Many thanks to Joanne Doucette for her contributions to the History of Leslieville Joanne is a storyteller and local historian and human rights activist. Her new book, Leslieville, was self-published June 2016. She is innovating as an on-line historian and posts on the Leslieville Historical Society Facebook page, the Ashbridges Neighbourhood, Coxwell-Gerrard and Metis Nation of Ontario Facebook pages as well as her own website www.leslievillehistory.com.
Queen & Jones, the entrance to Leslie Grove - a small park in Toronto's East End? No mysteries, nothing much to say? But, if you listen the leaves of the ancient trees whisper, “We have secrets. We have stories. Wonder about the past and make the future wonderful.”
Long before the Leslies came to Leslieville, First Nations camped in the area. One encampment was on the grounds on Withrow Avenue on Holly or Heward Creek. Martin McKee who had a large sawmill near Brooklyn Avenue and Queen collected First Nations artefacts from the fields around Jones and Queen, evidence that native people camped in or near Leslie Grove.
Leslie Grove Park was part of George Leslie’s arboretum, Leslie’s Grove. Leslie’s Grove originally stretched south to the shore of Ashbridges Bay south of Eastern Avenue. George Leslie was a pioneering nurseryman who promoted the Toronto Horticultural Society, Allan Gardens, the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, and the Ontario Fruit Growers Association.
Though a Presbyterian, George Leslie was a nephew of prominent Methodist preacher, the Reverend John Beatty. Egerton Ryerson and John Beatty founded the Upper Canada Academy. It became Victoria College, now part of the University of Toronto. George Leslie purchased the Leslie Grove land from John Beatty not long after the nurseryman moved here from England, in 1842.
Though George Leslie did not wander from place to place dropping apple seeds like Johnny Appleseed, he was responsible for many orchards as well as trees along city streets, in cemeteries, Queen’s Park, Allan Gardens, Osgoode Hall, Riverdale Park, Toronto Island and other Toronto landmarks. He supplied trees; educated the public about the necessity for urban trees, woodlots, reforestation and sustainable forestry.
Leslieville’s market gardens disappeared as Toronto expanded, covering the Plains with houses. Of the gardens that lay between Broadview Avenue and Woodbine, nothing remains.
Today there is little evidence that market gardening dominated the area south of the railway line to the lakeshore, itself buried under landfill. One bit of parkland is left to remind us of Leslieville’s gardens and of George Leslie’s whose vision of a tolerant, inclusive community, a green city and sustainable forestry. A long narrow strip of retail structures, shops and stores, grew and came to dominate the streetscape on Queen through Leslieville. That basic built form has not changed much since its origins in the first three decades of the 20 th Century. There were gaps, some because of fire, some because of brickyards, and, standing out, a tiny oasis, Leslie Grove Park.
George Leslie was passionate about trees. Eventually his Toronto Nurseries became the largest tree nursery in Canada. Leslie Grove Park is on the site of some of the nursery buildings (e.g. greenhouses) and also the family home at the north east corner of Jones and Queen Street East. Clifford Street (now Jones Avenue) was not extended much south of Audley until later.
The Leslie family had a vision of a new kind of city with tree-lined streets, public parks and schoolyards that were arboretums just as Leslie’s Grove was their own arboretum. Leslie Grove has many different species of trees scattered around the park. George Leslie did not believe trees should be planted in rows like a field of corn. Leslie’s Grove originally stretched all the way down past Eastern Avenue to Ashbridges Bay (filled in between 1911 and 1920).
George Leslie’s nursery grounds became popular as an unofficial public park in an era when many politicians and wealthier people refused to support public parks. They thought parks would encourage working class people to be idle, lying on the grass enjoying picnics instead of working. There were few public gardens so poorer people went to the cemeteries for picnics among the tombstones.
Though private, many local people and visitors enjoyed a visit to “Leslie’s Grove” [later shortened to “Leslie Grove”]. Leslie’s Grove stretched all the way from just north of Queen Street to Ashbridges Bay’s shore south of Eastern Avenue.
The Leslie's continued to open Leslie’s Grove, their private arboretum to the public. Picnics, social events and concerts took place under the trees.
George Leslie was active politically. He was one of the founders of the Reform Party, now the Liberal Party of Canada. He was not a politician himself. George Leslie stood back and watched his sons run for office while he remained the unelected "Squire" of Leslieville. In an intolerant time he supported the black settlers of Leslieville, refugees from slavery who came here up the Underground Railway. He believed in equality and refused to participate in the rampant anti-Catholicism of the times.
George Leslie died June 24, 1892, leaving an estate of $115,000 - a fortune in those days. In today’s terms George Leslie was a millionaire. His sons soon lost the family fortune. George and John Knox Leslie almost immediately sank into trouble. They had invested heavily in telephone equipment that competed with Alexander Graham Bell’s. They lost. George's widow Mahala was left land rich, but cash poor, with no income except from a failing business. The sons soon mortgaged the many properties owned by George Leslie to the Gooderham family. Soon it was broken up for housing.
