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.

Where The Streets Get Their Names – Robson and Whiting

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

The other afternoon, I had to stop by the head office for the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority.  It is conveniently close to the Museum, a mere two kilometres north along Simcoe Street.  Driving to the CLOCA head office, you will pass the intersection of Whiting Avenue (the street where the office is located) and Robson Street. This interesting intersection is a fitting tribute to two industries that had made Cedar Dale their home.

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Let’s first look at Whiting Avenue. Whiting is the older of the two businesses, so it seems appropriate to start at the beginning.

We first discussed A.S. Whiting in our post on the History of Cedar Dale, a community which was located along Simcoe Street, south of Bloor Street.  In the 1860s, looking to re-establish his manufacturing business after his Oshawa Manufacturing Company floudered, Whiting did not look to the thriving Village of Oshawa, but rather, he chose a location south of the Baseline, and commenced building a factory near the Oshawa Creek.  In 1862, the Cedar Dale Works opened; it would be later renamed A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Company.  This company ceased operations by the 1890s.

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

Algernon Sidney (A.S.) Whiting was born on March 7, 1807 in Winsted, Connecticut, an area renowned for its clocks.  Before being married in 1832, Whiting worked as a travelling clock salesman.  In 1842, Mr. Whiting and his wife Julia moved to Canada and settled in Cobourg where he continued to travel selling clocks.  He moved to Oshawa in 1850.  Mr. Whiting passed away in March of 1876 and is buried in Union Cemetery; the street named for him affirms his place in Oshawa’s history, and he is also credited with the naming of Cedar Dale.  Not a bad legacy to leave behind.

After A.S. Whiting Manufacturing closed, what happened to the buildings of this established factory?  Enter James Robson.

Robson Leather Tannery, from the Oshawa Community Archives
Robson Leather Tannery, from the Oshawa Community Archives

The Robson Tannery traces its beginnings back to the Bartletts in the early 1800s who first established a tannery in Oshawa.  In 1865, Robson and his partner Laughland bought the South Oshawa Tannery from the Bartletts.  Over the years, the business thrived, eventually being passed to Robson’s sons Charles and James, until they were struck with a fire in 1899. The South Oshawa Tannery, which was located on Mill Street, was destroyed.  The Whiting Manufacturing buildings were vacant, so Robson relocated.  In 1904 they changed their name to the Robson Leather Company, and they were renamed again in 1963 after amalgamating with James Lang Leather Company of Kitchener to become Robson-Lang Leathers Limited.

Robson had been a long standing industry for the City of Oshawa, however, after a lengthy strike in 1977, they closed their doors and ceased operations.

Part of Robson Tannery still exists as the head office for CLOCA.  They have historic images around their office of when the building was in use as a manufacturing company and as a tannery.

The Village of Cedar Dale

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
This article was originally published in the Oshawa Express, March 2009

Cedar Dale was located just south of what today is known as Bloor Street and was bounded by Park Road and Wilson Road with frontage to Lake Ontario.  It was not a part of Oshawa until the early 1920s.  Prior to this date, Cedar Dale was designated a “Police Village”, separate also from East Whitby Township.  Many local historians credit the creation of Cedar Dale to one man, A.S. Whiting.  This rather noteworthy credit is given to Whiting because he chose to build his new manufacturing business south of the other industries found in the Oshawa area.  Mr. Whiting even brought in people to work at his new factory from his home state of Connecticut.  In fact, Whiting is even credited with naming Cedar Dale. The Ontario Reformer for Friday, May 7, 1873 credited Mr. Whiting for the existence of Cedar Dale.  According to the article, it was “through the establishment and enterprise of the Cedar Dale Works” that Cedar Dale now exists. The plant not only brought work and thus income to the area, but it brought people to work at the plant and make their homes near by.  Whiting Avenue was home to many of the employees who came to the area to work for Mr. Whiting.

