Learning Unit: Public Service
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Public Service, Leadership, Civic Duty and Democracy


Some Regional and Contextual Background Information

  • Robert McCowan (1813-1886) and his youngest brother, William (1820-1902) were in Captain Gibson’s Company of the Scarborough Militia, 1838. They were probably among the Scarborough loyalists who helped disperse MacKenzie’s rebels in early December 1837. Refer also to The McCowans of Scarborough , p. 10.

  • Mr. Gates’ Tavern on Kingston Road, the gathering point for the loyalists, was only half a mile north of the McCowan home by the bluffs.

  • Robert McCowan’s wife, Hannah Ashbridge (“Mamma”), was the co-founder of the Lakeview Women’s Institute in 1914 and its first President. The Institute initially concentrated on the war effort.

  • Mr. A.E. Rea, evidently a ladieswear factory owner on Spadina Avenue, was one of several Toronto gentlemen who built a country estate in Scarborough at the turn of the century. He chose the property that was settled by James McCowan in 1833 overlooking Lake Ontario. Mr. Rea had a springwater pumping system in the Lake Iroquois hillside -- hence the name that James McCowan gave to his new home in Canada, “Springbank”. (See Morrison, The Bellamy Bluff in the Forties, and McCowan, A Lakefront Estate Residential Development, 1890-1940)

  • Ruth McCowan’s husband, Captain Jack Heron (b 1879), served with the Canadian Railway Troops in France during the First World War. Ruth and their daughter, Margaret, stayed at Holmcrest, the McCowan farm, during this period. Ruth and Jack exchanged many fascinating letters.

  • See also Margaret Carr, James McCowan Family from 1833

  • Robert E. Stobo was killed in action near Ypres June 13 1916

  • Robert McCowan Jr. (“Papa”) served on Township Council as a Councillor and Deputy Reeve for close to a decade. He was Reeve of Scarborough, 1923-1925. Reeve was roughly equivalent to “Mayor”.

  • Robert McCowan’s first cousin, Alexander (1853-1939), farmed his father’s 220 acres at Warden and Eglinton with his older brother, George. Alex was one of Scarborough ’s keenest community builders and visionaries of his time. He was on Scarborough Council from 1901 to 1904 and served as the member of the Provincial Legislature, 1905-1913, and as Sheriff of York County, 1913-1934. His public service had started when he was Secretary to the Scarboro Agricultural Society. (See McCowan, Fairs and Frolics, pg. 25). But perhaps his greatest contribution to history -- and of national significance -- is that fact that he was essentially the founder of the milk marketing board movement in Ontario. He is a bonafide hero of the Ontario family farm.

  • The Fenian threat from south of the border in the mid 1860s was not trivial. Indeed, this was one of several major factors in the creation of a united Canada in 1867. The Fenians were hardened Irish-American Civil War veterans bent on achieving independence for Ireland. A faction of Fenians made several attempts to seize Canada for use as their home base.

  • The Fenian threat was taken very seriously in Scarborough. The Scarboro Rifle Company served at the Niagara frontier in defence of the Province in 1866. They usually drilled in Scarboro Village, a mile and a half from the McCowan home.

  • Proper recognition for service was long-overdue by 1901 and the Province finally passed Legislation granting 160 acres to each veteran of the Fenian Raid.

  • Private William McCowan, farmer in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, in 1901 enlisted in the Scarboro Rifle Company in 1863 or 1864. He spent “Four months at Niagara in 1865 from Jan. 1st. Two and one half months at Dunville in 1866 from beginning of March. June 2nd 1866 in the field at Fenian Raid at Fort Erie and Port Colborne one and one half months.” His land grant was for the south half of lot 8, Concession 6, Bowman Township. (Application for Grant of Land, Fenian Raid)

  • His young cousin, Private James Archibald McCowan, was born on March 19 1850, eldest child of Robert and Jane McCowan. James’ adventurous character comes into evidence in the context of the Fenian Raids. His land grant was for the north half of lot 1, Concession 5, Beck Township.

  • See D.B. McCowan, Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play, p. 25-26

  • Refer also to the introductory Public Service page.

