Skip to content

Fashion models once strolled Main with hats of velvet, flowers, feathers

In this first of a two-part series, History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls Newmarket's booming local commerce of the early 1900s

In this first of a two-part series, we’ll look at the period from just after Confederation to the early 1900s from the perspective of local commerce, industry, and the economy. 

During the last decades of the 19th century, there was a steady growth in the prosperity of our area.  The farmer was finally receiving a much better deal, wheat was selling at $1.20 a bushel, and when the farmers had $20 or $30 in their pockets from the sale of crops, they would head off to the local shops.

Market prices had improved and documentation from the train station on Huron Street (Davis Drive) indicates shipments arriving of 3,000 barrels of flour, 31 tons of feed, two cars of wheat, three cars of lumber, nine cars of barley, 200 head of cattle, horses and sheep.  

Local industries and mills were also booming. In 1884, Cane’s Woodenware was turning out 4,850 clothes pins and 500 broom handles per hour, and 500 pails, 175 tubs and 600 washboards per day. 

Parks & Company, which operated a tannery on Huron Street, employed a large number of the local labor force and provided an extra source of income for farmers who would bring great loads of tan bark, stripped from the hemlock trees around Newmarket, that they were already selling for lumber.

This bark was used in the conversion of skins into leather and, years later, pieces of this bark could still be found along the streams. The Parks tannery made heavy leather, which at the time, was considered the best in Ontario. Across the road stood a second tannery that handled sheepskins.

The first brewery was built by William Simpson on the site of the old Cawthra distillery, at the end of Ontario Street, beside the tracks, the site of the old CO-OP feed mill. However, the earliest date of reference we have is from 1861 when it was owned by a N.A. Gamble. 

The article refers to descriptions of “a culvert constructed by the village on the street leading to the Brewery.” In January 1866, while still being operated by Robert Simpson (not the merchant),  the brewery burned down with an estimated loss of $3,000.  

Mr. Gamble rebuilt the brewery immediately at a cost of $1,600. In 1868, it was operated by a H.E. Simpson. In 1874, the Newmarket Brewery was acquired by Samuel Sykes who rebuilt it and leased it for several years to Richard Heap. When the building, of wooden construction, was demolished, the bricks of the large chimney were used to build a local house. 

The Gorham Woolen Mills was purchased in 1875 by Messrs. Russel, Douglas and Longford, but burned down in 1879. From its ashes rose the Phoenix Mills with a payroll of 40 or 50 men. This establishment, which was a local landmark, was demolished in 1907.  

In a nostalgic note, L.G. Jackson, publisher of The Era, recalled that the “Gorham Mills, which were a hive of industry when he was a small boy, are to be seen no more … and the materials are being used for the erection of a house to the front of the old site.  That part of Gorham Street will hardly look familiar anymore”.

The steam cabinet factory of Millard & Co. on Timothy Street and its attached lumber yard covered several acres and was a very busy place. Further east on Timothy, one could find the foundry of James Allan.

The shops of Newmarket were considerably larger than those usually found in similar sized towns and the goods that were carried were comparable with those of the big city. Danford Roche & Co., 1884, certainly merited its name ‘The Leading House’ was displayed on its marquee. When compared with contemporary stores, it was said to have been a mammoth department store with a large staff of both men and women. 

In fact, rather than being merely a small village shop, it was, in fact, far ahead of the times and status of Newmarket. At one time Roche also operated stores in Aurora and Toronto. Gradually, however, the grandeur faded, the business finally dissolving into bankruptcy. 

The Danford Roche premises were the buildings on the west side of Main, just north of Botsford Street, that would later be owned by C.E. Gable and later the Toronto Dominion Bank. From 1904 to 1911, the Cochenour Brothers operated a department store, followed by yet another venture by Danford Roche. Finally, the building was divided into the Adams barber shop and Harry’s dry goods.

The spring and fall seasonal displays by the dress goods and millinery businesses were a highlight of Newmarket’s business establishment. Newspaper stories highlight Madame of the Salon, gowned in a stunning outfit, greeting the visitors on Main Street. These displays established the styles for the season locally.  

Often, music and millinery were combined to give Main Street an animated appearance. The young ladies would wear their artistic hats and bonnets, usually masses of velvet, flowers, and feathers, modelling them during the evening hours, walking slowly up and down a crowded Main. The bands of Newmarket and Aurora were on hand each evening, playing on alternate nights.  

The shop of R.J. Davidson advertised its specialty tea with a sign that was a big ‘T’.  There were a number of general stores, those of Lundy & Allen, Bogart & Allen, the Sutherland Brothers, William Keetch, C H. Lockhart, Patrick Harding, William J. Roche (father of the novelist Mazo de la Roche), Charles Rowen, Julius Mader, W.W. Playter, H.E. Maddock, Brunton Bros. and the Hunter Brothers.  Other local stores included those of C.M. Hughes, with Mrs. Hughes handling the millinery area of the store and W.C. Lundy who operated a tailoring business assisted by his wife in the dress goods area.

For many years, R.H. Smith kept an exclusive mantle and dry goods emporium on the northwest corner of Main and Timothy streets in which his daughters, Leah and Felicia, would display an array of hats and bonnets. Son Robert succeeded his father in business in the same premises but carried groceries instead of dry goods until he met his tragic death (see my article on Newmarket Ghost stories).

Strangely, another R.A. Smith with no family connection continued in the same building with groceries and high-class china, the store called China Hall.  W.L. Bosworth succeeded Smith and the entire stock was transferred across the street to the building which was later Stedman’s on the northeast corner of Main and Timothy.

Sources: Minutes of Newmarket Council; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; Articles by Robert Terence Carter in the Newmarket Era; The Memorable Merchants and Trades by Eugene McCaffrey and George Luesby



About the Author: Richard MacLeod

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