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How Toronto's oldest surviving building got to its current location on the Exhibition Grounds is a story in itself
By Enzo DiMatteo
Oct 3, 2021
Even by 18th-century standards, Toronto’s oldest surviving building would seem a modest abode for the assistant to the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.
But back when it was built in 1794, John Scadding’s white pine log cabin occupied the most prime real estate in old Toronto – some 125 hectares on the east bank of the Don River overlooking the area around present-day Queen Street. A large barn was part of the plot, which extended north to present-day Danforth and east to Bayview. A footbridge connected the property to the west bank of the Don.
Today, Scadding Cabin sits behind a split-rail fence surrounded by a 19th-century garden just west of the bandshell on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. How it got there is a story in itself. The cabin was dismantled and the logs floated down the Don, and then rebuilt at its current location after it was donated to the York Pioneers, a group founded in the 1860s and dedicated to preserving York’s early history. The occasion was widely reported in newspapers of the day in August 1879.
According to one version of events, the workers were plied with quantities of “lukewarm tea and coffee” and “five-gallon lager beer kegs” and christened the cabin with the breaking of a bottle and cannon fire. Kaboom.
The cabin would be repurposed and used as a museum to show off crafts of the day at the Exhibition Grounds when it was home to the Industrial Exhibition.
The cabin was renamed “Scadding Cabin” in 1901 in honour of John’s son Henry, who was a founding member and president of the York Pioneer Historical Society.
Back when the cabin was built, Toronto was known by its Mohawk name, Tkaranto, and little more than a dozen settler homesteads dotted the landscape. Fort York on the western shore of the harbour was a hub of economic activity. But fur trading was still the main source of commerce for the colony.
When John Graves Simcoe arrived by boat from England in 1791 to take up his role as Lieutenant Governor, he brought Scadding with him and renamed the settlement York.
Scadding had been manager of Simcoe’s estate in Devon, England. The cabin built on the Don was his second. The first was destroyed by fire.
His stay in Upper Canada would not last long. Scadding returned to England in 1796. But he would come back to Upper Canada more than two decades later in 1818, this time with a wife and three sons. Scadding sold his cabin and moved his family to a larger residence he built in the Don Valley near present-day Gerrard. The home was surrounded by orchards and Scadding operated a farm growing hay, rye, barley and oats – as well as hemp – despite the Don’s “formidable obstacles” of steep banks and marshy lowlands. But tragedy would soon strike.
On March 1, 1824, Scadding was injured by a falling tree. He died shortly afterward. According to a story in the Upper Canada Gazette, Scadding was supervising a group of men clearing trees on his property when a half chopped tree he was standing under suddenly fell on him. The Gazette reports that Scadding was “shockingly bruised” and that despite efforts to save him “expired in a short time.” He was 70 years of age. One of his sons reportedly came upon the scene as they were carting Scadding off to get medical help. But it was already too late. The paper said Scadding was “highly and justly respected.”
His sons continued to operate the farm until 1856 when the family’s holdings were sold off. Henry would go on to become a noted teacher and member of the clergy (he served at St. James Church) as well as the author of the book Toronto Of Old. The 500-plus page tome, however, would make little reference to his father’s place in Toronto’s history, which was more a consequence of the family’s modesty than anything else.
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.