During his lifetime, George Leslie’s private arboretum, Leslie’s Grove, functioned as the only public park in Leslieville. He allowed the public to use “Leslie's Grove” as a park free of charge. After George’s death in 1892, Leslie’s Grove continued to be used as a public park though it was no longer in good shape as the Leslie sons did not maintain the posterity handed down to them. Still Mahala Leslie hosted public functions, such as strawberry festivals, at Leslie’s Grove. With the Leslie Estate’s properties tied up in mortgages, widow Mahala was left rich on paper, but was in fact not only seriously ill, but destitute. In 1897, Mahala Leslie tried to make a deal with the City. She asked for a pension in exchange for what was left of Leslie’s Grove. She was 73 years old in a time when there was no Old Age Pension. She asked $600 a year for the rest of her life for Leslie’s Grove. Leslie Grove, commonly known as “Mosquito Park”, was now a City Park and soon to become a playground.
Up until the early 1900s a little stream, Leslie Creek, made its way slowly to Ashbridge’s Bay, winding through a small valley and crossing Jones Avenue just north of Leslie Grove Park. Springs bubbled to the ground on the steep hill north of Blake Street near Strathcona Avenue. They gave birth to a Leslie Creek. As it flowed down that hill, it was a fast brook with Globe, Sept. 1, 1911 waterfalls, but as it reached the flat sandy plain south of the railway tracks, it slowed down. According to Elsie Hays, a Leslieville resident who died about 20 years ago, it was a small brook that ran through an orchard where Gerrard Square is today. Children dabbled in the creek and caught tadpoles. (Personal communication.) It crossed Gerrard Street near Marjory Avenue. There is a shallow dip in the road to mark it. It flowed through a ravine at the east end of the Holy Blossom Cemetery. Entrepreneurs dammed Leslie Creek in the late nineteenth century to form Maple Leaf Skating Rink at Pape and Gerrard, behind the Maple Leaf Tavern. Then it swung diagonally south east to cross Dundas Street at Dagmar. It continued south to cross Jones Avenue at 61 Jones Avenue where there was heavy basement flooding. Here the creek ran slowly. Mosquitoes bred in the quiet water, giving Leslie Grove Park its local nickname “Mosquito Park”.
There is not much left to see of this creek, once full of Atlantic salmon, just traces of its ravine in the laneways.
There were brickyards all along Leslie Creek. David Wagstaff had one just west of Leslie Grove Park where the Tango Palace and Bertmount Street are today. Joseph Russell owned and operated the largest brickyard on Leslie Creek. Kempton Howard Park, at Blake and Jones occupies this former clay pit. Brick manufacturers located their yards on creeks for good reasons. It all started with the earth beneath their feet. After the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago, vast quantities of water drained into Lake Iroquois, leaving deep water deposits of clay on top of the prehistoric shale. This clay was largely free from organic matter and pebbles, making it perfect for brick making. These glacial clays and the shale below were valuable, providing the raw material to make bricks both in brick yards around Leslieville. These interglacial deposits underlie much of Leslieville, but are hidden by sand, gravel, other surface deposits.
But these clay deposits were invisible at the surface. How did the brick manufacturers find them? Leslie Creek sliced down through the sediments, exposing the beds of grey-blue clay that made excellent brick. This clay under Leslieville’s pine forests and grassy fields was grey and black, and burned in the kiln, produced a rich red brick. Wherever there were creeks, brickyards followed. The brickmakers walked up Leslie Creek, looking for the clay. When they found it, they dug it out and made bricks.
These brickyards usually employing a gang of about ten workers to make about a million bricks a year. As the brick clay wore out, brick makers moved on to other clay deposits, often leasing rather than buying in keeping with the transient nature of brickmaking. Earlier brickmakers relocated their plants constantly, making bricks wherever there was a demand and clay. With the development of brick making machinery, brick plants became more permanent. However, for most of the nineteenth century, their machinery, such as was, was still portable, easily dismantled and moved to a new location.
Between 1900 and 1914 thousands of British immigrants poured into the East End. Many lived In crowded substandard housing around Leslie Grove Park. After a crisis brought on by an unprepared city and a bitter winter in 1907 The Globe newspaper called for building a new kind of housing for low income people. The City Beautiful movement swept North America, bringing in Toronto’s first urban planning bylaws. Along with better houses, people demanded park and recreation centres. The Playground Movement gained strong public support. During this period as well, the social work profession was born with Jane Addams and the Settlement House movement.
Middle-class reformers led the playground movement as this passion for moral and social reform swept middle-class North America. They were concerned about overcrowded housing. They believed that it fostered juvenile delinquency, and truancy especially among immigrant and working class children. They thought that providing outdoor recreation could prevent a number of social ills and improve health, especially by preventing tuberculosis. These reformers gained the support of leaders representing the more respectable portion of the working class, including some labour leaders.
In 1902 the City of Toronto began allowing the public use of schools, including school yards, for playgrounds. In 1905 the Toronto Council of Women began a ‘vacation school’. They hired teachers to serve as supervisors. In 1907 the Toronto Board of Education took over the vacation schools, and began supervising three summer playgrounds. Yet there still were not enough playgrounds, especially in the poorest areas as the East End had become. In the few existing playgrounds, there was little equipment and little or no active programming. In 1909 J. J. Kelso and the Toronto Council of Women formed the Toronto Playground Association. In the spring of that year Toronto City Council set up “a commission to advise them on the beautification of Toronto”.
The Toronto Playground Association linked up with similar groups across Canada and in the United States. The Evangelia Settlement, founded in 1902, was the first settlement house in Canada. Young middle-class people, mostly women, from the Universities, settled in the slums. They lived among the workers, hoping to reform and improve the neighbourhoods from within. Evangelia House was located near the north-east corner of Queen Street East and Broadview Avenue. Settlement house workers advocated strongly for the provision of recreational facilities for children. Edith Constance MacLaren (nee Elwood) was one of the leaders there and she and others from Evangelia House campaigned for a playground at Leslie Grove. (Stott, Mary Dale, ed. History of Canadian Settlements. Toronto, 1965. (Typewritten), 65.)
Silas Armstrong and others of the Playground Movement won a victory when the City of Toronto designated the southern section of St. Andrew’s Market became St. Andrews Playground in 1909. This was first City of Toronto property dedicated to, and equipped for, supervised children's play. While owned by the City of Toronto, it was staffed by the Toronto Playground Association.
The Globe called for better housing for low income workers in Toronto. People hoped that improving the neighbourhood would draw together two communities: those born and raised in Leslieville and the newcomers: I cannot but think that the general reports of sobriety and self-respecting independence on the one hand and spontaneous assistance on the other will remove the misunderstanding, amounting almost to distrust, which appears to have existed between certain of our own people and the newcomers. (Globe, Jan. 29, 1908)
The Canadian Pacific Railway bought most of the grounds of the Toronto Nurseries after the death of George Leslie Jr. The CPR was one of Canada’s biggest real estate developers and speculators. Their subdivision of Leslie Gardens included Larchmount, Berkshire, Rushbrooke, and Marigold. The CPR also donated money to the Playground Association to improve Leslie Grove Park and equip with the basics needed in an inner city playground.
By the 1920s George Leslie was almost forgotten except for family and older Leslieville residents.
The Leslieville Community has a history of engagement, activism and pride which continues to present time. For about the past 15 years, Leslieville has been considered an "up and coming" Toronto Neighbourhood, and solidifying Queen & Jones as a landmark corner.
In 2005, a project with the City of Toronto Graffiti Transformation Program with project leader the Ralph Thornton Centre, engaged a group of local high school students to beautify the intersection of Queen & Jones. They painted a Leslieville Mural on the westerly wall of the building at the north east corner of Queen & Jones, overlooking Leslie Grove Park. This much photographed mural featured a large image of one of George Leslie's maple trees alongside Alexander Muir, the first principal of the Leslieville Public School (1864), who wrote Canada's almost National Anthem, "The Maple Leaf Forever".
Since 2006, Leslie Grove has celebrated the environment as the host location for annual Leslieville Tree Festival, which raises awareness about LEAF and the importance of a healthy tree canopy and how every resident can support a more sustainable city. The Leslieville Tree Festival is supported by Toronto Hydro and organized by LEAF in collaboration with Councillor Paula Fletcher, and Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation showcasing environmentally-friendly businesses, local artists and organizations that are helping to green their community.
In 2009 Councillor Paula Fletcher, George Leslie’s descendent Caroline Floroff, and others unveiled a Heritage Toronto plaque in Leslie Grove Park to honour George Leslie, founder of Leslieville.
In 2016, the wall that hosts the Leslieville mural is in need of repair, and in January, the community came up with a plan to restore the wall and identify a new Leslieville Mural concept that embodies the spirit of the community. A committee was formed, including volunteers from the Leslieville BIA, Leslieville Historical Society and Community members who worked with the Councillor's office and the Ralph Thornton Centre to come up with a plan to restore the wall, submit (and receive) a Street Art Grant from the City of Toronto; work with the City Dept of Public Realm to review artists; and to facilitate a public open house on the final designs. Among the final designs there was an overwhelming winner - Elicser Elliott, one of Toronto's favorite graffiti artists, and Canada's leading aerosol artist. Elicser explored Leslieville’s connection with its maple trees and celebrates the greatness of what’s to come and what came before through an uplifting character and bright colours with a modern take on a traditional landscape. The concept is below:
George Leslie and the Toronto Nurseries are being re-evaluated at a time when trees themselves are increasingly treasured, especially by city residents. His vision of a tolerant, diverse Canada remains to challenge us even today.
George Leslie’s legacy is also in the trees, old and young, lining the streets of Toronto and gracing our parks. They still whisper, “We have secrets. We have stories. Wonder about the past and make the future wonderful."