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