Our Open History series continues with Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change, from Dundurn Press.
Read on after the following description for a Q & A with the author.
Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change (from Dundurn):
How Toronto’s own city farms were crowded out...
First settled in the early nineteenth century, the area now known as Don Mills retained its rural character until the end of the Second World War. After the war, population growth resulted in pressure to develop the area around Toronto and, in a relatively short time, the landscape of Don Mills was irreparably altered.
Today, the farms are all gone, as are almost all of the barns and farmhouses. Fields and forests have been replaced by the industries, homes, and shops of Canada’s “first subdivision.” In Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change, author Scott Kennedy remembers Don Mills as it was and takes great care to make sure that the farms and farmers are not forgotten.
Tell us a bit about your book and how it came to be.
My latest book — Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change — is the second in a series of four books intended to tell the stories of the farms of North York. The first book —Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy — was published by Dundurn in 2013. The third book, on the farms of York Mills, includes E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm and is already written. The final book, on the farms of Downsview, is half-finished. Even with four books, it has been impossible to tell the stories of all the farms. There were just too many of them, so I was forced to narrow the list down to those that had been best remembered by previous books, photos, magazines and newspaper clippings.
My original intention was to write one book on all the farms in North York, but Rob Leverty of the Ontario Historical Society wisely persuaded the Dundurn publishing board that this topic was much too big for one book.
What drew you to write about this important historical subject?
I didn’t really want to write any books. I just wanted to borrow one from the North York Central Library on the local farms I remembered as a boy, but the library staff told me that no such book existed. They kindly directed me to their treasure trove of old photos, newspaper clippings and land transaction records and suggested that maybe I could find enough material to satisfy my curiosity. Much of this material had been meticulously compiled over the years by the North York Historical Society and was so compelling that it wasn’t long before I was spending every Friday afternoon in the old sixth floor Canadiana section, collecting as much information as my photo-copy budget would allow. After several months, the staff began to suggest that a book on the local farms might be well received and that I should consider taking the project on. Ten years later, I sent some sample chapters and photos to Dundurn, who took a big chance on a first-time writer.
What were the challenges in capturing your subject through this medium?
It’s challenging to present history to an audience that has no particular interest in the topic, especially here in Toronto which is not a city that respects its history. I have tried to address some of the reasons for this in my book.
It is often hard to “sell” history to young people. A funny thing happens as we get older: we start to look back fondly on our past, which in my case, includes the memory of exploring nearby farms or seeing the Northern Lights from our backyard. Torontonians of the generations that followed mine have no such experiences in their cache of memories, so their interest is not as keen as mine. When we’re young, we’re mostly looking forward, but in this era of rapid-fire change, the present becomes the past very quickly. One only has to look to the famous Honest Ed’s sign; only thirty-three years old but already considered a piece of history.
I have tried to include descriptions of what it was like to be young in the pioneering farm communities and to include stories that relate to current issues like the “100 Mile Diet” but it’s a tough sell. I have spoken to a dozen or more historical societies and the chances of seeing anyone under the age of forty are slim. The incredible period photographs I have been able to include are probably the best weapon I have to catch the eyes of our visual society.
Another reality in a city like Toronto is the fact that many citizens are recent immigrants. I fully understand that many of these potential readers have more pressing matters on their hands than reading about local history, but I have also been encouraged by those who have shown their interest by stopping to talk to me at various events. Some had tales of farms back home. Others told me of how they too, had witnessed the disappearance of GTA farms since their arrival. I make it a point to emphasize, in all my books, that the farms of North York were all settled by immigrants from one place or another.
Why do you think it is important for contemporary readers to remember and reflect on Canadian history?
History is way of looking through the madness of the present to see the beauty of the past. Maybe it’s because I saw a pre-suburban Don Mills with my own eyes, but I can stand on a corner and actually “see” what used to be there before; and not only just scenes I actually witnessed but also ones that I have been able to re-construct with the photographs in my book. It is my hope that readers will be able to use these tools to enjoy a similar transference. It’s a lot easier to be stuck in traffic on the Don Valley Parkway when you can look around and picture where Charles Sauriol’s cottage used to be, or realize that everything on the east side between Lawrence Avenue and York Mills Road was once part of Maryvale Farm, or catch a glimpse of the last ghostly house in Milne’s Hollow.
I don’t think we’re smart enough to actually learn from history. We disprove that idea all the time. I think that history’s true value is the way it enables us to escape the present.
What impact did the Don Mills have on current Canadian culture?
The fall of the farms of Don Mills served as template for Canadian urban sprawl much as the suburb of Don Mills served as a template for Canadian subdivisions. When I was young, the urban/rural fringe was somewhere around Sheppard Avenue. Now it’s somewhere around Newmarket. Farms have been sacrificed on the altar of un-fettered population growth, which is apparently what we want, since no-one has done much to stop it.
Don Mills was touted as “Canada’s First Planned Community” when first created, and whether that was really true, I must admit that it was a well-planned community as these things go. You didn’t need a car to get to school or church or the shopping centre. Employment opportunities were plentiful and nearby. So, what impact did Don Mills have on current Canadian culture? More than you’d think, but not as much as it should have.
Scott Kennedy witnessed the farms surrounding his North York childhood home being planted with a new cash crop of buildings. He joined the Toronto Musicians’ Association in 1969, but never lost his passion for history. He traces the evolution of a Toronto neighbourhood in his book Willowdale. Scott lives in a Heritage Conservation District he helped create in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood.
Open History is an initiative to explore Ontario's past, one book at a time, sponsored by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization, Canada Council for the Arts, and The Ontario Arts Council. For older Open History posts, catalogued on our Open Book Explorer site, please click this link.