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Names of founding fathers, prominent citizens, local heroes live on in our parks (8 photos)

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod continues his exploration of the history behind some of Newmarket's parks and recreational facilities

This is the second article in my series chronicling the history of some of Newmarket’s parks and recreational facilities.

Many of our parks are the result of gifts by prominent citizens.

Mabel Davis Conservation Area is a 17-acre woodlot for walking, biking trail and is a bird sanctuary bordering the east side of the Holland River, north of Davis Drive. The site also includes the offices of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

The property was purchased in 1904 by the Hon. E.J. Davis, founder and president of the Davis Leather Co. He was appointed Provincial Secretary in 1896 and Commissioner of Crown Lands until he retired from public office in 1904. He died on June 14, 1936 and his younger daughter, Mabel, inherited the estate. On Aug. 28, 1969, the conservation authority received 16 acres as a donation from Mabel Davis to be retained as a bird sanctuary. She died July 18, 1974.  

The portion through the bush from Huron Street (Davis Drive) to Bayview Avenue was the right-of-way from 1906 to 1930 for the Metropolitan Electric Railway. On Apr. 7, 1990, the Glenville Farms Dairy was destroyed by fire. This property of one acre was left derelict until it was purchased by the conservation authority in March 1993 and added to the park area.   

Marilyn Powell Park, a seven-acre park at London Road at Reading Place offers ball diamonds, bleachers, playground equipment and parking. This memorial park was dedicated on Sept. 25, 1982 to Marilyn Powell, who was a commissioner with the Girl Guides and Brownies.

As a humanitarian, she founded an association for the mentally challenged to provide volunteer weekly service for recreation therapy and organized an annual picnic for the surrounding district, including Bradford, Sharon and Aurora. Powell died Dec. 9, 1981.

Another citizen who donated his property for the creation of a park was Maxwell Stiles. Max Stiles Park consists of two acres on the east side of Main Street N., just south of Bristol Road, containing a soccer field, playground equipment and picnic tables. Stiles was a realtor who owned and lived on the property until it was sold to Thornwillow developers. The park was created in August 1985.

Newmarket Heights Community Park, 2.5 acres just off Penn Avenue north of Davis Drive, was formerly East Gwillimbury Heights when the subdivision was built in 1958. The whole area north of Davis was annexed to Newmarket by the regional government in 1971. It was sodded and landscaped in September 1973.

The Newmarket Seniors Meeting Place, on the south side of Davis across from the Tannery, is not a park but rather a fully equipped building used for a social, crafts and entertainment.  A drop-in centre had been needed for some time by our senior citizens. It was previously the Beaver Lumber site, built in 1957 and encompassing 13,000 square feet of space. The Town purchased the building in November 1993 and a federal/provincial grant of $575,000 was soon received.

A steering committee of seniors was appointed to organize furnishings and equipment. Architect Eric Smith was engaged to design and supervise the alterations. The formative stages of the venture were sponsored and promoted by Mayor Ray Twinney but with his serious illness and passing on Dec. 24, 1994, the “hands-on” control became the responsibility of the newly elected council in 1995. The official opening of the Meeting Place was in January 1995.

Parks are quite often dedicated to those who give of their lives selflessly and such is the case of Paul Semple Memorial Park, an eight-acre space on the east side of Savage Road. Semple, a 22-year-old Newmarket resident who was attending Ryerson College in Toronto in 1992, was a Good Samaritan who was visciously murdered while coming to the rescue of a woman and her daughter being terrorized by an assailant on a downtown Toronto street.

Parks are often named for a founding family and such is the case of Proctor Park, a 6.5-acre park with ball diamonds, picnic tables and playground equipment on London Road at Primrose Drive. The Proctor family dates from the earliest settlers on Yonge Street North.

Henry Proctor came from the New England in the 1800s and received a Crown grant of 200 acres on Lot 100E Yonge. Successive generations farmed the area until the land was eventually sold to developers. A son, Harrison (1826-1916) lived on Lot 98E that was later occupied by Walter (1891-1968). Descendants of the Proctors still live in the Newmarket area.

