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Ever wonder who your local park is named after?

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod reveals the history behind some of Newmarket's main parks and recreational areas in the first of a two-part series

We enjoy Newmarket parks and recreational areas year-round, but I bet most of us seldom give any real thought to how these parks were created or how they serve to commemorate our heritage. In my next two articles, I will feature many of these areas and explain their significance in regards to how they honour our past.

Let us start with Armitage Village School Recreation Area at 124 Savage Rd., which consists of 10 acres including a school and playground. The name commemorates the Amos Armitage family, who were the first settlers on Yonge Street in 1801. Their farm on Lot 92 of 200 acres was a land grant on the east side of Yonge, opposite the Quaker Burying Ground.

Further south on the northeast corner of Lot 88, the first of three schoolhouses was built before 1850. The third school on the site, which was was closed in 1969, was called Union School No.3 Armitage P.O.  

The term “village” is a misnomer, as it was never a village as such, only a post office on the west side of Yonge, directly opposite Savage Road, on the south edge of the Seba Armitage farm (son of Amos).

It was used while the Metropolitan electric railway operated from 1899 to 1930. Sir William Mulock arranged it for his convenience as a mailing address for his summer estate. He was Post Master General of Canada from 1895 to 1900 in the Laurier government.

Located on the west side of Bayview Avenue in the Wyndham subdivision is the Art Ferguson Park, 6.2 acres of land dedicated in 1991. Ferguson was a sports promoter who gained recognition locally for being the founder and chairman of the annual Newmarket House League Hockey Tournament with competitors from eight Ontario towns. He died in 1989 and was honoured two years later.

Our next park features a famous local name. Beswick Park is on Hodson Drive, just off Sandford Street, with five acres of soccer fields, baseball diamonds, bleachers and a playground. Dr. Christopher Beswick was, for many years, the only doctor in the area. He was a former British Army doctor who immigrated to the New World and settled in Newmarket in 1811.

He is reported to have lived 118 years and was practising medicine until he died in March 1839. He lived on the north side of Eagle Street, a short distance east of Yonge, and in his will he left his home and 45 acres to the Church of England, which became known as glebe land. The house was destroyed by fire in March 1986.

If you are in the area of Wayne Drive at Waratah Street, you must visit Charles Van Zant Memorial Park, which is comprised of nearly 12.5 acres, including the Glen Cedar Public School baseball diamond, soccer field, tennis court and playground.

Charles Van Zant was a Newmarket councillor from 1949 to 1952 who was well known for his civic and athletic activities as a star baseball player and accomplished musician with a dance band featuring old-time music. He served a president of the Newmarket Liberal Association and honorary member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 426. Sadly, both Charles and his wife were killed in a tragic motor accident at Ravenshoe Sideroad Dec.18, 1966.  

A park that I have recently explored as part of an ongoing heritage project, College Manor Park, is made up of 12 acres just off College Manor Drive. In 1906, when Pickering College was established in Newmarket, Albert S. Rogers (a descendant of Timothy Rogers, an early settler) purchased 250 acres in Lots 31 and 32 that were original Crown grants to John Bogart.

Fifty acres were set aside for the building of the college and the remainder used for farming. It was a model farm with world-renowned purebred Holsteins that provided an income to support the college.

On Nov. 24, 1981, a fire destroyed the south wing. The fate of the college was in jeopardy, so in 1985, it was decided to sell the farm to help recover the loss. It was sold to developers who turned it into a massive housing estate in 1991. Predictably, the barn on the farm was demolished by fire on Oct. 12, 1988, the cause unknown. The subdivision is known as College Manor and includes Newmarket High School, Bogart Public School and College Manor Park.

A name that still resonates is attached to the Crossland Recreation Centre at 255 Brimson Rd., six acres connected to Crossland Public School. In 1948, James Crossland, an insurance executive and realtor from Toronto purchased Lots 95W and 94E on Yonge from John W. Bowser. In 1951, part of Lot 94E was annexed by the town and he created a small subdivision on the Millard Avenue extension from Lorne Avenue.

