Profiling: The Cowan Brothers

The Cowan family, including brothers John and William Fredrick Cowan, their mother, and younger siblings, left Ireland for America and landed at the New York pier in 1841. There, they met the father and husband that they had not seen for three long years. Their father, whose name is not known, had left his family and travelled to America searching for a suitable spot of land. With the arrival of the rest of the Cowans, they travelled to Toronto and settled. Sadly, the elder Cowan passed away of typhoid fever soon after their establishment in Canada, leaving his widow and children to survive on their own resources.

John (left) and William (right) Cowan, as appeared in TE Kaiser’s Historic Sketches of Oshawa

The elder Cowan had operated a mercantile business in the family’s home of Fenton, County Tyrone, Ireland. His two eldest sons, John and William, continued in their father’s line of work. They began as clerks in the dry goods firm of Alex Laurie & Co. but soon moved on into the employ of William MacFarlane. Their apprenticeship under the hands of others lasted 15 years before the Cowan brothers decided that they could make a business of their own. Their first shop, a dry goods firm, opened at the southwest corner of Yonge and Richmond Streets in 1856.

Success seemed to come easily, as it did in later life, and the brothers soon expanded their business. They opened two new branches within the next ten years – one in Port Albert, and the other in Oshawa, on King Street.

William was the first of the Cowans to settle in Oshawa. He came, with his wife Susan Groves, to manage the brother’s branch store on King Street in 1861. His older brother John followed four years later, closing their main store in Toronto and moving all of their business to the growing town of Oshawa.  Thus began a business foundation which would encompass the fields of finance and manufacturing and beget some of Oshawa’s major industries.

The Cowan Block, located at present day 13½ to 19½ King Street West, was built around 1865 for the brothers’ growing business. They had several tenants over the years, ranging from various other merchants, to druggists, to dentists. The buildings, which are virtually identical in all respects, except for some ground-level changes, are built in the Italianate style. This architectural style was popular for commercial buildings in Canada during the 1850s and 1860s.

The Cowans became friends with A.S. Whiting, and soon John found himself in a partnership with the American-born manufacturer. The firm of Whiting and Cowan, also known as the Cedar Dale Works, produced scythes, forks and other agricultural implements.

A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Co., from the Oshawa Community Archives

Five years passed before the brothers felt they could tackle a manufacturing business of their own. William retired from the management of the retail business, and John withdrew from the Cedar Dale Works.  Both men  had amassed a considerable  amount of  money during this time, and they now invested in the formation of the Ontario Malleable Iron Co. Ltd. John took up the post of president of the company, with William as vice-president, and stayed as such until his death.

William also became involved in a manufacturing venture of his own. Joining in partnership with J.D. Storie and H. T. Carswell, the trio organized the Oshawa Steam and Gas Fitting Company Limited, known later as Fittings Limited. During this time, the brothers turned their attention to banking. In the early 1870s, the Cowans participated in the formation of the Ontario Loan and Savings Company with the Gibbs brothers; this company, along with the Western Bank, was soon fully transferred into the hands of the Cowan family, caused by the financial downfall of the Gibbs’ fortunes. The Standard Bank, with its head office in Toronto, was soon organized during the same time period. While John concentrated most of his time and effort into Malleable, William became leader of the financial triplet. President of the Standard Bank for 45 years, he also served as a director at the Western Bank. When the two banks were amalgamated in 1909, they both came under full control of the Cowan dynasty.

The brothers each had their particular forte. John concerned himself with the minute details of day-to-day business, while William took care of general policy. While William married and had one son, John remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. He lived with his brother’s family and was a quiet unassuming philanthropist. He served as a trustee of the Children’s Shelter and the Public Library, and he was active on the Oshawa Hospital Board and the Board of Education. He gave generously to various charities in the area. Both he and his brother served as mayor of Oshawa: John in 1887 and William from 1889 to 1894. Both were involved in St. George’s Anglican Church, and William’s house, now known as Cowan House, was give to the church by his son to be used as church offices.

Cowan House, 2016; photographed by OM Staff

John died on April 12, 1915, at the age of 86, and is buried in St. James’ Cemetery in Toronto. William followed his brother three years later, ending the reign of the Cowan brothers in the financial, industrial, and retail heartland of Oshawa. Their name lives on with Cowan Park, located on Olive Avenue.

Cowan Park, October 1999; from the Dowsley Photograph Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection

This was originally written as an Oshawa Museum Historical Information Sheet and was edited and adapted for the blog.

References:

Historical Information Sheet: Fittings Limited. Prepared by Kathleen Brown, August 15, 2000. Published by the Oshawa Historical Society.

