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.

Discovering ‘Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa’

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Exhibitions at the Oshawa Museum are not confined to the walls of the Museum. With every physical exhibit, we always supplement with online content. This allows for additional stories to be told – you can only fit so much onto a text panel, after all. We can use various media to tell the stories, like videos on YouTube or blog posts, and online components opens an exhibition’s audience beyond those who are able to visit in person, and the exhibition lives on well after it had been struck.

Our latest exhibition, Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa, is no exception.

The stories from the oral history project have been shared as an online exhibit for numerous years, and the students who have worked on this project since 2016 have contributed a number of video podcasts to the OM YouTube channel.

Last year, we launched an interactive map exhibit called Discover Historic Oshawa, and this is another platform where we’re sharing stories from Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa.

One impressive feature of the in-person exhibit is the map. We took a number of pages from the 1948 Fire Insurance Map, specifically, the pages that cover the area of Simcoe Street to just east of Ritson Road, Olive Avenue to Bloor Street. This neighbourhood was well settled by Oshawa’s early Eastern European immigrants, and in the post-WWII era, it continued to grow and flourish with the arrival of Displaced People.

Exhibit co-curators Melissa Cole and Mia Vujcic wanted to use the map to draw attention to a number of landmarks – 17 in all! That is a lot of history to confine to a single text panel. We used the panel to provide a basic explanation of each site, and should visitors want to discover more, they can visit Discover Historic Oshawa to read about each site and see photographs, past and present. A handy QR code is on the panel to allow for easy navigation to the site.

We created a special category on Discover Historic Oshawa for sites related to Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa. Some sites are on the map, while some are beyond its limits.

Sites include churches, houses, community halls, and businesses, all of which have connections to the immigrant community. By visiting the website, you can see sites that are geographically beyond the map in the exhibit, such as the Michael Starr Building or the Gen. W. Sikorski Polish Veterans’ Association Hall.

Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa opened right before Thanksgiving, and we cannot wait for you to visit and see this exhibit! If you’re not able to visit in person, be sure to check out Oshawa Immigrations Stories or the Leaving Home, Finding Home category on Discover Historic Oshawa!

When is Thanksgiving Day?

When is Thanksgiving Day? – It seems very strange that the Governor has not yet proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for the present year.  There surely never was a year during which we as a people here received greater cause to be thankful. Three times have we been threatened with lawless invasion, and still we are saved from the devastations of war.  The dryness of the spring, the coolness of the summer, and the wet weather of the harvest threatened to destroy our crops, but out barns are filled plenty. Cholera has afflicted nearly every other nation, whilst we have been mercifully spared. Add to these the opening of a market after the abolition of the Reciprocity Treaty, the good prices obtained for our produce, the preservation of the land from internal dissentions, and we have a year which God has marked by a great display of his Providential care and goodness towards us.

Oshawa Vindicator, November 14, 1866

Why was there confusion about Thanksgiving Day? In Canada, Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October, right? Well, it’s only been observed consistently on that day since 1957.

The origins and basis for Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t as well known as the American holiday.  It is important to note that Indigenous people have had celebrations of thanks for good harvest and successfully faring through the winter well before the arrival of colonizing settlers.

Canadian Thanksgiving is frequently tied to the story of Martin Frobisher who was one of many to search for the Northwest Passage.  He made three attempts, and on his third in 1578, there was a celebration on what is now known as Frobisher Island.  Another possible origin for the holiday could be the harvest celebrations that occurred in New France in the 1600s.  The popularity of Thanksgiving increased in the late 1700s/early 1800s upon the arrival of United Empire Loyalists.  While ‘Thanksgiving’ was being celebrated, it was informal, being recognised by those celebrating and not as a publicly recognised holiday.

