cane and having a wooden leg. Later he mastered walking and didn't need the cane. He played and skated with everyone else.

Scarboro Village had subdivision Plans and some houses were built. There was to be a Train Station right there, but due to the hill, the trains had too much trouble starting. So the station was never built in Scarboro Village .

During the Depression many unemployed men rode the rails going from place to place looking for work. The siding at Brimley Road was a good place to embark and disembark. Our farm was the first outside the city, so we had many overnight guests in the barn. There were also many Kingston Road travellers sleeping in the barn too. We gave out many free lunches. We never turned anyone away who wanted food.

In 1933, plus or minus a year or two, one such rail traveller was Mike O'Brien, an Irish, one-eyed sailor who was laid off the lakeboats in the fall. One day my brother, Bob, and cousin, Walter, went to the bush to cut catapult crotch. They found Mike in the bush where he had spent the night under some shelter. He asked them if he could stay the winter. Then Uncle Ashley and Dad apparently said that he could.

In about 1927 or 28, the CNR had bought the land south of the tracks down to the bush, just about where the roadway went into the cemetery. They also bought some land on the west side of McCowan Road , the Baird farm. They dug into the side of the hill to level the ground for a marshalling yard where they could make up freight trains. We were told that what they dug out of our place and Bairds was used as fill in the Toronto waterfront near Union Station. As a civil engineer for the CNR, Uncle Jack Heron, was involved with the marshalling yard. However, the project stopped when the depression came along. The marshalling yard was never put in, but some sidings were. Old wooden box cars were stored there -- for anybody who wanted the wood, it seemed. Mike built a shelter using wood from the box cars and, by digging down, he survived the winter.

The next spring he couldn't get work, so he asked if he could stay longer. He was given permission to build a log cabin. My brothers, cousins and I helped carry the logs. The cabin was on the south side of the bush so he got shelter from the wind as well as heat from the sun.

Mike also used a bit of land north of the bush for a garden. He made breadboards, wooden fans (some of them double -- top and bottom), built a ship inside a bottle and a crystal set radio. He had chickens for a while but had trouble with wild animals from the bush. The next year he built a root cellar on the side of the cabin for his vegetables.

We used to play hockey in some low spots in "The Pit" (as we called the marshalling yard area) and if we got cold we would go to Mike's to warm up. We always paid him a visit going to and coming from skating anyway. One day when we were haying, the hay fork rope kinked and got caught in the pulley. The horses broke the rope. Mike, being a good sailor was called upon to splice the rope. There was a Jewish cemetery behind the bush, and Mike had a few graves to dig for them. We would visit Mike quite often to listen to his stories. We would quite often take him a Sunday dinner and apples or vegetables.

There were a lot of choke cherry trees in the bush. Mike started making wine and got to like it too much, becoming a bit of a hazard. He also found it easier to collect relief than to work. However in 1939 he just up and left -- a good thing because he had been there almost seven years which could have become a problem very soon with Squatters’ Rights. With the War starting and then the post-war re-establishment, and starting new families of our own, Mike's stay was just a small blip of life soon forgotten. However, I have from time to time wondered where he went and how he made out in life. I often wished he'd come back for a visit.

Bob told a story about Mike ordering something to be delivered. To identify where he lived he said “McCowans”, and put up a wooden sign at the corner of Kingston Road and our sideroad. This was the very first “McCowan Road” road sign.

Bill McCowan, 1998


Individual Exercises  

1) During World War One, what was in short supply? Explain why you think this was the case.

2) Why do you suppose coal dealers were ordered to not sell to farmers?

3) In 200 words, write a fictitious story of an itinerant traveller on Kingston Road during the depression as though you were the traveller. Include two sentences about where you had come from originally (and why you left) and two sentences about where you went and what you did after the depression.

Guest Speaker, Class Discussion and Editorial Team

1) Prepare ten questions about the Great Depression of the 1930s. Invite a senior citizen to your school to tell you about his or her personal experiences during the Depression. Be sure to ask your ten questions as well as other questions that arise. Then, in class, discuss your guest’s personal experiences in the more general context of the 1930s. Appoint an editorial team of three students to write a 500 word paper based on the guest’s personal experiences, your other resources and your class discussion. Include concluding remarks and your list of contextual resources.

The Scarboro Heights Record V14 #5