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

In 1852 Whiting formed the Oshawa Manufacturing Company with several other stockholders.  This new company was located just north of what is now Bloor Street.  The company was successful for the first few years of its existence; however, the general stock crash in 1857, which followed the Crimean War, led to financial difficulties in the Oshawa Manufacturing Company and Mr. Whiting turned to Joseph Hall for assistance.  Concerning this arrangement, Whiting was later quoted as saying “I thought I had caught a big fish in Joseph Hall; so I did, for he swallowed me.”  In 1858 the company failed and the stockholders lost all they had invested.  From the ruins of the Oshawa Manufacturing Company came the Joseph Hall Works, which was started after this failure.  In 1860 Whiting decided to return to the manufacturing business and he rented a part of the Joseph Hall Works and began manufacturing scythes and hoes. In 1862, as the Hall Works continued to grow, there was no more room for Whiting’s operation at the Hall works and so Whiting decided to build the Cedar Dale Works in partnership with Mr. Gilbert and E.C. Tuttle.  His brothers Hiram, Homer and Edward joined him with this business venture around this time as well.  In 1867 Tuttle sold his interest to John Cowan and the firm became known as Whiting and Cowan.  In 1872 the business became known as the A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Co.

On July 4, 1862 Mr. Whiting held a picnic on the grounds beside his new factory to celebrate the opening of this new industry.  The Oshawa Vindicator for July 2, 1862 informed its readers that the date, July 4th, was chosen because it was the most convenient for those planning the event and that was in no sense a 4th of July celebration.   The factory did not open until the fall of 1862. Upon the death of Mr. Whiting in March 1876, his son-in-law, R.S. Hamlin, took over the operation of the business.  This arrangement continued until 1886 when the business was sold to a Mr. Chaplin from St. Catharines.  When the business eventually closed for good, the building was left vacant until 1899 when, after a fire destroyed the South Oshawa Tannery, James Robson relocated his tannery to the old A.S. Whiting building.  The Robson Tannery was a major employer in Oshawa until it closed in 1977.  Part of Robson Tannery still exists as the head office for CLOCA, Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority.

Robson Leather Tannery, from the Oshawa Community Archives
Robson Leather Tannery, from the Oshawa Community Archives

With the influx of workers and other people settling in this area just north of the lake, it was decided to build a school.  Some time in the early 1800s School Section No. 2 was built.  The log school was located on Simcoe Street between the centre of the settlement of Oshawa and the lakeshore.  In 1867 a brick school was built and this one room schoolhouse was soon modified into a two-room schoolhouse.  This school serviced the residents of the area for many, many years; however, in the early 1900s the growth of the area meant that this schoolhouse was no longer big enough.  Plans were drawn up for a new six-room brick schoolhouse to be built across the road from the old school on property owned by Gordon D. Conant.  The new school opened in 1920.  The school was enlarged just seven years later with two new classrooms being added and once again in 1960.  This is the school that we see today located at 827 Gordon Street, just off Simcoe Street.  Since the 1970s the school has struggled and on numerous occasions proposals have been put forth to close the school.  However, community pressure forced the school board to keep the school open and to make any necessary repairs to the building in order to keep it open.  The school was able to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1995.  However, in 2002 community pressure was no longer able to stop the school board from deciding to close Cedardale Public School.  The decision was made to close both Cedardale P.S. and Conant P.S. and to consolidate the student body into one brand new school to be called the Bobby Orr P.S.

Pupils of the Cedar Dale Public School, c. 1890, from the Oshawa Community Archives
Pupils of the Cedar Dale Public School, c. 1890, from the Oshawa Community Archives

In 1874, the Cedar Dale post office opened.  From 1874 to 1889 William Coleman acted as the first postmaster for Cedar Dale.  Throughout its history, the Cedar Dale post office had only 8 postmasters, the last one being Mrs. Helen Jane Dixon who left her post in 1952, when the office was closed.  The office was located at 706 Simcoe Street South in 1924, shortly after Cedar Dale had been annexed to Town of Oshawa.  The final location of the Cedar Dale post office was at 744 Simcoe Street South.

The Cedar Dale United Church began as the second Cedar Dale Village School.  According to the “Builders’ Half-Moon Stone” found above the front entrance, the building was constructed in 1867.  The stone, which is now covered under the stucco, informs us that this was the brick school built to replace the log cabin school.  Following the school’s closure, George McLaughlin bought the building and gave it the United Church to become the Cedar Dale United Church in 1927.  The present day Sanctuary still contains vestiges of the old school house.  The wainscoting around the walls and most of the woodwork is original to the construction of the building.  In fact, according to William Watts, author of the book, “A Summing Up: A History of Cedar Dale United Church” many “inscriptions” created by students at the school can be seen on the woodwork.

The Cedar Dale United Church, from the Oshawa Community Archives
The Cedar Dale United Church, from the Oshawa Community Archives

In 1922 the process of annexing Cedar Dale by the Town of Oshawa began.  This was a contentious process, with arguments for and against annexation by both those living in Oshawa and those living in Cedar Dale.  Discussions actually began several years before the area was actually annexed.  Around 1914, Oshawa Town Council approached the village of Cedar Dale about joining the Town.  Town Council was eager to have Cedar Dale become a part of the town, as there were government grants available for harbour improvements.  In an article published in the January 10, 1922 Ontario Reformer, part of the reason for the controversy in 1922 was the fact that when the town approached Cedar Dale they were not anxious to allow the annexation to occur.  However, according to Deputy-Reeve F.L. Mason, they now wanted the annexation to occur as the Cedar Dale school section, along with Westmount, was paying the highest rate of any school section in East Whitby and they wanted to come into Oshawa so that the town would assume their heavy school debt. Many citizens of Oshawa did not see the annexation as a positive step for the Town at that time.  According to the Oshawa Daily Times, September 30, 1922, both sides apparently agreed that the growth of both Oshawa and Cedar Dale would be hindered if annexation did not materialize.  However, the sides could not agree on the issue of assessment.  The residents of Cedar Dale did not want to see their assessments increase to the levels paid by Oshawa residents.  The residents of Oshawa did not think that it would be fair for those in Cedar Dale to be given any special concessions in order to suppose the annexation.  The issues preventing the annexation were eventually resolved and Cedar Dale became a part of Oshawa by the end of 1922.

The annexation of Cedar Dale was the start of Oshawa annexing smaller surrounding communities and eventually all of East Whitby Township to create that city that is known today as Oshawa.  Although Cedar Dale is now a part of Oshawa, it is a still the beloved hometown of those who grew up there.

Greetings from Cedar Dale, Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Greetings from Cedar Dale, Oshawa Community Archives Collection

My Favourite Artifact: Brown and Sharpe Hair Clippers

Over the Victoria Day long weekend (Sun May 18/Mon May 19), the Oshawa Community Museum will open its summer exhibition, IT’Story: Stories from the OCM Collection, highlighting artifacts in our collection with fascinating stories to tell.

For the next seven weeks, our Visitor Hosts and other Museum staff will share their favourite artifacts and why they are favourites.

 

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

I have a bias when it comes to my favourite artifact.

In early 2010, my grandfather passed away, and my family was faced with the difficult task of preparing his house for sale.  In our searches through Grandpa’s house, we came across a set of old barber equipment, including clippers, razors and an early electric razor!  My parents, aunts, and uncles were a little unsure of what to do with these objects; at this time, I was a volunteer for the Oshawa Museum, and I suggested that we donate them.

A010.19.11 - The Trainor family, likely taken at their St. Lawrence Street home.  George Trainor is standing, left.
A010.19.11 – The Trainor family, likely taken at their St. Lawrence Street home. George Trainor is standing, left.

The barber tools belonged to my (step)grandmother’s father, George Trainor, who was a barber in Oshawa.  For many years, the family lived on St. Lawrence Street, while George had a shop at 789 Simcoe Street, what was the community of Cedar Dale.  In all, we donated 7 artifacts as well as archival materials relating the the Trainor family.

010.14.1b, Metal Hair Clippers
010.14.1b, Metal Hair Clippers

These clippers are imprinted:  “Made by Brown and Sharpe Mfg. Co. Prov. R.I., Pat’d in Great Britain Bte En France St. G.D.G., USA Patents July 1-79, June 3-84, Aug 23-92.”  The underside is imprinted with “No. 0,” indicating the length that this clipper would cut.

From Popular Science, August 1923, p. 86.
From Popular Science, August 1923, p. 86.

Brown and Sharpe was founded in 1833 and was known as a tool maker.  They stopped making hair clippers after World War II.  These clippers were likely made between 1892 and 1901, based on patent information and the patent dates on this set.

While I never met my grandmother’s family, these artifacts remain my favourite in the collection because they remind me of my Grandma Doreen, and they make me proud that I have a connection to Oshawa’s past.