Historicist: Building a History
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Historicist: Building a History

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Image of the York Pioneers En Route to the Exhibition Grounds from the York Pioneer and Historical Society Annual Report and List of Members (1909)

On the morning of Friday, August 15, 1879, the elderly gentlemen members of the York Pioneers met at Rennie’s Seed Store on Adelaide Street. They climbed aboard a large farm wagon laden with tree limbs and—after a brief pause for a photograph with banners waving—the driver set the oxen in motion. “The unusual spectacle,” The Evening Telegram reported, “created astonishment and amusement among beholders” along their route down King Street, as they made their way to the city’s just-opened Exhibition grounds, where the historical society was engaged in a construction project.
As part of the city’s first Industrial Exhibition, the Pioneers were using old-fashioned tools and techniques to erect two log cabins near the old Fort Rouillé site. One, which became known as the Pioneers’ Cabin, was built of new material. The other was a reconstruction of a cabin located on a society member’s farm, to be built of the original, antique materials. A relic contemporaneous to John Graves Simcoe’s time as governor, this structure became popularly known as the Simcoe Cabin. But it is now better—and more accurately—known as the Scadding Cabin.
The efforts of the York Pioneers were motivated in large part because of an acute sense of loss. The elderly Pioneers had themselves all been early settlers—as membership in the society was strictly limited to men who’d been resident here prior to March 1834. They’d seen York grow from a fledgling village, important only as a seat of government, into a bustling industrial and commercial centre, renamed Toronto. With economic progress and urbanization, however, the log cabin was rapidly disappearing from the Toronto landscape beneath an architecture of masonry. In the absence of government initiatives in Toronto or across North America, it fell to private organizations to carry the banner of preservation. In so doing, the York Pioneers preserved what is now the oldest building in Toronto.

CNE opening, 1907. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 272A.

The foundation of the York Pioneers, the province’s first history society, mirrored the rise of local historical societies across the continent during roughly the same time period. In April 1869, a meeting between three businessmen and friends—Richard H. Oates, Alexander Hamilton, and W.B. Phipps—led to the creation of the society, as one of their official publications would later record, “for the purpose of keeping alive these remembrances of a primitive day, and making further collections of them, ere yet they should become altogether dissipated and lost.”
At around the same time, public lectures and writings in local publications by the likes of Dr. Henry Scadding—later the president of the York Pioneers from 1880 to 1898—had piqued public interest in historical topics and awareness that the city’s early personages and way of life might be forgotten. So the York Pioneers—incorporated as the York Pioneer and Historical Society in 1891—found an enthusiastic audience. In their early years, the society busied themselves with the collection of archival documents, and the recollection of memorable incidents at meetings and in publications.
Their activities broadened to preservation in 1879 when one of the society’s members, John Smith, offered the Pioneers a log cabin that had been on land Smith’s family had acquired in 1818-1819. The Pioneers accepted. It’s not clear whether Smith was aware of the origins of the house he now used as one of his farm buildings. Or whether, since it dated to Simcoe’s time, Smith family lore simply fancied that the governor himself must have built it as a hunting lodge or for some other purpose.

York Pioneers’ building, Exhibition, (Commercial Department), August 2, 1928. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 6099.

Henry Scadding, who as the city’s first eminent historian was a stickler for historical accuracy, took pains to enlighten the membership. The “lowly edifice of hewn logs, erected before the close of the last century”—as he described the cabin in Toronto of Old (1873)—had been his own father’s early settler home. John Scadding, his father, had been John Graves Simcoe’s trusted adviser who managed Wolford, Simcoe’s Devonshire estate. When Simcoe came to govern Upper Canada, John Scadding followed and continued to manage Simcoe’s personal affairs. Granted 253 acres south of present-day Danforth Avenue, between the east bank of the Don River and present-day Broadview Avenue, John Scadding erected a small log cabin in fulfilment of the terms of the deed. The first cabin soon burned, and in 1794 a second small house of squared logs was erected near the bank of the river just south of Queen Street. It is this second cabin that now sits on the CNE grounds.
Ill-health forced Simcoe back to Wolford in 1796, and again John Scadding—now in his forties—followed. He left his lands in Upper Canada in the care of his neighbour, George Playter, whose son moved into the cabin with his wife. John Scadding soon married and reared three sons, and after Simcoe’s passing he returned to York in 1818. Seeking a larger home for his family’s arrival, he sold his land and buildings south of Queen to William Smith.

