Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
It’s time to go back to school, and for some students that will mean returning to the halls of Jesse Ketchum Junior and Senior Public School.
The school was founded in the 1850s, although the current building dates to 1920. As the name suggests, the school was made possible by Jesse Ketchum, a tanner who became known as the “children’s friend” for his philanthropy. He donated the land to the Village of Yorkville to build a “Free and Common School” and a park, now also named after him, in 1856.
Born in 1782, Ketchum wasn’t originally from Toronto, but he moved here at 17 to escape an abusive foster home. His mother died when he was six; he’d been living with his foster parents since. One of the problems he had with them was that they didn’t want him to go to school. His brother Seneca had moved to Toronto, then called York, in 1796 and had a farm north of the city.
Ketchum likely learned the tanning trade from his foster parents. Around 1812, he bought a tanning business from an American who was leaving the country to avoid fighting on the British side of the War of 1812. Luckily, leather was in demand during the war. Ketchum fought too—with the 3rd Regiment of the York Militia.
Ketchum became wealthy enough over the years to buy land (and to afford to give it away). He owned a chunk of land between King and Queen and Yonge and Bay, which includes the current Cloud Gardens and Temperance Street. A strict Methodist, Ketchum named the street himself. In 1813 or 1814, he built a house near his tannery, which John Ross Robertson, in Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, described as “a large American style home considered a mansion in the early days of York.” The house included a small turret where, reportedly, Ketchum could watch the ships in the harbour.
He was also, some say, the first to introduce sidewalks to the city when he laid down some bark on muddy Yonge Street to help people get in and out of his tanning business. Apart from this great gift, keeping the shoes of Torontonians clean, he also donated money to churches, including Toronto’s first Methodist chapel in 1818 and what became Knox Church in 1820, and schools (and he built a temperance hall).
He even got the nickname “Father Ketchum” for his special attention to education (although he did have nine children of his own from two wives). According to the 1982 Toronto Historical Board plaque at the school that bears his name, he first gave land for a school in 1832 at McMurrich Avenue and Davenport Road, and then again in 1956 at Bay and Davenport, where Jesse Ketchum Public School is located.
After the failed rebellion of Upper Canada in 1837, Ketchum, who was a reformer but disagreed with William Lyon Mackenzie’s violent plan, moved his tannery to Buffalo. That was where his son William lived.
Ketchum’s land in Toronto was very valuable, but he left it to the children from his first marriage in 1845. In Buffalo, 12 schools and a street were named after him. He also donated money to support cholera patients during an 1849 epidemic and to the families of soldiers during the Civil War.
To the delight of visiting children, his house in Buffalo included a miniature replica of the train running from the city to Niagara Falls.
Ketchum died in 1867 after catching a chill on his way to visit one of the schools he supported.
Did you like this article? Do you love Torontoist? Support articles like this by becoming one of the first Torontoist subscribers. Get great perks and fund local journalism that makes a difference—join Raccoon Nation now.