Regarding the article that appeared in the Vindicator in 1866, Thanksgiving had been declared by the Governor General for the Province of Canada (today’s Ontario and Quebec) six times between 1850 and 1865 for specific reasons, as follows:

Date of ObservanceReasons
Thursday, 3 Jan. 1850For God’s mercies and cessation of grievous disease
Wednesday, 4 June 1856For restoration of Peace with Russia
Thursday, 3 Nov. 1859For abundant harvest and continuation of Peace
Thursday, 6 Dec. 1860For God’s mercies
Wednesday, 11 Nov. 1863For abundant harvest and continuation of Peace
Wednesday, 18 Oct. 1865For God’s mercies

As it wasn’t a consistent holiday, it’s no wonder the editors of the paper were questioning if and when the holiday would have been declared.

Thanksgiving Day has been observed every year since 1879.  Initially, Thanksgiving was held on a Thursday in November, but in 1957, it was officially declared to be the second Monday in October.

The changing date of Thanksgiving was noted on in the diaries of a man named William Elliot. The diaries are part of the archival collection of the Oshawa Museum. An entry dated November 25, 1896 lists that day as Thanksgiving Day, an indication that it was at the same time as the American Thanksgiving during this time period. However an entry from October 15, 1903 is listed as Thanksgiving Day, and in 1913 it is mentioned on October 20.

You can read the diaries on the Oshawa Museum’s website.


Sources:

https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/arts-culture-society/the-history-of-thanksgiving-in-canada

https://web.archive.org/web/20130628210214/http://www.pch.gc.ca/pgm/ceem-cced/jfa-ha/graces-eng.cfm

World Postcard Day

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Hello to all deltiologists – that’s postcard collectors! October 1 is World Postcard Day, a date chosen because, according to worldpostcardday.com, postcards were officially issued and recognized by a postal operator on October 1, 1869.

‘Post Cards’ had been used to communicate before 1869, however, as the website states, an Austrian professor of Economics, Dr. Emanuel Herrmann,  “wrote an article in the Neue Freie Presse pointing out that the time and effort involved in writing a letter was out of proportion to the size of the message sent. He suggested that a more practical and cheaper method should be implemented for shorter, more efficient communications.”

Dr. Herrmann must have put forth a convincing argument, as this was put into practice on October 1, 1869, resulting in the Correspondenz-Karte. It was light-brown, 8.5 x 12cm in size, and it featured space for the address on the front (obverse) and room for a short message on the back (reverse). After the Austrian government issued the first postal card, other countries soon followed – Canada in 1871 and the United States in 1873.

A013.4.464 – postcard to Thomas Henry from his brother, William. You can see the front is exclusively for the addressee while the back is the correspondence.

A few decades later, postcards began featuring images on one side, and by the 1890s, as photography’s popularity was continuing to grow, postcards began featuring photographs. At the turn of the 20th century, 2,700 cards were mailed by Canadians, but by 1913 this figure had jumped to 60 million.  Considering the population of Canada was a mere 7.2 million in 1911, this figure is all the more incredible.

Postcards were an economical way of staying in touch with friends and relatives before the era of the telephone.

The postcard collection at the Oshawa Museum is rather sizable and varied in terms of scope and subjects. We have several postcards commemorating events, such as New Years, Easter, Hallowe’en and Christmas. We have a number that feature rather Victorian/Edwardian depictions. We have a ‘Tall Tale’ postcard and a few that simply make me laugh.

Some are in the collection because of the pictures on the obverse, while others are treasured because of what it being communicated on the reverse.

We also have a few postcards made from leather! postcardhistory.net claims that postcards made from leather began around 1903 and that postcards dating before 1915 aren’t terribly uncommon.

The examples in our collection range in date from 1906 to 1908. One of the examples was destined for Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories – it is interesting to note that it is dated 1908, and Saskatchewan split from the Northwest Territories about 2 1/2 years prior.

Celebrate World Postcard Day by sending a message along to a friend! You can also tune into the Oshawa Museum’s Facebook Page for our Sunday FUNday LIVE on October 3 for a look at Postcards!

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: