Tag Archive | Ontario

Sensing the Past

Canada #23 Fort York

When we first saw the historic buildings of Fort York surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto, the early 19th century defenses seemed out of place. It made more sense when we discovered that the city, originally named York, was founded here.

The first garrison was built on this site in 1793 by the British Army, in response to border hostilities with American forces. In 1811 it was fortified with the addition of the defensive wall and circular gun battery.

In 1812, the United States declared war on Canada and in 1813 the American Army and Navy attacked York. Much of the fort was destroyed at this time, but it was soon rebuilt by the British. In August 1814, a second American attack was unsuccessful. The war between Canada and the United States finally ended in December 1814 but Fort York remained an active military site until the 1930s.

Today the fort is a living history museum, with displays, exhibitions and re-enactments which heightened all of our senses.

We saw both the officers’ quarters and the enlisted men’s barracks. In the barracks soldiers, who were often accompanied by their families, lived side by side, eating and sleeping together.

In contrast, the officers dined in luxury with fine china, silverware and crystal. Probably even more precious in this building was the luxury of space.

Like the soldiers of the Guard’s Artillery Detachment, we covered our ears with our hands as the Cohorn mortar field gun was fired at midday.

We heeded the call of the Fort York Drums as they marched onto the parade ground. Wearing the uniform of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry, the fifers and drummers played military tunes which would have been both familiar and comforting to 19th century soldiers.

We followed the scent of baking to the kitchen of the Officers’ Mess, where freshly baked gingerbread was cooling on the table.

While she shared the biscuits, the cook explained how these traditional treats are as popular now as they would have been in the early 1800s – there are never any left at the end of the day!

As we rested our hands on the kitchen table, we wondered about those who lived and worked here 200 years ago; who lifted the latch on the fortified gate, watched over the cooking in the open fireplace or dipped rainwater from the barrel with a bucket.

While we had time to wander in contemplation, we sensed we were surrounded by more than just those modern buildings outside the wall. The spirits of people from times long past were all around us.

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Welcome to 1867!

Canada #22 Black Creek Pioneer Village

In a quiet place far from Toronto’s bustling CBD, a little cemetery sits beside a mill pond. On an overcast day the pond mirrors its surroundings in a perfect reflection.

In the middle of the cemetery is a memorial to the Stong family, who migrated from Pennsylvania in 1800 to start a new life in Ontario. Daniel Stong and his wife Elizabeth both lie at rest here in the cemetery.

On the other side of the pond is a flour mill, dating from 1842 and nearby is a whole village of mid-19th century buildings. Of all these old buildings, the only ones original to the site are those which Daniel and Elizabeth built.

Black Creek Pioneer Village, in the Toronto suburb of North York, has grown around the Stong family farm as historic buildings from elsewhere in Ontario have been added to the collection. Some have been moved here complete, while others have been reconstructed after being carefully dismantled at their original sites.

Many of the old buildings are 19th century stores where, like the original occupants, modern artisans practise traditional crafts. They are passing their knowledge onto a new generation keen to keep the old skills alive.

Others are small museums, with their tools of the trade left as if the crafters will return for a new day. The village is a time capsule, set in 1867.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, chickens wander where they please and sheep and goats graze in the field near the barn Daniel Stong built in 1825.

Two farm houses sit side by side next to the mill pond. The first, a simple three room log cabin, was built by Daniel and Elizabeth in 1816. Here they raised eight children before moving in 1832 to a new, two storey home next door. Their second home is much grander, evidence of their hard work and resulting prosperity. Elizabeth must have been delighted with her beautiful new home after living for 16 years in the cabin. It became a hen house and storage shed.  

Daniel died in 1868, one year after the time in which the pioneer village is set. If he returned now the little stores, the peaceful mill pond and his 19th century neighbours going about their daily tasks might all look quite familiar.

I wonder what would he think if he stepped beyond its boundaries into 21st century Toronto?

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