  • Go to our Search page -- use your language and thinking skills to define useful search criteria

  • check the Ontario curriculum document and find the Civics expectations and related History expectations

The Scarboro Heights Loyalists, 1837

About three o’clock Mr. Frederick Stow arrived from Toronto City and personally gave a true narrative of the Rebellion. There was no longer any hesitation respecting the line of conduct to be adopted. Orders signed by Colonel Maclean were immediately dispatched to the different officers of the Scarborough Regiment of Militia, directing them to assemble what men and arms they could muster by six o’clock that evening [Dec. 5 1837] and either rendezvous at Mr. Gates’ Tavern or march directly onto Toronto City. In the meantime Colonel Maclean and myself agreed that he should collect what men and arms he could on the Kingston road... Thus we were undoubtedly the first Militia that came from any Township to the assistance of Toronto City.

The Palladium, March 21 1838, as printed in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments V1 #3.


Milk Producers Find a Leader, 1892

April 18: Fine day. Sowed barley all day. Went up to the milk meeting at Wexford at night with Geo. Formed an assoc. $1.00. Vice President. Chairman of meeting.

April 19: Fine day. Finished barley field about five o’clock. Started oats. Went to milk meeting at Cook’s with Geo. To be same price as last year. Set 4 hens at night 15 eggs each.

Diary of Alexander McCowan, 1892


That a hearty vote of thanks be tendered to Mr. Alex McCowan, the retiring Secretary, for his faithful and efficient service to the association for so many years.

From Clarke, Toronto Milk Producers’ Association, p. 9 re the Executive Meeting of the Toronto Milk Producers’ Association, Sept. 8 1906


Rarely was a Martin family decision of consequence made without first consulting with Alex McCowan.

Robert Martin as told to Bruce McCowan,1980


The War Effort on the Home Front, 1917-1918

I went to church this morning with Jennie and Harold and what do you think? The most delightful surprise, a letter, was ly­ing in our seat addressed to me. And when I opened it, two ten dollar bills dropped out accompanied by a note which read “to help buy leather mits for No. 1 Construction Battalion, Alex Stirling and family”. She rang for more wool the other day and I told her that you said to ask any of the folks who were sending parcels to put in leather mits. And I said that perhaps the auxiliary would use some of their money to send mits. I think I will add more to the twenty and send the mits to you for your company. They won't go very far over the whole battalion, but if the auxiliary wants to, they can send more.

Ruth McCowan Letters, January 7 1917


Papa was at the Council meeting today and Mr. Stewart told him that Knox Sunday School had given a concert and raised about forty dollars that they wanted to spend on the Battalion, and to ask me to find out what they needed most and to write to Mrs. Tom Weir and tell her. I think I will advise them to send mits. Probably by the time you get the mits you will be needing something else. If you would tell me from time to time what your men are most in need of, I may be able to do a little towards keeping them a bit more comfortable. The people seem to be very willing and anxious to do what they can for the 127th as they always call them. George Scott said to me Sunday, “My, Jack was lucky to get in with the 127th”. I said, “The 127th was lucky to get Jack.” He has had a dreadful cold. Grippe he calls it.

Ruth McCowan Letters, January 7 1917


I have been downtown today to meet some of the Agincourt ladies who were in buying comforts for some of your men. They bought among other things, six dozen pair of mits and I got another ten dozen pair that I am going to mail to you for your men in A Company. The Agincourt ladies intend to pack a parcel for each of seventy-two boys and make them into a bale and address to Geordie Little for his platoon and the rest of the Scarborough fellows. I thought you could spread the other ten dozen among the rest of your men as you see fit, with the exception of Jimmie Stirling, and I would like you to give him a pair personally. His Father gave me twenty dollars to help buy them, and I would feel badly if their boy did not get a pair.

Ruth McCowan Letters, January 10 1917


Willie Heron is going to be married on Wednesday. The Government has sent out registration cards to all men between 18 and 65. His grandfather who is 91 got one and filled it out and sent it in. He is a better sport than Bill, eh?

Ruth McCowan Letters, January 14 1917


We are having a sale on the 10th February of home made cooking. We are almost out of money again. The mits are taking a lot of money. We are going to make 1100 pairs. Mamma and I made 10 pairs this afternoon. I don’t like doing them because the canvas is so stiff to turn. My fingers are sore tonight, they feel as if I had frozen them. We are mailing now the socks to you as we get them too. We have 400 pairs on the way to you. The first hundred pair left us last November, and we have [now] just been notified that they have left Halifax. It is too bad, we are quite disappointed.

Ruth McCowan Letters, January 31 1917


We sent off our hundred pairs of socks yesterday, and hope they get there safely. The Scarborough Mothers are becoming quite interested in us, so I expect we will accomplish more with more workers.