Henry Scadding was unsuccessful in debunking the cabin’s association with Simcoe in local lore. It remained colloquially known as the Simcoe Cabin into the 1920s, even after the York Pioneers officially rechristened it the Scadding Cabin in 1901. It was not until 1951 that historical research showed incontrovertibly that Scadding’s father had built it. Perhaps the persistence of the Simcoe myth was a result of a need to commemorate structures associated with heroic figures, just as during this same period in the United States the nascent preservation movement preserved shrines to George Washington. As well, in erecting the cabins to be the major historical site of the new Exhibition grounds, the York Pioneers were following the precedents of International Expositions in the 1860s and 1870s. As a paean to the disappearing west, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, for example, featured not only a western cabin and artifacts, but also costumed hunters demonstrating their frontier lifestyle.
The construction project actually began the day before the ox-wagon parade. On August 14, 1879, “the indefatigable York Pioneers,” as the Globe described them, “commenced laying the foundation and getting the bottom logs in their places.” Using only antiquated tools, like “skids, hand pikes, crotches and axes,” the elderly gentlemen raised the structures five logs high before calling it a day.
Returning the following day, the Pioneers rolled up their sleeves and continued their work before a crowd of curiosity-seekers. By evening, with both structures only requiring rafters and roofing, the Pioneers christened the buildings. John Smith—who’d been charged with overseeing the reconstruction of the Scadding Cabin—and the other foreman broke bottles over their respective structures, and R.H. Oates sounded a cannon before the men rode the ox-wagon back to the city. Another day’s work finished the structures.
On September 12, 1879 The Globe recalled the construction scene: “The old men who undertook the task…have shown that, although their limbs are stiffened with age, they are still capable of performing work, which, if imposed on young men, would make them ‘wish they never were born.'”
Even as whitewashing and other finishing touches were being completed in early September to make the cabins ready to receive a collection of household antiquities and interior decorations, Henry Scadding complained that the reconstructed cabin was missing a seven foot section of it formerly located at the southern end.
The Pioneers’ Cabin, according to Jeanine Avigdor in The Scadding Cabin 1794 (York Pioneer and Historical Society, [1994] 2006), was intended to display disparate pieces of “furniture and household equipment of the previous era,” as well as to host public lectures and meetings. But it had been constructed of green timber so within a few seasons it had deteriorated badly and was torn down. Like other historic house museums of the era, it was intended as “a three-dimensional historic document which exists (or has been recreated) to teach a history lesson,” as William J. Murtagh writes in Keeping Time (John Wiley & Sons, 1997).

J.A. Northey, president of the CNE Association, outside Scadding Cabin with a group in historical costume, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3905.

By mid-century, the cabin was furnished largely as it is now, with the comforts of a settler’s early home including, as Avigdor noted, “two spinning wheels and a wool winder, bread and butter making equipment, a candle mold, and utensils for cooking on an open hearth.”
On the exterior, an imitation draw well and nearby old time oven added to the verisimilitude of an early settlement. At one time the exterior grounds also included an old buggy and ox yoke, a Red River cart, and a fire engine. Each was later removed. A fence around Scadding Cabin, built of antique logs donated by Smith, was also later removed. A replacement was built in 1969.
The cabin was whitewashed again around 1909 and regularly painted afterwards by Exhibition staff—to the apparent chagrin of the Pioneers—until at least the 1950s. The cabin’s shingles have been replaced, as have some logs suffering the damage of carpenter ants and dry rot. Landscaping features completed the site to its present appearance.
Each year since that time, costumed York Pioneer and Historical Society volunteers have staffed the Scadding Cabin presenting the history of the cabin and the history of the settler era—as they will again at this year’s CNE.
The author thanks Stephen Otto for assistance with sources. Other sources consulted include: Ned Kaufman, Place, Race, and Story (Routledge, 2009); Frank Norman Walker, Sketches of Old Toronto (Longmans Canada Limited 1975).