Historical Information Sheet: Ontario Malleable Iron Co. Ltd. Prepared by Karen Smith, May 8, 1998. Published by the Oshawa Historical Society.

Kaiser, T.E. Historical Sketches of Oshawa. Oshawa: The Reformer Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd, 1921.

Cedardale Works (A.S. Whiting) subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Cowan subject file: Oshawa Community Archives

Fitting Limited subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Ontario Loan and Savings subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Standard Bank subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Western Bank subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Profiling: Mike Starr

Hon. Michael Starr was born in 1910 as Michael Starchevski, to Ukrainian parents from the western region of Galicia. From Copper Cliff, Ontario, the family eventually moved to Montreal, to Toronto and then to Oshawa in 1921 where his mother had some Ukrainian friends. They settled in the south end of the city, close to factories as well as the Oshawa Creek. Michael attended Cederdale Public School, where his friend group was made up of others with Ukrainian or Eastern European background – many of whom also lived in the same area.

Michael entered the workforce in 1925 as a printer’s devil in order to help support his family (including his five younger siblings). However, his ambition for education remained high and he returned to complete an accelerated course at Oshawa Collegiate Institute (later named O’Neill CVI). This enabled him to work as a cost clerk at Pedlar People Limited, where he would gain increasing responsibilities over the years. As a result of his employer’s suggestion and with his father’s permission, he shortened his last name, Starchevski, to Starr in order for it to be more easily pronounced in English.

In 1933, during the Depression, he married Anne Zaritsky and they managed to live quite comfortably on his salary of just $15.00 per week.  They built a house at 25 Olive Ave. where they raised their son and daughter and continued to reside for the remainder of their lives.

In 1944, after several failed attempts, Starr was elected to the Oshawa City Council as an Alderman.  In the position, he is credited with making the City Board of Works into a modern and efficient department.  After five years on City Council, he sought and was elected as Mayor in 1949 and re-elected to this position in 1951.  During his three terms as Mayor, he oversaw many improvements in the City including the construction of the new municipal office-building, police station, fire hall and sewage disposal plant together with the annexation of a large section of East Whitby Township.  During this time, Mr. Starr managed to continue to work as Sales Manager for the Pedlar People Ltd.

In 1952, he was elected as the Member of Parliament representing the Progressive-Conservative party. In July 1957, Mr. Starr was appointed Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government.  This appointment made him the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to be appointed to the federal Cabinet.   In September 1967, Robert Stanfield appointed Mr. Starr as interim opposition leader of the Party and House Leader until Stanfield took his seat.  In the federal election of 1968, Mr. Starr was defeated by a very narrow margin by Ed Broadbent, later national leader of the New Democratic Party.  With this election, Mr. Starr’s political career in elected politics ended.

The Starchevski family took part in Ukrainian social life in Oshawa, which included the Prosvita Society – a reading association where Michael’s father Matthew served as president. Other organizations were political groups such as the Ukrainian Labour/Farmer Temple and the Canadian Sitch Organization, which all served as centres for cultural activities such as musical and dramatic productions. The Prosvita Hall, for instance, sponsored a Ukrainian Athletic Club which excelled in softball. Mike Starr, the organizer, was willing to play any position and later served as coach and manager. 

The newer generation of Ukrainian immigrants revitalized community institutions, like churches and halls, and established their own. Still, the older community and the newer interacted, with the former helping the latter. Starr, who at this time was serving as Mayor of Oshawa, would welcome newcomers to the city. He would also present them with certificates upon successful completion of their contracts and help with finding other jobs or housing – overall leaving a very positive impression.

Victoria Szeczepanski, another participant in the Museum’s project who emigrated from Poland at this time, had a few remarks about her first impressions of Oshawa. She said the following:

My husband took English lessons at Central Collegiate, where Michael Starr welcomed us to Oshawa. He asked that the citizens of Oshawa treat the newcomers with respect. Some people treated us well, and with respect. Others looked at us as newcomers and would occasionally call us DP.

Looking around at certain landmarks – like the Michael Starr Building or the Michael Starr trail – it is easy to guess at his overall lasting impact on Oshawa. However, when hearing from members of the Ukrainian community, or from other cultural groups, it becomes even clearer. Each political success was considered a success for the whole community, especially since he was the first federal Cabinet Minister of Ukrainian descent. Indeed, his overall contributions to the political landscape – throughout his journey from City Alderman to Mayor to Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government, are fondly remembered.

Michael Starr died March 16, 2000 at the age of 89. He is buried at St. Wolodymyr and St. Olha Ukrainian Cemetery, located in south Courtice.

