By Aly Beach, Durham College Journalism Student
Once upon a time, there was an old, decrepit house on Simcoe St. North, in Oshawa. The windows were boarded, the door creaked open and slammed shut. The greenery had begun to overtake it. The house was surrounded by a massive construction site and seemed out of place. One day it was there. The next it wasn’t.
This house was located at 2300 Simcoe St. North, just past Durham College and UOIT, until around 2016. It originally belonged to Harriet Cock, affectionately known as “Granny Cock” by relatives and local archivists. She was one of Oshawa’s first female landowners.
Being a female landowner was unusual in the 1800s, as was being independently wealthy. Unlike most women during that time, Granny Cock could vote before Confederation. The requirement for voting prior to Confederation was to be a landowner. This ‘loophole’ was closed after confederation in 1867.
Granny Cock immigrated to Canada from Cornwall, England in 1846 with plenty of money, her daughter, son-in-law and her prized mahogany table.
Granny Cock was born in 1787. She amassed her fortune when both her father and husband died. Her father was a wealthy barrel maker who also owned a barrel factory, and her husband was a prosperous grocer.
Soon after immigrating, Granny Cock started buying land. Over the course of her lifetime, it is estimated she owned over 250 acres of land in north Oshawa and the Georgian Bay area.
Granny Cock built herself a house, ran a successful farm and lived a comfortable life in Oshawa. She died in 1884, at the age of 97. She is buried in Union Cemetery.
In her will, she gave her house to her grandson, William Guy, a member of Oshawa’s influential Guy family. It is unclear who owned the house directly after him.
In recent history, the house was property of Windfields Farm until 2009. The land was then purchased by Canada’s largest real estate investment trust, RioCan, in 2012. And so began the battle over Harriet’s House.
RioCan was ordered by Heritage Oshawa to produce a report of the house, to see what the preservation options were.
In 2012, RioCan hired Toronto-based company ERA Architecture to consult on the house and do the report.
The report, presented to Oshawa City Council in April 2012, stated Cock’s house “is a rare example of early vernacular architecture in the Oshawa area likely dating from the 1830s.” This was based off studies of the Guy House, which is very similar in architecture and general style. It was discovered not long after the report that the time-period was wrong, and the houses were actually from the 1840s. This error was based off misinformation given to the Oshawa Museum, where Guy House is located.
According to the ERA report, Harriet’s House “was found to be in sufficiently good condition to enable it to withstand the impact of relocation.” It was decided by Heritage Oshawa that RioCan could relocate the house for between $40,000 and $45,000.
Four years later, nothing had happened. The house was still where it had always been. In 2016, the developers deemed the house was deemed too decrepit to move. Joel Wittnebel, editor of The Oshawa Express, pointed out in an article from 2012 that Harriet’s House had managed to survive for over 150 years, but apparently those four years did a number on it.
“The impression I get is that it just didn’t fit into the overall scheme of what they wanted,” says Jennifer Weymark, archivist at the Oshawa Museum. She has lived in the area since 1999.
In 2013, Oshawa city council carried a motion that approved the move proposed by Heritage Oshawa and suggested to make it part of Windfields Farm, and designate it as a historic building.
In the request to demolish the house, RioCan added in a $15,000 donation to the city of Oshawa for Windfields Farm preservation. The money would go to Oshawa Heritage Week at Oshawa Fire Hall 6.
Harriet’s House holds a special place in Weymark’s heart. She would have liked to have seen the house survive, because its presence changes the historical narrative of the area.
“I think she’s a really interesting aspect of our early history that we don’t celebrate enough,” says Weymark, who believes when we talk about history we often focus only on the male perspective.
Weymark says the fact this house exclusively belonged to a woman changes the story. The house could tell a story driven by an influential woman.
The bulldozing of the historic Cock house brings about many questions: How could it have been saved? Should it have been saved? What could have been done to prevent this?
“Obviously preserving buildings that have historic value; It comes from the citizens of community that really rally behind and say ‘this is a building we think needs to be saved’,” says Weymark. “It was those citizens who saved these three buildings, particularly this one [Henry House], Guy House and Robinson House. It was a citizen effort that had them preserved,” says Weymark.
Heritage Oshawa Chair Laura Thursby says, “We seek out properties, some with cultural significance and some with interesting architecture.”
Heritage Oshawa is Oshawa’s municipal heritage committee. They are not truly advocates, but advise the City Council on matters related to heritage.
They have a list of historical significant buildings called an inventory. If a building on the inventory is being changed, Heritage Oshawa can step in and make recommendations about how the changes can implemented to conserve the heritage aspects of the building. They are also notified if the owner of a building on the inventory applies for a demolition permit.
If Heritage Oshawa feels like a building on the inventory holds notable historical significance, especially if it is threatened in some way, they will ask for a report on the property. Based on the recommendations outlined in the report, Heritage Oshawa can recommend to Oshawa city council that building should be designated. This gives it extra protections and helps conserve the building. However, designation does not necessarily mean that it is completely safe from demolition.
Heritage Oshawa simply gives recommendations to city council about what they believe should be done with the building. Ultimately, all final decisions are made by council.
It is important to mention when Heritage Oshawa makes their recommendations, they do not consider the current state of the house, only the historical significance of the building.
Thursby says it can be disappointing when historical buildings are destroyed, such as Harriet’s House, as once demolished they can never be brought back.
“It can be frustrating, but our job is simply the heritage side,” says Thursby.
Recently, there have been two places Heritage Oshawa has tried to protect.
The first one is downtown’s Memorial Park. Heritage Oshawa recommended it should be added to the inventory for its heritage significance and protection. Council vetoed the recommendation.
“It is a public space that is valued by citizens,” says Thursby.
Harriet’s House was also recommended for designation in 2012 and was vetoed.
The second is the Robert McLaughlin’s house on Simcoe Street. McLaughlin was father to Sam McLaughlin, the man who is credited with the creation of General Motors of Canada.
Heritage Oshawa is in the process of trying have it designated as a historical building.
“We consider it significant in the heritage landscape of Oshawa,” says Thursby.
“These buildings are central to Oshawa culture. They both contribute in different ways and they both have value,” says Thursby.
Weymark explains there are many historical buildings that can be worked into a modern setting, while also enhancing their history and the area surrounding it.
While all of this may have been avoidable, Harriet Cock and her home are now a lost piece of Oshawa’s history. Currently, RioCan is beginning to build a shopping centre where Harriet’s House once stood and have agreed to install a plaque to signify who once owned the land. Granny Cock has become yet another historical woman who will be forgotten.
The land where we stand is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.
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