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Stately farmhouse in Newmarket has links to Empire State Building in New York (12 photos)

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod recounts the fabled history of Maple Gables, former home of Newmarket's first settles, builder John William Bowser and Crosslands dairy farming family

Let’s visit Maple Gables, that stately Yonge Street farmhouse on the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Millard Avenue. This home has quite a local history, enhanced by the people who have called it home. While it is currently the home of the Sociable Pub, buildings like this quite often have an uncertain future, so it is great to see that it is still proudly standing its ground.  With its colourful history, which includes both York Region's original colonizer and the man who built the famous Empire State Building, I think it is a story worth telling.

Originally the house perched on a height of land, overlooking the developing village of Newmarket in the river valley below and was part of a rich 180-acre farm.  You will remember that the farm became Glenway subdivision.

Timothy Rogers, a colonizer from Vermont, obtained this farm and 39 others as part of a Crown grant. He was able to obtain for his Quaker clients grants of 200 acres each in 1801 from the Crown on the condition the settlers clear and farm the land. Among the 40 Quaker families he brought up from the U.S,, many carried the Rogers name, and one of those was John Rogers.

The Rogers family held and farmed the property for over 100 years, but in 1902 it was sold to Walker Morton for $10,000. It then changed hands several times until 1933, when John William Bowser, a native of Aurora, purchased it for about $30,000 and developed it into a fine country estate intended for his retirement.

I think that it is appropriate for us to learn a little bit about this extraordinary man at this point. At the tender age of 11, Bowser struck out on his own from his Aurora home, and headed west to Reston, Manitoba, where homesteaders were carving up the virgin prairie. He climbed off a freight train at the frontier hamlet one evening with only 35 cents and an old revolver as his only worldly possessions other than the clothes he wore.  

As the story goes, he was hungry, and the CPR station restaurant coffee smelled good, and so he could not resist. Twenty cents of his meagre capital disappeared for that coffee and sandwich.

He then borrowed a pair of skates and spent his last 15 cents on a good time, pawned his revolver for a bed and breakfast spot with a friendly innkeeper and in the morning set off for the ranch of a former Aurora resident where he hoped to find work.

At this time, 1905 or 1906, the homestead owned by Albert Conover was about the furthest west of the Manitoba settlements, and young Bowser was put to work there when he arrived. Despite pleas from his father, who finally located his wayward son after making the trip from Ontario with the intent of inducing him to return home, John decided to stay on the Prairies for several years.

He worked for a construction company in Winnipeg, played professional hockey there, and then returned home with money in his pockets. He spent a year in the building trade back in his hometown, became a construction foreman in Toronto, then was offered a superintendent’s job at a paper mill under construction in Temiskaming.

From there he moved to Nyles, Ohio, to superintend construction on a steel mill, then returned to Toronto for a contract with General Electric, then he was off to Japan to work for the George Fuller Company constructing commercial buildings. 

Returning to the U.S., he settled in what was then a booming California and formed Griffith and Bowser Construction, which he operated for a few years before Starratt and Eken, one of the great American building firms of the time and successors to the Fuller firm, sought his services in the building of the New York Life head office in New York City.

Work on other skyscrapers followed; they built the Department of Agriculture building covering a whole city block in the national capital, and then came the biggest job of his career, the demolition of the old Waldorf Astoria hotel and the building of the Empire State Building from 1929 to 1931.

It was while still a young man and at the height of his career that Bowser purchased the former Rogers farm as his home. He continued to travel to the U.S. to superintend major construction projects, but more and more of his time was devoted to the farm. He renovated the old farmhouse, erected fences, landscaped and built new barns.

In 1937, he took over the Aurora Building Company. The company went on to build Eaton Hall, the Office Specialty offices, and Camp Newmarket, a post Second World War residential project for returning veterans and their families (on the site of the former Army Camp).  

On a personal note, my uncle, George Luesby, found work with Bowser on both the Empire State Building and the conversion of the old Army Camp, as one of his engineers / architects. 

Mr. And Mrs. Bowser would live at Maple Gables until July 1948, when it was sold to the Crossland family.

James Crossland bought the property from the Bowsers and his son, Ernest, continued to work the farm and live in the home, even after he had sold it to a development firm who would build the Glenway subdivision. 

Many will likely remember Crossland’s dairy farm and the exotic cows. I intend to dedicate a separate article to Crossland and his legacy of giving and passion for his community. I had a few opportunities to experience his passion in person, his determination to preserve our heritage, both physical and environmental. 

The development firm sold the house and seven acres of land around it to Famous Players Theatres and the firm built a theatre complex and offices, as well as a shopping plaza on the corner of Davis and Yonge Street.  

The farm was developed as a golf course, recreation complex, proposed regional offices containing Children’s Aid, the Provincial Court Building, a commercial area with daycare facilities and, of course, the subdivision called Glenway in 1984.

Sadly, the house stood vacant and boarded up for several years. It was then leased to Just Desserts, a restaurant chain and the interior was renovated to serve as a restaurant. It was an extremely popular restaurant for a few years until the Just Desserts chain fell on hard times. 

When it went bankrupt, the building was again shuttered before becoming another fine restaurant called Orleans, which was open for nearly a decade before the Sociable Pub opened its doors, and the old lady found new life. If you visit it today, you will notice that its former glory is still showing through. 

The Glenway Theatre next door was shuttered after Famous Players built a multi-screen complex a quarter mile further north at Green Lane and Yonge. Thankfully, a new church took over the cinema location and the plaza would seem to be prospering.

Maple Gables is another example of a building, in this case a house, which finds its historical roots in the people who occupied it more than the characteristics of the said building. The property is still beautiful and a visit to the Social Pub affords one the opportunity to visit what was once a very elegant home. I have posted some photos of the house and interior to re-enforce the uniqueness of the estate.

I urge you to check out the house next time you want an evening out and see a bit of our history that thankfully is still available to us to enjoy.

I will feature other historic houses in the future, houses that are still with us and just as filled with our heritage.

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Articles from the Newmarket Era; Stories of Newmarket – An old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; Oral History Interviews Conducted by Richard MacLeod; Previous Articles from the Remember This series on Newmarket Today; Interior Photos Thanks to Mr. Ralph Magel

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.