The aptly named Quaker Hills Park, eight acres containing ball diamonds, tennis courts and playground equipment is on William Roe Blvd., just east of Dixon. Its name comes from being located on the undulating contours of the farm of Amos Armitage, one of the earliest Quakers in 1802. The area was subdivided in 1973 by Schickendanz developers, who provided the park and built an indoor pool that has been removed. 

One of our largest recreation areas is the Ray Twinney Recreation Complex, comprising 44 acres of soccer fields, tennis courts, track-and-field facilities, playgrounds, two hockey arenas, an indoor pool, fitness centre, dressing rooms, meeting rooms, snack bar and parking.              

It should be noted that plans to build this recreation project were met with much the same reservations as the current Mulock Estate project.

In 1980, the population was 29,300 and had increased by 6,000 since the Newmarket Community Centre and Arena had been firmly established in the downtown core in 1974. Projected growth necessitated the need for more facilities for recreation, prompting the mayor and council to consider what measures were needed to meet the expected demand.

A series of complicated events ensued, which eventually led to the Town’s involvement with the Glenway developers, who had purchased Lots 94W and 95W belonging Alex Doner and James Crossland in 1967. By 1981, they were ready to proceed with the largest subdivision Newmarket had yet encountered, containing 390 acres on the west side of Yonge.

In 1981-82, the farm buildings were demolished and the pastoral scene changed to bulldozers and earth-moving equipment. During 1982-84, there were so many revisions to the original layout, official plan amendments and zoning changes that it was difficult to decipher where the plan sat. Eventually, there were land swaps that set aside 44 acres for a recreation park.

On March 20, 1984, council voted unanimously to build the complex in two phases. The first phase, estimated at $3.7 million, was to include a 1,500-seat arena with room for an additional 1,500 seats, three baseball diamonds, two football fields and a 750-car parking lot. The second phase was to consist of an indoor pool and fitness centre.

On Oct. 29, 1984, the go-ahead was given to award contracts for a $5.9-million recreation complex. The official opening was scheduled for Nov. 3, 1985, but was rained out.

The first main occasion to use the arena was on Dec. 26, 1985, when West Germany met Czechoslovakia in a World Junior Hockey tournament.

Tenders and contracts for Phase 2 commenced in mid-summer 1987. The original game plan was to assure a financial base before commitment to build an indoor pool and fitness centre. This was not fully achieved but it did proceed. The official opening was on Nov.5, 1988.

In 1995, a supplementary arena was added on the north side of the complex at a cost of $2.2 million. It is the fourth hockey arena in town.  

Raymond J. Twinney (mayor 1979-1994) had a dominant influence from concept to completion of the complex. In late 1994, he became seriously ill and in recognition of his contribution to the project, it was dedicated and officially named the Ray Twinney Recreation Complex Nov. 23, 1994.

The naming of Rogers Park, an 11-acre park just off London Road, east of Harrison Drive, containing ball diamonds, bleachers, a playground and wading pool was seen as a necessity. The Rogers name is synonymous with the founding of Newmarket. In 1801, Timothy Rogers, a Quaker from Vermont, obtained land grants for 40 families who settled along Yonge, several of whom were sons and close relatives. Schickendanz developers, who built the large subdivision in the London Road area, provided the park.

No place like home

A park close to where I grew up and played is our next featured recreation are: Sunnihill Park.

The park is a 2-acre playground with picnic tables located at Queen Street and Roxborough Road. The name is a distortion of Sunny Hills, which was the first post-war subdivision. Plans for the rehabilitation of servicemen began in January 1945 before the war ended in Europe on May 3, 1945.

A meeting at the high school stressed the urgent need for housing for the veterans. Under the Veterans Land Act, the Government purchased the west end of the Uriah Marsh (Lot 34) farm for $6,000.

The area was parceled into half-acre lots and assigned to qualified veterans to build their new homes. This created the necessity for the extension of Queen St. and Grace St. to a new street named Roxborough Rd. in June 1945.

The lots were all allocated during 1947 and by July they were all taken. The houses were individually built with the veterans acting as their own contractors. On Aug.24, 1946, the community association of the veterans celebrated their new park that had been set aside for the purpose with a corn roast.

The park at Fairly Lake is officially known as Wesley Brooks Memorial Park.

This 31-acre jewel located at Fairy Lake on Water Street contains natural trails, shelters, barbecues, picnic tables, washrooms, and parking.

Wesley Brooks was born in Mount Albert and came to Newmarket as a child with his parents. He was employed by the Office Specialty Co. and became an office manager.

During the Great War he served overseas from 1916 to 1918. In 1945, he was appointed Town Clerk and Treasurer and held that position until he retired in 1962. That same year he was honoured as the Citizen of the Year. From 1951 to 1962, he was Secretary- Treasurer for the Upper Holland River Conservation Authority and promoted the cause for conservation especially in the Fairy Lake area.

He died on Dec.29, 1963 and the Fairy Lake park was dedicated as his memorial in 1964.

The parcel of land including the park and Fairy Lake is on the extreme east end of Lots 92 and 93 extending from Water St. to Mulock Dr., which were patented from the Crown in 1801 to Simon McMertrie via Timothy Rogers.

Elisha Beman purchased the property on Oct.13, 1804. Since that time, it has been owned by various owners.

The area adjacent to the pond was owned privately until 1887 when the Town purchased the west side to establish the waterworks. The east side that is now the park was purchased by the Office Specialty Co. in 1906.

In 1959, the Town, with the intention of establishing a conservation area in conjunction with the Upper Holland Conservation Authority, bought this land from the Office Specialty Co. During 1962, over a period of five months, the lake was dredged, the embankment reinforced and approximately 18 acres graded, shaped, seeded, sodded and landscaped with 7,000 trees.

In 1965, the Town donated the park to the Conservation Authority, which undertook further developments at the site for recreation. The Authority retains ownership and controls all aspects of water protection and wildlife management, while the municipality operates and maintains the area.

In 1973, a pavilion complex consisting of three hexagonal shaped shelters of various sizes were constructed in the central portion of the park. One shelters a covered fireplace and the other two are picnic pavilions.

In September 1981, the lake was drained for dredging and constructing the York Durham sanitary sewer known as the Big Pipe. There was a long delay while the lake profile was shaped and general restoration of the parkland was made with rip-rap stabilization of the embankments.

On April 22, 1981 a $4.5-million parkway scheme commissioned by Town council was presented at a public meeting. This master plan provided for enhancement of the Holland River course from the north to the south town boundaries with walkways, cycle paths, picnic areas recreation parks and botanical gardens.

The Fairy Lake Park was a main ingredient. The concept has only partially been accomplished and the objective is to make it a reality by the millennium. An all-sports complex was deleted when the Ray Twinney complex evolved.

Many of us remember our times down at the Community Arena, a.k.a. the Newmarket Memorial Arena. From the early records in the History of the Town of Newmarket (p.302) by Mrs. Ethel Trewhella, a skating rink was operated during the 1870s on the north side of Timothy Street, just east of the railroad, extending probably 90 ft. with access by eight or 10 steps down from the sidewalk. This was a covered area and floored so that in summertime it was used for rollerskating.

In 1897, a new skating rink was erected on the west side of Main St. midway between Huron St.  (Davis Dr.) and Simcoe Street. This was a timber structure built by Wm. Cane & Sons for $1,580 and measured 79 x 150 ft. with a skating area 44 x 140 ft. A six-foot gallery for onlookers was at the east end and the lighting was by incandescent lamps. It was financed by a company of stockholders formed by selling 1,000 shares at $1 per share.

The old rink was torn down when a new hockey arena was built in 1922 facing Cedar St. and flanking the stream on the north side of Timothy St. (the river course was diverted in 1974).

It was officially opened in December 1922 and named the Newmarket Memorial Arena as a community memorial of the 1914-1918 world war.

It had accommodation for 2,000 when initially built and cost $40,000, mostly financed by Andrew Davis who was the principal shareholder, managing director and president of the famous hockey teams during the 1930s.

In August 1944, Mr. Davis offered to sell the arena to the town. The then-mayor Dr. Lowell Dales had expressed the need for recreation facilities and quickly advocated the purchase with a strong recommendation to council not to miss the opportunity.