Ruth McCowan Letters, June 17 1917


They have received a cable stating that Bud Sisley has been located in a German prison camp. Max Sisley caused great excitement at Scarborough Fair by dropping down in his aeroplane. Some of the flyers who come out over us are very venturesome. They will loop the loop, or go up to very high heights and then stop their engine and let the machine drop, then start it again.

Ruth McCowan Letters, September 30 1917


Ashley went in and signed up and was examined. He is in A2 which means fit in every way without military training. A1 is fit with military training. So we don’t know whether he will be called up to go or not, but think probably he will. They are leaving one man on every hundred acres. So likely they will consider Harold and Papa enough to work this farm. It falls pretty heavy on the ones that are left. I can tell you the three of them worked very hard all summer.

Ruth McCowan Letters, October 28 1917


Ashley has been exempted until the second draft is called. I think all of the farmers are left until the married men are called.

Ruth McCowan Letters, November 20 1917


Our Auxiliary are still making mits. Have sent over 800 but we are out of funds and not allowed to do anything to raise more. The Government has taken all Red Cross and Patriotic workers in hand. There is a lot of red tape to go through before our society can become registered, and if there is very much expense we will have to quit. Books must be kept so that they may be audited. It seems some of the societies are spending a great deal of money to make a little. For instance, one bazaar brought in $1200 but the expenses were $1000. While we have been at no expense whatever, our rooms are rent-free and everything has been donated, so it doesn’t seem fair that we should have to come under the Patriotic League. And if we have to send our things through them, we will quit because it takes too long to get what we make into the proper hands. However, we haven’t interviewed them yet so probably it will be all right and we can go on as usual.

Ruth McCowan Letters, February 18 1918


Everybody between the ages of 16 and 60 have to register, so I don’t know what the government is up to now. Perhaps they will send me over to France. Can you suggest any sphere in which I might be of use over there? How would you like me for a batman? Ethel Thomson’s husband has been very badly wounded, one foot was off and he had to have his right arm amputated. I don’t think they were getting along very well, because he enlisted as a single man, and she couldn’t get her separation allowance or patriotic money for a long time, and she had it pretty hard for awhile.

Ruth McCowan Letters, April 24 1918


Ashley has to go before a judge in a couple of weeks. Nearly all the boys around here have to go to train in November, even those who are all alone on the farm like Harry Morgan, Jim Bell, Allan Green, Will D. Thomson. While other whole families are left because they happen to be over the age limit, like McKeans. They have six boys, five at home. Isn’t it absurd?

Ruth McCowan Letters, July 14 1918


We are trying to get an electric range but the Toronto Electric people don’t want to give us the power, as they are using so much for munitions. It would make very little difference for all the extra we would use. We will know in a few days whether they will let us have it or not... We are living on fish these days. Papa went down for fish on Friday and we told him to bring a salmon each for Harold and us. In order to get those, he had to take five lake catfish. So we have been fed up on fish. Ashley has to go before a judge tomorrow to see how long he is to be allowed to remain on the farm before reporting for duty. Most of the boys have been allowed until November 1. I don’t know how they would manage here if he should have to go now. They have all been working very hard and all of the farmers around are short-handed. If they conscript the farmers they should also conscript all the retired farmers and send them to help on the farm instead of the school boys. John Loveless has two boys, 14 years old, delicate looking city boys, and he pays them $20 a month and their board. That is all the help he has and the other day his horses ran away and he is laid up himself. Other farmers I could mention are working big farms with one boy to assist, or some have farmerettes. We had a discharged soldier here today selling small ware, and tonight Will Scott came along looking for him. He thought he might be a fraud. Margaret said “If I had known he was a soldier, I would have told him not to touch him, he might be my Dad.”

Ruth McCowan Letters, July 18 1918


Papa is a judge in the standing crop competition this year and is away to Bobcaygeon for the rest of this week, so we are running this ranch all by ourselves. Ashley has decided to enlist as soon as the harvest is in. I think he is thinking of trying to get into the mechanical part of something, perhaps the Flying Corps.

Ruth McCowan Letters, July 31 1918


I was over assisting Mrs. Rea this afternoon. They were entertaining the returned soldiers of College St. Hospital. There must have been a hundred of them. They enjoyed themselves to the full and they had all sorts of amuse-ments for their entertainment. One poor fellow without either leg asked if he might have a horse to ride. So there were two at their disposal and he rode one. It is marvellous the things they can do. And eat! Mercy me, but they stowed away a lot of sandwiches and tea. I was afraid they would drown themselves with it. It is lovely down there. It is just the place to entertain a crowd like that. Tomorrow night the War Auxiliary of St. Andrew’s Church are having a garden party on John Walton’s lawn. They are having a Hawaiian orchestra with eight musicians. Margaret and I may go to the opening of the Ex with Papa on Monday afternoon. Papa is one of the representatives from York , so he and lady are admitted to everything.

Ruth McCowan Letters, August 21 1918


Casualties are very heavy, seven columns in last night’s paper. There were two McCowans in the list one day, one from Manitoba , the other from Edmonton. I was wondering if he would be the tailor from Banff.

Ruth McCowan Letters, August 28 1918


A Hero Makes The Supreme Sacrifice, 1916

Pte. R.E. Stobo, formerly of Scarboro Township, who enlisted in British Columbia, has been killed in action. He had been in the trenches fourteen months and up to the time of his death had never received an injury. While under fire at one time he was buried by the explosion of a shell, but a comrade dug him out and in a few minutes another shell buried his comrade, who in turn, was dug out by Pte. Stobo.

Undated news clipping, Janet P. McCowan collection


Laying a Foundation for the Scarborough Museum

Just wanted to tell you how some of the money was acquired to help move the Cornell House to Thomson Park in 1962 (besides the donations from the Lions’ Club, Kiwanis and others). This was unique. This is the story of a Community Day arranged by a community committee. It was held in about 1922 on the south-east corner of Kingston Road and Markham Road (the latter only a trail to the lake) on J.G. Cornell’s field.

Ball games, sports, horseshoe pitching and races took place. Afternoon tea was served by the Lakeview Women’s Institute Branch. The committee was composed of J.G. Cornell, W.D. Annis and Robert McCowan. The funds from that special day netted around $500.00, so it was duly deposited in the Bank in charge of the three trustees, namely Cornell, Annis and McCowan.

There never seemed to be another occasion for the money to be used through the roaring twenties, at least that seemed worthwhile, so interest was being added. Mr. Cornell passed away, so did W.D. Annis, and later so did Robert McCowan. It eventually came to be that Albert Campbell (J.G. Cornell's nephew and the Township Reeve in the early 60s) and Harold McCowan (son of Robert) were the only ones left to handle the account. When they were talking of moving the Cornell House, they figured now is the time to use that money to help move the house. It would be more permanent than some of the little projects. This made quite a reasonable gift to the people of the Township.

Janet Purdie McCowan, in Stories of... the Front Road


Elections, a New Right to Vote, and “Secret” Ballots, 1917

Papa does not have to worry about the election this year again. Most of the council have been elected by acclamation. Arthur Mitchel wanted to run, so for that reason there will be an election for council. It is too bad as it will cost the township one hundred and fifty dollars or more, and at this time money is needed so badly for many purposes that are necessary.

Ruth McCowan Letters, December 27 1916

When Mr. McCowan was Reeve of the Township, he would never sign a cheque unless he knew every precise detail.

Miss Palk, who worked in the Township office with Robert McCowan, as told to Bruce McCowan, 1983


Our Institute meeting was quite a success. We fed 35 hungry folks. The topic was “Equal Franchise”. The speaker was Mrs. Hamilton, suffragette. She was a splendid speaker and very interesting. I tried to coax Papa in where he could hear without being seen, but he didn’t want to hear. Barb Grant sang a couple of selections. She and her brothers are going out to Markham some place to farm.

Ruth McCowan Letters, January 7 1917


Well, I voted. Mr. Jackson was there. He gave out the ballots and showed you how to do it. There were: Ballantyne - Labor Candidate; Cockburn - Soldier Candidate; Foster - Unionist. Mr. Jackson said “You know how to do this Ruth? You just put a cross in the space here”, pointing after Foster’s name. I said, “if I want to put the X after either of the others, I suppose it will be all right?” “Oh! -- yes.” He looked rather astonished at me.

Ruth McCowan Letters, December 17 1917


Obligations of Youth

My memories of Bill McCowan go back to the 1930s at SS #9 ( Scarboro Village School ). We went through school at the same time and played baseball etc. there. On one occasion, Bill arrived at school with dirty hands and singed eyebrows. He explained to me that they had found a grass fire along the fence line on Bellamy Road . They did their civic duty and stopped to put it out.

Dennis W. Phillips, 1992 (Bill and Nancy McCowan Anniversary Album)


Scarborough ’s Response to The Fenian Threat

...The excellency of the discipline displayed in the performance of some very difficult movements, and his appreciation of the exertions made by both officers and men in attaining their present proficiency...

Inspection of the Scarboro Rifles by Col. George  Denison, Jan. 3 1863, as printed in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments, V. 7 #1


It may not be generally known that this [Scarboro Volunteer Militia Rifle Company] is the only Rifle Company in the County of York ... and the senior Volunteer Company in the same county. Indeed there are but four companies in the three Ridings of York ...

Letter to the Editor of the Markham Economist, Sept. 17 1863, as printed in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments, V. 7 #1


Jim McCowan, War Veteran at 16, 1866

The men have cut down a maple in the bush down by the lake, and they found a bees nest in it, and I had to extract the honey from the comb. And with what they ate, there would easily be ten pounds. They said about three quarters of the cells were empty. It would have been quite a find last fall, only I suppose they would have had to fight the bees. Ashley said the nest was about four feet long...We heard last week that Uncle Jim McCowan has a new son, isn’t that the limit?

Ruth McCowan Letters, March 24 1918


We were studying the Fenian Raids, and I put up my hand and said “My Daddy fought in that war”. The teacher said I had to be lying and kept me in after school. When he insisted that I apologize, I said I couldn’t do that because I really was telling the truth. I suggested that he come home and see my Mother. We just lived a block from the school. The teacher came along and I explained to mother that my teacher didn’t believe my Daddy had fought in the Fenian war. Mother looked around the open door and said, “do you want to see his discharge papers?” That settled it.

Norman McCowan, (b. 1918 when his father was 68 years old), in M. Carr, James McCowan Family from 1833, p. 46


Enormous Community Support for War Veterans, 1900

Grand old Township of Scarboro Turns out to Honor the Veterans of ’66 and Present them with Medals. Dr. Parkin delivers a stirring speech. The Passion of the Nation Aroused... Today the medals were presented to the surviving veterans of the Fenian Raid in the Mammoth Hall of Malvern... the proceedings showed that the people of the district, when they take up anything, know how to make it an unqualified success. Mammoth Hall seats over 400 people and every seat was occupied...

Feb. 14, 1900, newsclipping in the Pherrill Scrapbook


Application for Grant of Land: Fenian Raid, Feb 18 1903

1. a) Rank of Applicant at time of service and name in full: James Archibald McCowan

    b) Present residence and postoffice address: Keewatin, Ontario

    c) Occupation: Mechanical Engineer

2. Time and Place of Enlistment: Township of Scarboro , Riding of East York, Ontario, in the month of May 1866

3. Name of corps or independent company, battery or squadron: Scarboro Rifle

4. Name and rank of Commanding Officer: Norris, Captain

5. Period (and place) during which active service was performed: 1866; Fort Erie and Port Colborne , Ont.

Applications for Grant of Land, Fenian Raid, Ontario Archives, RG1 C-VII-2


Individual Exercises

1) For what should Alex McCowan be most remembered? Explain.

2) In 100 words, describe the war effort in Scarborough, 1917-1918.

Guest Speaker, Class Discussion and Editorial Team

1) Discuss the nature of “civic duty” and “public service”.

2) Discuss the importance of voting and the manner in which it is conducted.

3) Discuss the level of community support and recognition for the Veterans in 1900. Could there have been any particular reason for that level of support then? Compare to community support for veterans today. Who is responsible for giving veterans proper recognition? Invite a World War 2 veteran to speak to the class about his or her personal experiences. Ask questions and discuss in class. Appoint an editorial team of three students to write a 500 word paper based on the guest’s personal experiences, other resources and your class discussion. Include concluding remarks and your list of contextual resources.

Research, Analysis, Writing Assignment: Milk Marketing Board

1) Using any available resources (including people), describe the role of the Ontario Milk Marketing Board (now Dairy Farmers of Ontario). Has the board supported the family farm in Ontario? If so, how? What is the future of the milk marketing board and why do you think this is so? What do you think is the future of the Ontario Dairy industry? Output the results of your analysis to a 300 word essay. List your resources -- both who and what.  

The Scarboro Heights Record V14 #4


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