Lot 95W was transferred to his son, Ernest, who operated it as a farm with purebred Jersey cattle and later as a sheep ranch until it was sold for a commercial and housing subdivision by Glenway developers. Ernie retired from farming in 1982 to become a member of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a position he held until 1991. He founded the North Newmarket Lions Club and was an active member of the Lake Simcoe Conservation Foundation. In 1998, Ernie was honoured as Newmarket’s Citizen of the Year.

Another Yonge Street settler is honoured with a conservation area in his name. Denne Bush on Bristol Road is comprised of 11.5 acres of natural woodlot and walking trails. William Denne owned a 150-acre farm on Lot 99 fronting on Yonge, with a large maple woodlot at the east end, as was customary, to supply firewood for cooking and heating the homestead.

The bush remained and when Anglo-York developers planned a large subdivision in 1985, they wanted to remove it. Objections were raised by conservationist and ombudsman Watson Sweezie, who appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. He advocated circumventing the bush by Bristol Road. Finally, it was agreed to run the road through a small portion of it, leaving the rest intact.

Some families are honoured more than once. Denne Recreation Centre, a 10-acre parcel of land was built in conjunction with Denne Public School. The Denne name was prominent locally during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vincent Denne and son Henry were millers, who operated a gristmill on Huron Street, now Davis Drive.

The last surviving member of the family was a daughter of Henry, who was a legend among generations of students in Newmarket, noted for her strict discipline as a schoolteacher. She taught for 40 years until retirement in June 1970 and was named Citizen of the Year. She was born on Bayview Avenue in Woodlawn Manor, the Denne homestead (now the site of a regional building) and died on Nov. 24, 1980 at 72.

A park I frequented in my youth was Dennis Park on the Cane Parkway, consisting of 13 acres of baseball diamonds, soccer fields, bleachers and playground equipment. The park is located on part of the farm on Lot 91E cleared by elder Dennis pioneers who came from Pennsylvania in 1804.

A son, Brook Dennis, was born in 1815 and died in 1894. He had a family of 10 children. Later, the farm was operated by grandson Edgar Dennis until it was annexed by the town and sold to developers. The homestead and barns, which were demolished, were on the north side of Mulock, west of the CNR tracks, an area known as Pearson’s Crossing.

We had to fight for some of our recreation areas, sometimes for years. Evanslea Park, 12.5 acres of woodlot with 1.5 acres of playground, just off Bray Circle west of Leslie Street, was such a park. Elgin Evans was a farmer on west side of Leslie. When his farm was taken over by developers, Elgin and Janette streets were created to recognize him and his wife. Also, a one-acre plot between the streets was included and named Janette Park. Elgin died in 1974 and Janette in 1979.

In late 1960, the United Church acquired the property south of Elgin, which was 15 acres adjoining a bush lot. A long controversy ensued, lasting for nearly 20 years before being resolved. Church officials wanted to erect apartments for subsidized low-rent housing that was strongly opposed by neighbours and town council.

It was finally resolved to use the area for link-type housing and to create a small circuit named Bray Circle. The woodlot was named Evanslea Park because Elgin Evans had donated the property to the United Church.

Probably our best known park is the Fairgrounds, 19 acres between Muriel Avenue and Pine Street, containing baseball diamonds (lighted), bleachers, a clubhouse and washrooms. The oldest area in town set aside for public use, it was established in 1865 for the first agricultural fair.

In 1866, a “Palace” was erected on the south side and a grandstand beside a racetrack. Through the years, it has had a colourful location for parades, circuses, festive occasions and a great variety of public gatherings.

During the Second World War, from 1940 to 1945, it was used as the parade ground for No.23 Canadian Army Military Camp. Muriel Avenue, a part of the military camp, was opened by the town in 1951 and forms the eastern boundary of the present park. A large drill hall was located in the centre part of the old racetrack until it was torn down in 1960.

Baseball and softball have always been the main sports activity on the fairgrounds. In 1951, the first floodlights were installed and again in 1977.

During Newmarket’s Centennial Year, it was the site for thousands of people to watch spectacular events like the Highland Games, RCMP musical rides, circus, soccer and baseball games. Major renovations in 1983 added further floodlighting and washrooms and dressing rooms.

It was the only playground facility except for school yards until 1937 when the Lions Club Park was inaugurated.