In September 1944, bylaw 853 was passed for a plebiscite to approve $17,000 to acquire the arena. A public vote was held on Oct.12 with a favourable majority of the citizens 544 to 102. Another bylaw was passed in February 1945 to issue debentures of $16,000 and the arena became the property of the town.

Utilization of the arena was limited to a relatively short season due to natural ice conditions. In January 1949, the proposal to install artificial ice gained popular approval and a community fund drive was launched with subscriptions over $9,000 being contributed.

50/50 split

Fred Thompson, the manager of the hockey association, was named chairman of the fundraising committee and the town council agreed to a 50/50 arrangement for the total installation cost. About 8,500 feet of piping was laid and welded by volunteers in October and, by December 1949, artificial ice was in regular use. At the same time, an extension along the west end facing Cedar St. provided for ice-making equipment, new dressing rooms, washrooms, coffee bar, lobby, meeting room and additional seating. The main entrance was on Cedar Street.

From very early times, the ice surface on the pond was the most popular place for winter sports with a crude shack on the west bank to change skates or sometimes just sitting on logs in the open.

Shinny games were played on open clearings of the ice. When there was little or no snow on the frozen surface, it was easy to glide pleasantly to the Mulock sideroad. Open-air skating was enjoyed on the pond until the 1970s when more sophisticated facilities were organized and skating on the pond was ruled too dangerous.

Except for the arena and the town hall, there was no other place for public gatherings. The lack of a civic centre was frequently discussed but nothing materialized.  

The population more than doubled from 5,036 in 1950 to 11,324 in 1970 and social activities were demanding more accommodation. The Town Hall auditorium had been used since it was built in 1883 for scores of public gatherings, performing arts, political meetings, and traveling entertainment of all sorts. When the hall was taken over by the municipal offices and magistrate’s court in the 1950s there was no other place to the functions of past years.

Serious considerations were given in 1958 and again in 1960 for a replacement of the town hall. In July 1965, the emphasis was placed on the need for a general-purpose building of some description.

Plans were being made in advance for the 1967 Dominion Centennial and it was proposed to obtain a federal grant to help build a civic centre along with other enhancements in the downtown district. However, this project was nullified by an uproar in council and the whole idea was cancelled.

An ambitious attempt for urban renewal was launched in 1968 and a civic centre was one of the ingredients. This went “down the drain”, but February 1969 was declared “Community Centre” month and a positive commitment was made to meet an objective of $500,000 for the purpose.

The project was soon downgraded to make a major modification to the arena that was undertaken by a fund drive for $139,000. A facelift to the exterior, enlargement of the ice surface to regulation size and alterations to the seating was accomplished during the summer of 1970 with an official opening on Aug.17, 1970.

Large subdivisions were being built and projected. Regional government was scheduled to take over a heavily populated area bordering East Gwillimbury Township to further increase the population to almost 18,000.

In 1972, it became imperative to provide facilities beyond the ever-present obsession for hockey to serve more cultural and other community activities.

The logical solution was to use potential land area north of the arena to build a civic centre with adequate adjacent car parking. Plans prepared by local architects Smith & Milne were approved for tentative go-ahead with enthusiasm by council and Mayor Robert Forhan.

Before it could proceed, it was necessary to obtain space to carry out the scheme. A large warehouse for produce storage was located north of the arena fronting on Cedar St. and owned by Chas Rusto. It was purchased and later demolished to make way for the project.

Although only remotely related, a store south of the municipal offices on Main St. was purchased and demolished to give access to pedestrians to the community parking lot from Main St. In March 1974, a bylaw was passed to establish a Community Centre and another bylaw to engage architects Smith & Milne to design and supervise the construction. In June, a contract was awarded to Elrose Construction Co. for $457,000.

The new Community Centre was opened for use at the end of November 1974. It adjoined the arena to supplement the associated activities and also provided a community hall with several anterooms, kitchen, lobby and washrooms. This was a major asset to the community with ample space for public gatherings, but it still lacked a proper auditorium for theatrical presentations.

We may not think of it as a recreational centre, but the Town Hall has certainly served in that capacity over the years.

In January 1979, a newly formed group of talented actors organized the Newmarket Theatre Centre, headed by Paul Aspland. They advocated a new theatre because the old town hall was in an unsatisfactory state after being used as a courtroom and its fate was very much in jeopardy.

An attractive presentation was made with plans, model and illustrations for a theatre design proposed to be built on the recently new Cane Parkway at an estimated cost of about $1 million, with substantial federal and provincial grants and $300,000 supplied by the town.

Initial enthusiasm was soon dampened by fear of a heavy burden being thrust on the taxpayer. By April 1980, the proposal diminished to a scaled-down version at half the cost. Heated discussions ensued through 1980 and 1981 with the end result that the whole area was abandoned.

In the meantime, controversy over the fate of the old town hall continued and after much debate it was resolved to restore the building as a town Centennial project. Renovation of the auditorium, stage, dressing rooms and seating for 250 were essentially completed during 1982 and official dedication was held on Oct.23, 1982. The Newmarket Theatre Centre group was unhappy with the solution but forced to accept it.

Another theatrical group was formed in November 1981 called The Old Town Hall Players. The two groups operated independently and each produced three plays during the fall and winter season each year until 1996. These performing groups paid $800 to the town for the use of the town hall for every production they staged in contrast to initial hopes of a subsidy.

When the new Newmarket High School was built on College Manor, a professional-type theatre was included. In 1997, the two theatrical groups amalgamated under the name Newmarket Stage Company and produced their shows at the new location.

Another park currently in the news is the Hollingsworth Civic Arena, built in a new subdivision north of Davis Drive by Del Zotto Bros., who promised to erect a new arena and provide a park site if they obtained approval of their venture.

In August 1972, a trade-off for a permit to build 329 homes in Bayview Hills subdivision set aside 15 acres for a park and 3.5 acres on the east side of Patterson St. for an arena.

An agreement was made with a value of approximately $350,000 for the arena, with an ice surface of 135 ft. x 35 ft., seating for 200 and six dressing rooms. It was built in 1972 and in February 1973 was named Hollingsworth Arena.

Frank Hollingsworth was a popular longtime public school teacher and volunteer sports organizer.                  

Whipper Watson Park is a 14-acre recreation area on Carruthers Avenue, the entrance is opposite Rushbrook Drive.  

Whipper Billy Watson was a world-famous professional wrestler. His real name was William Potts and he was born in East York in 1916. He began his wrestling career at the age of 13 and continued until he was forced to retire in 1971 due to an automobile accident.

At that time, he was the reigning British Empire Champion. He was well-known across Canada for charity work, especially with the disabled and received many awards for his contributions. In 1974, he was given the Order of Canada. He lived in Sharon and was very active in local charities. His fame as a wrestler and his charitable works brought him many testimonials from near and far on his demise.

Very much in the news now and I suspect in the future is the Widdifield Park, which sits on 2.75 acres of land between Water Street and Timothy Street and is part of what is now Riverwalk Commons.

We used to call it the “park” that wasn’t because it became a parking lot instead. Originally, the area was low-lying ground prone to flooding and used as a cow pasture in summer. It was owned by W. C. Widdifield, a lawyer in Newmarket from 1895 to 1930 who deeded it to the Town in April 1934 with the proviso that it would be used as a park.   

This never happened as being in a flood plain it was unsuitable for a park. Gradually, from 1940 it was the repository for earthfill from various construction sites as well as garbage from the town pick-up.

Most of the fill came from Lorne Avenue when it was extended from Eagle St. to Andrew St. It was further filled when Loblaw extended its store over the river in 1954 and then it was paved.

The natural course of the river was north from the dam to a “dog-leg” and then east, flanking the south side of the arena that caused severe erosion to the embankment. During the summer of 1976, the river was diverted to a tunnel 27 ft. wide by 10 ft. high, running diagonally from south west to north east. The surface was regraded and repaved in 1989.  

W. C. Widdifield was a descendant of a large Quaker family that came from Muncy, Pennsylvania. In 1811, he was married to Emma Cane, who was a daughter of Wm. Cane, the first Mayor of Newmarket.

So, how many of these parks have you visited?  I hope that knowing a little bit about the history behind their creation will prompt you to check out more of our Town’s recreational gems this year.  Walking through these parks is a walk through our living heritage.     

Sources: A History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; 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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