No matter where he was, it was said that Michael Starr was always thinking about the future of Oshawa.  In 1997, he told a story to the archivist for the Oshawa Museum. While driving along Highway 2, Starr said to his wife, “Anne, someday when you are driving through here it will all be lit up with houses and factories and everything.”  She said to him years later, “How in the world did you know this?”


Much of the text for this article was originally written by summer student, Mia, for a video podcast: Listen to Mia tell the story of Mike Starr here:

Profiling: John Terech

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

This is a departure from the usual ‘Profiling’ Series on our blog.  Our past profiles have been for people like James O. Guy, Dr. McKay, Frederick Fowke, and George McLaughlin – typically well known and certainly well-researched and well-written about individuals. With plans and preparations ongoing for our latest feature exhibit, Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa, it made me reflect on my own Polish heritage and roots in our community, so this profile is of someone whose name will likely never be stumbled upon in history books, my great-grandfather, John (Jan) Terech.

John was born in 1885 in Mała Wieś, Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, Poland, one of five known children born to Vincenty (Wincenty) Terech and Ewa Karwacki (Karwacka). His brother Joseph (Jozef) (1891-1963) resided in Canada for a number of years before ultimately settling in the United States.  One sister, Antonia (1894-1945), married a man named John Novak.  She is laid to rest in St. Catharines, ON.  Sisters Julianna (born 1881), and Sofia (married name Porębska) apparently remained in Poland.

The exact year he arrived in Canada is unknown, but it was likely between 1906 and 1910, settling in Toronto where he met Stella (Stanislava) Urban; they were married on the 23rd of November, 1912 at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Toronto. This church is the oldest Polish parish in Toronto.  While living in Toronto, the family grew but suffered loss. Twins Mary and Josepha were born in 1913, but Josepha died a short two days after her birth; Cecylia was born in March 1915 but died that November; both sisters are buried in Toronto’s Mount Hope Catholic Cemetery. Daughters Anne, Jean, Charlotte (Lottie), and Frances were born in 1916, 1919, 1921, and 1923, respectively, with the family living at 418 Prospect Street, Oshawa, by 1921. By the time their last child, Edward, was born in 1926, John was so pleased that, as family stories go, he was handing out drinks to passers by of 116 Olive Avenue, where the family lived since 1924, because he was overjoyed by the birth of a son. Family stories also state that he was so pleased that he registered the name not as Edward, as my grandfather and his mother believed, but as Stanislaus; Grandpa had his name legally changed to Edward years later.

John, Stella, and family, c. 1921

Stories from my Grandpa and great-aunts were of many happy years living in the Olive Avenue rowhouses, a neighbourhood of Oshawa which, at that time, was heavily settled by eastern European immigrants. The rowhouses were hot in the summer, and some nights were spent by the children sleeping across the road in Cowan Park for relief from the heat. My great-grandparent’s home on Olive was, at that time, a double unit. The size of the home, although still modest, would have been well used by the six children, a few of whom would live in the family home after getting married with their new spouses. In 1947, John, Stella, and Eddie moved to 299 Verdun Road, a short 10-minute walk from the rowhouses.

John worked for Malleable and Fittings, two industries where many eastern European immigrants found employment. Work in these plants were hard and dirty, and John suffered many negative health effects from working in these industries. He reportedly worked until he retired in 1948, and my grandfather stopped his formal education at a young age, instead seeking work to help support the family. Grandpa spent most of his working life at Duplate (later known as PPG), which is where he met my grandmother, Mary, and my step-grandmother, Doreen.

John and Stella received their Certificates of Naturalization in 1929. A cousin shared with me that John (“dziadek – proper Polish but we called him jaja the Western version”) never learned English, although another cousin believed that he did understand the language but preferred conversing in Polish. Stella, “on the other hand self taught herself [English]; she would study the school books that [Lottie] and others brought home.”  John and Stella were active within the local Polish community. Both were involved in Branch 21 of the Polish Alliance of Canada and were supportive of the establishment of St. Hedwig’s parish.

Their Catholic faith was important to them. Before the establishment of St. Hedwig’s and Holy Cross, the family would venture from Olive Avenue to St. Gregory The Great at Simcoe and (today) Adelaide to attend services. Information from St. Hedwig’s notes that by 1928, the Polish community were starting discussions of establishing a Polish Catholic church, and in November 1928, a weekly mass at St. Gregory’s began being held for the Polish community.

John and Stella celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1962 with a banquet and dance in St. Hedwig’s parish hall. As reported in the Oshawa Times, there was a nuptial mass with vow renewal, greetings presented, toasts, dancing, feasting, and, of course, the singing of ‘Sto Lat, Sto Lat.’

The Oshawa Times, Thursday, November 29, 1962

John passed away in 1964 and Stella died in 1969. Both are laid to rest at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Whitby.

Oshawa was often where Displaced Persons settled after World War II – the availability of industries was a draw, but the establishment of communities, churches, and groups like the Polish Alliance increased the appeal of our City. It would be a big, daunting undertaking to leave home and move to a new country, but settling somewhere amongst others who spoke your languages, knew your traditions, and cooked the same food, certainly would have helped with this big life transition. The contributions of those who arrived at the turn of the century and in the following decades helped pave the way for the waves of immigrants who arrived in the late 1940s and onwards.

Profiling: George McLaughlin

George William McLaughlin was born in Tyrone, Ontario on February 17, 1869. He was the third of five children born to parents Robert and Mary McLaughlin, along with his siblings John James (b. 1865), Mary (b. 1867), Robert Samuel (b. 1871), and Elizabeth Ann (b. 1874).

At an early age George showed an interest in the carriage business owned by his father.  He began his apprenticeship with the company by age 16, working first in the trimming shop. In the early days there were no conspicuous advantages to being the boss’s son.  George worked 70 hour a week, earning $3.00 per week ($2.50 of which was deducted for room and board).  His personality was well suited to salesmanship, and by 1892 he had become a junior partner in the McLaughlin Carriage Company.

A year later, in 1893, George married Annie Hodgson.  Annie had grown up in Tyrone, across the road from the McLaughlin homestead.  She and George would have four children – Ewart, Ray, Dorothy and Kathleen.

George McLaughlin, Annie (nee Hodson) with children, Dorothy, Ray, and Ewart. Oshawa Public Libraries, Local History Collection

In 1907 the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was formed.  With George as Treasurer, the McLaughlins began producing Buick car bodies for the Buick Motor Company of Flint, Michigan.  By 1915 they were producing Chevrolets.  The carriage company had been sold to Chevrolet Motor Company, and the Chevrolet Motor Company of Canada Limited was incorporated, with George as President.   In 1918 General Motors purchased the two businesses.  Younger brother Sam became President of the newly incorporated General Motors of Canada, while George fulfilled the role of Vice-President until his retirement at the age of 55 in 1924.

George is seated, first row, third from left

George McLaughlin was not idle in his retirement.  He remained on the boards of various companies, and his interest in them continued.  He travelled to Europe, the Mediterranean, and South Africa.  He also turned his attention to farming, which had been a life-long interest for George.  He purchased the McLaughlin family farms around Tyrone and land to the north of Oshawa and established progressive farming operations, importing pure-bred cattle which benefited the farming industry of Ontario and ultimately the whole of Canada.  George was known for his Clydesdale horses, Holstein cattle and prize-winning apples, and earned the distinguished title of “Master Farmer” for his contributions to farming.

During his lifetime, George McLaughlin made generous contributions to the community. He was modest about his philanthropic activities, such as the large amounts of time and money he devoted to community services and civic improvements.

George was the first president of various newly formed groups in Oshawa, including the Oshawa Welfare Board, the Boy Scout movement in Oshawa, and the Oshawa Chamber of Commerce.  He involved himself with the Children’s Aid Society, serving as President for a while, and devoted some of his best years to municipal office.

George and Annie made numerous donations towards school and church improvements, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross.  For many years, George served on both the Board of Education and as Superintendent of the Sunday School at St. Andrew’s United Church.

In 1920 George and his brother Sam, in the name of General Motors of Canada, bought the land that would become Lakeview Park and sold it to the Town of Oshawa for one dollar.  In 1924 George tried to start a zoo in the park by introducing buffalo from Wainwright, Alberta.  Unfortunately the idea did not succeed, and the buffalo were relocated to the Riverdale Zoo in Toronto. 

Sam and George also donated the McLaughlin maternity wing to the Oshawa General Hospital, and contributed generously to the hospital endowment fund over the years.

On July 1, 1922 George McLaughlin presented the Union Cemetery to the Town of Oshawa.  He had purchased all outstanding stock of the holding company that operated the cemetery and turned it over to the town, making the cemetery a municipal affair from that point onward.  He also generously donated $500 towards the creation and upkeep of a soldiers plot in the cemetery.  A monument donated by George was erected in the cemetery in honour of the “boys from Ontario County, who served, fought and died for Canada in the Great War.”

DS Hoig noted that before the cemetery was transferred to the city, it had fallen into almost a state of neglect. Hoig wrote:

From this depth it was finally rescued by an outstanding citizen, well known for his interest in the affairs of this town. By buying stock in the Cemetery Corporation, found himself after a time in possession of a majority of the stock. From that moment no further dividends were paid, all monies that accrued from the sale of lots were applied year after year to the improvements and beautifying of the grounds… The whole business was carried through with so little fuss or publicity that the identity of this gentleman is known only to a few that were connected with this transaction.

George McLaughlin died of bowel cancer at the age of 73 on October 10, 1942.  Upon his death the family homestead near Tyrone was passed on to his son Ewart. He is laid to rest inside the Mausoleum at Union Cemetery.

His contributions to the automotive industry, to farming, and to the community are the legacies for which George McLaughlin should be remembered.


References:

A Pictorial Biography of George W. McLaughlin (CD produced by and with the permission of Mary P. Hare) – MBE.

Henderson, Dorothy.  Robert McLaughlin:  Carriage Builder. Griffin Press Ltd., 1972.

McLaughlin Genealogy file, Oshawa Museum Archival Collection

Petrie, Roy.  Sam McLaughlin. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., 1981.

Robertson, Heather.  Driving Force.  McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995.

Profiling: James Odgers Guy

The Oshawa Museum is comprised of three historic homes: Henry House, Robinson House, and Guy House.  Guy House’s namesake is James Odgers Guy, who purchased the house and quarter-acre lot in 1861.

James Odgers Guy

James was born in Cornwall, England in 1828, the second son born to Thomas Guy Sr. and his wife Margery.  The family stayed in England until 1842 when Thomas, Margery and James immigrated to Canada.  Thomas Jr. joined them in Canada four years later when he immigrated with his wife Harriett and mother-in-law and two young children.

After their long Atlantic voyage (aboard the first-class sailing vessel the “Clio”), the Guys settled on a farm in Columbus, Ontario.  They remained there for four years before moving for a short time to Woodstock.  Finally, they moved to Bonnie Brae Point (a.k.a. “Guy’s Point”), where they settled in 1854.

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James did not stay on the family farm.  He married Rachel Luke, also a Cornwall native, in 1852, and together the couple had seven children.  The family moved into Guy House in 1861, when James purchased the ¼ acre on which the frame home was built, paying £250 for the home.  All but one of their children lived with them in Guy House; sadly, their son William Arthur Guy died just five months after his first birthday on March 26, 1854.

Maternity Home

On 9 June 1883, James began plans to move once again.  He purchased a half-acre lot on King Street East (between Division St. and Mary St.).  In 1884 James sold his property at the Lake and had a house built on his new King Street lot.  He named the house Llewellyn Hall, likely after his fifth child, who died in 1882.

James & grain

Funds for the construction of Llewellyn Hall were made available through James’ widespread business success.  Some of his business interests were closely related to those of his brother.  The siblings shared a family business, dealing in coal and grain.  The Guys were involved in a coal dealership in Oshawa and grain elevators in Brooklin and Myrtle.  James ran his grain business from 16 Celina Street.

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In addition to his business enterprises, James Odgers Guy held a diverse collection of important community posts.  He was Harbour Master of the Port Oshawa Co., Deputy of East Whitby, Reeve of East Whitby, Ontario County Warden, and Secretary of the Edmondson Electric Light Co.   He was also a Grammar School Trustee and a Trustee of Oshawa High Schools.  James’ extensive involvement with the Oshawa area prompted the Oshawa Vindicator to call this prominent citizen “Oshawa’s Grand Old Man” (Feb 21, 1908).

James Odgers Guy died on April 5, 1909.  His obituary ran as follows:

The Death of Mr. James O. Guy
A Highly-respected Business Man of Oshawa – Ex-Warden.
(Special Dispatch to The Globe)

Oshawa, April 5. — James O. Guy, an old and highly respected resident of this town, passed away to-day at the ripe age of eighty-one years. During his residence here he held almost every gift the people had to bestow municipally from Reeve to Warden. Politically he was a Liberal, and, above all, a kindly Christian gentle-man, for many years being a member of the official board of the Simcoe Street Methodist Church. Mr. Guy was a grain merchant for years, and was held in the greatest respect. His wife, three sons and two daughters survive. They are: F.A. Guy of Fort William, Arthur of Winnipeg, Edgar J. of Toronto, Mrs. E. M. Jewell of Toronto and Miss Ida at home.

He and his wife Rachel (who died on July 4, 1914) were both buried in the Oshawa’s Union Cemetery.

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