Also, part of the park included the York Curling Club, in the former drill hall. It was purchased in 1956 by the curling club headed by “Tiny” Cathers, MPP. This huge building was converted to a curling rink and used until it was torn down in 1960. A new curling arena was then built adjacent to the site on the north edge of the grounds.

Fairy Lake Park, constituting about 31 acres from Water Street to Mulock Drive, was originally known as the “pond” being a millpond created in 1801 by damming the stream that is a tributary of the Holland River.

Joseph Hill, one of the first pioneers, built a gristmill on the west side to serve the newly arrived settlers. The mill remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1871. The lake is the only visible remnant from the pioneer settlement, although its profile has changed over the years.

Early wooden dams were repaired and replaced several times due to floods until 1927, when a concrete dam was built that still remains, although it was severely damaged by the flood of 1929 and again by Hurricane Hazel in 1954.

In the early days, the unpolluted water was a place for swimming, fishing and boating in the summer. In winter, skating and hockey were popular and racing with horse and cutter was a favourite sport.

Before refrigerators were used, winter was the time for ice cutting for storage until needed in the summer. Landscaping by the Region Conservation Authority has greatly enhanced the surrounding area for wildlife and vegetation.

If you have attended the fireworks display July 1, then you are well acquainted with George Richardson Park, 74 acres on Bayview Avenue North, where one can find soccer fields, bleachers, a playground, parking and the site for monster displays, ballooning and fireworks. This reclaimed land, skirting the watercourse of Newmarket’s Ghost Canal, was developed as a park, officially opened in October 1985 and named Bayview Park.

In July 1989, it was renamed and dedicated to George Richardson, who was part of the Regional Conservation Authority for 30 years, elected chairman in 1976 until retirement in 1987. In politics, he served three terms on East Gwillimbury School Board and as councillor in 1947. In 1948, he helped organize the East Gwillimbury Farmers Federation. In 1970, he promoted the procurement of land along the Holland River for a park. He served on town council 1963-64, was deputy reeve 1965-66, and reeve 1967-68. Richardson was known as Mr. Conservation and, in 1998, was given the Conservation Award of Honour by Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

As a child, my parents would take me to Haskett Park for skating on the outdoor rink. All 24 acres of it is located on Millard, stretching up to Queen Street. It has ball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis courts, a clubhouse, washrooms and playgrounds. George Haskett (1910 to 1974) was a fifth-generation member of the Haskett family, who were longtime residents of Newmarket.

He was employed by Davis Leather Co as a secretary to the late E. J. Davis Jr. and later was sports editor for the Newmarket Era. In his youth, he was a keen baseball and hockey player and was instrumental in organizing various leagues and associations. In 1951, the area west of the original corporation limits was annexed to the town, including the farm on Lot 94 of James Crossland (formerly owned by Robert Millard). This was the first expansion in 100 years.

In 1954, H.R. Lenhardt, a real estate broker, acquired the west part of the farm for a housing development and James Crossland retained the rest of the area along Millard. They each set aside 11 acres for a park. In addition, two acres were obtained from Charles Boyd in the “Beechwoods area” to complete the entity. The site included a farmhouse, barn, duck pond and a watercourse. The house remains enclosed by Parkview Crescent. The barn was demolished, the pond drained, and the watercourse remains. The whole area was landscaped as a park about 1960.

The last park that we will feature this week is the Lions Park, consisting of 10 acres between Church Street and Lorne Avenue, it is grassland with laneway access from Lorne to an amphitheater and parking.

Lions Park originated in 1937 (our population was 3,800) and is the oldest recreation site in town, surpassed only by the Fairgrounds that opened in 1860. During the interval, there had been agitation by citizens for another park without results. Finally, in June 1921, a bylaw was passed in council to spend $5,000 to acquire 15 acres of the Lewis farm at the west end of Park Avenue (now Beechwoods).

A public meeting followed for a referendum July 15. The bylaw was defeated 281 to 139 mainly because the location was too far from town and the money was needed for a new school (Stuart Scott Public School) and it was a lot of money at that time.  

The years went by and in January 1937, William L. Bosworth, a member of the newly formed Lions Club, offered to donate land that he had inherited to the town for a park. In addition, three lots were purchased by Davis Leather, Office Specialty and Dixon Pencil Co.

