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The York Pioneer & Historical Society: A Grand Tradition

The York Pioneer and Historical Society, the oldest historical society in Ontario has a long and proud history beginning on April 17, 1869, with a gathering of gentlemen at the Mechanics’ Institute, at the corner of Church and Adelaide Streets in Toronto.  A few months later the York Pioneers Association was founded under the leadership of Richard Oates, with Colonel Richard Lippincott Denison as the first president.  The membership fee was $l.00 and limited to gentlemen who lived in Toronto when it was still the Town of York, and who were nominated and seconded by adherents in good standing.  The purpose of the York Pioneers was “to keep alive reminiscences of a primitive day and of making collections of them before they became lost”.

Within the first decade the Pioneers were doing much more than “keeping reminiscences alive” for, when they learned that the farmhouse built in 1794 on the Don River near present day Queen Street by John Scadding, ( Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s estate manager) was to be demolished, they went into action.  They received permission to dismantle, remove and reconstruct the log building in August of 1879 on the grounds of the first Industrial Exhibition, now the Canadian National Exhibition.  It was furnished with artifacts donated by the Pioneers and descendants of other local families and opened as a museum.  The second Thursday of the Industrial Exhibition each year was designated “Pioneers and Old Settlers’ Day” with special programmes and demonstrations of skills and crafts that their ancestors, those early settlers in York and York Township, would have needed to survive and prosper.

The Pioneers were also recognized by having their flag flown on St. Lawrence Hall and having it lowered to half staff when a member passed away.  It was in this Hall in 1872 that the Pioneers, along with representatives of the few, scattered local pioneer and patriotic groups met and formed the United Canadian Association, the second attempt to form a provincial historical society.  It was almost three decades before The Ontario Historical Society emerged, and was incorporated in 1888, the successful result of these early efforts.


York Pioneers gather in front of Scadding Cabin, September 3rd 1904

In 1891 the Pioneers became incorporated as a non-profit corporation with the name York Pioneer and Historical Society, and for the first time accepted lady members. Among the first was Sarah Anne Curzon, who along with Mary Agnes FitzGibbon went on to form the Woman’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto in 1895 with the motto “Deeds Speak”.

The Temple of Peace was built by the Children of Peace under the leadership of David Willson in the Village of Sharon between 1825 and 1832, and served the congregation until the 1880s.  By the early years of the 20th century the building was virtually derelict, and on June 4, 1918 the Society had the foresight to purchase Sharon Temple and the 3 ½ acres of land immediately around it for $1,500, thus saving this architectural gem for posterity.  Over the years several other buildings associated with the Children of Peace sere moved to the site and restored as well, resulting in this unique complex of buildings hosting thousands of visitors over the years.  In 1991 the museum was transferred to the Sharon Temple Museum Society, with a member of the York Pioneer and Historical Society serving of the Board of the Museum Society.

Eversley  Presbyterian Church, located on Dufferin Street north of the King Side Road, was built in 1848.  When it was no longer needed to serve the local congregation, it was purchased by Lady Eaton who presented it to the Society in 1967.  Over the years it has been used to host meetings, special events, receptions, weddings, Christmas candlelight services and family reunions, as well as being part of the Doors Open King programme each year.  In 2008 this fine stone building was in need of structural repair and the extensive work was undertaken and successfully completed.

Through the years, the Society’s flagship publication The York Pioneer has carried well researched articles and reminiscences of historical interest that are both readable and accessible.  Under the dedicated editorship of Jeanine Cameron Avigdor, Volume 104, will soon be published in 2009.

In January of 1953 the first issue of the York Pioneer Bulletin, edited by John Moir appeared.  President William Edward Hanna urged the members to research and write short articles, brief notes about events, places and people for the modest leaflet, and so assist the Bulletin to grow.  From this humble beginning, The Update, has emerged.  Published six times annually, this colourful, lively newsletter brings items of interest about the Society and the larger heritage community.

The Society continues, as it has for over a century, to hold regular meetings with a variety of programmes at various locations in and around the City of Toronto and the historic County of York.  Bus trips and walking tours featuring neighbourhoods and communities of historic interest are organized each year;  an Annual Dinner with an outstanding guest speaker is always a popular event.  

The York Pioneer and Historical Society, because of its long and illustrious history has been a focal point for historians, researchers, museum curators and interested individuals wanting to learn more about our past for over 140 years.  From its inception, with a membership of First Nations and newcomers, concern for collecting, researching, preserving and conserving collections of artifacts, publishing the rich history of Ontario, supporting new historical societies, providing information from its archival holdings, owning and operating important museums, the Society has made outstanding contributions to the heritage world and for that we should all be grateful.