The property stretched from Church to Lorne, along the north side of a lane way that was originally surveyed as an extension of D’Arcy Street but never opened except as a dirt track. This was an attractive location being central in the town and adjacent to the tennis courts and lawn bowling green that were on the south side of the lane and had been active since the 1920s

Mayor Boyd accepted the packaged property in February 1937 as a donation from the Lions Club to the town. This subtle move absolved the club from paying taxes on the property.

The question of legal ownership arose in 1969 and was not finally confirmed until June 1974 when it was agreed that the town owned the park and would acknowledge the Lions Club as trustees during the life of the club.

In 1961, a bandstand was erected in the centre of the park and dedicated to J.O. Little, an ardent supporter of the citizens band. This was altered to make it into an amphitheatre in June 1967 and further enlarged in 1973. The park has been the scene in the past for many public gatherings and fundraising events sponsored by the Lions Club.

The greatest celebration took place when Mayor Dales made the official announcement of the unconditional surrender that ended the war in Europe on May 3, 1945. A monster parade and public gathering was held in the park for services on May 9 and again on VJ Day Aug. 16, 1945.

The south side of the lane was a lumberyard owned by P.W. Pearson, who donated the property to the town for a park when he quit the business and retired in 1922. P.W. Pearson was a descendant of a pioneer family and a prominent citizen being mayor from 1908 to 1911 and MPP from 1926 to 1930. He died Sept. 16, 1946. After the lumber site was cleared, it was occupied by the newly formed tennis club and the lawn bowling club.  

For those of you who love your tennis, the Tennis Club is one of the prime recreational centres in Newmarket. In August 1925, an agreement between the town and members of a newly formed tennis club, lawyer N. L. Mathews and dentist Dr. “Bart” Bartholemew, authorized the Pearson area to be used as a tennis court for as long as it remained for this purpose, the proviso being that, if the tennis club disbanded, the property would revert back to the town. This was the only tennis court in town until the 1950s. In 1992, the courts were paved and facilities for artificial ice installed for winter use of ice skating.  

Another of our recreational jewels that few people know about is the Bowling Club, across from Lions Club Park and east of Stuart Scott school. It formed in 1924 with a sheltered verandah clubhouse that provided summertime recreation until it went into decline following the Second World War. It was revived in 1972 and taken over by the town recreation committee.

On July 29, 1979, the clubhouse was vandalized and destroyed by fire. In 1980, a new substantial building was erected with modern facilities

In 1946, a unique indoor carpet bowling club, the only one of its kind in Canada at the time, was established on Davis Drive in an army barrack that was moved from the military campgrounds. This provided popular winter sport until the building was demolished in 1991 to make way for the new Dixon Medical Centre. To replace it, an addition and alterations were made to the lawn bowling club at the Lions Park for year-round use in conjunction with the summer lawn bowling activity.

Many of us have fond memories of the Gorman Pool, on the west side of Church adjacent to Lions Park. It was promoted by Peter Gorman in 1956, who raised $20,000 to finance the construction. It was officially opened on July 16, 1957 and immediately became very popular and continued through the years until it gradually deteriorated and was in need of repairs and was closed. In 1991, it was completely rebuilt and modernized with new change rooms, showers, etc. At the same time, the nearby tennis courts were repaved and a refrigeration plant built to provide artificial ice for an open-air skating rink for winter and maintained for tennis in summer.  

Peter Gorman came to Newmarket in 1947 from London, Ontario and established a wholesale tobacco and confectionery business. He was very public-spirited and sponsored many sports, youth activities and charitable organizations, both local and national. As a philanthropist and humanitarian, he founded the Canadian College Bowl (the Vanier Cup) in 1964 and the Canadian Children’s Foundation in 1981. In 1982, he was awarded the Order of Canada.

We will have a look at more of our recreational treasures in next weekend’s article. I have tried to feature the main recreational sites but if I miss one that interests you, feel free to email me with the name of that park and I will respond with what I have on your favourite.

Sources: A History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhell; The Parks and Recreation Areas of Newmarket by George W. Luesby; The Newmarket Era; Newmarket’s Who’s Who by George Luesby; Newmarket Centennial 1857 – 1957 by John Luck

************ brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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