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.

The Month That Was – October 1935

Canadian Statesman, 3 Oct 1935, p. 7
Social & Personal

The Statesman join sin tendering congratulations to Mr. JD Storie of Oshawa on the occasion of his 81st birthday on Sept 28. Mr Storie, who is an old Durham boy, was the largest donor toward the erection of the Nurses’ Home at Bowmanville Hospital.

A former Bowmanville boy, Fireman George Salter of Oshawa, has just completed 37 years active service with the Oshawa Fire Brigade. He has served under three fire chiefs, and has fought some of the most stubborn fires that have blazed in Oshawa during the present century. At the present time he is station man on the Oshawa Brigade.

Canadian Statesman, 24 Oct 1935, p. 2

Canadian Statesman, 17 Oct 1935, p. 1
Unique address heard at Rotary on Friday last
Col. Frank Chappell discusses the use and misuse of the English language in interesting talk

Both unique and delightfully presented was the address on Friday by Col. Frank Chappell, Public Relations Director of General Motors, Oshawa, at the Rotary Club. Col. Chappell made his address both educational and amusing. He was introduced by Rotarian Ross Strike and he spoke on the subject “Words and Phrases Common in the English Language.”

Most men, the speaker said, had a hobby of some sort, and the subject was something of an unconscious hobby of his own. Language he added, is said to be the clothing of our ideas and words the texture of our speech. The English language contains between 80 and 100 thousand words, and yet many of the greatest men only use a small proportion of this number. Shakespeare, who might be termed as the greatest literary genius of the ages, used no more than 5000 words, and yet with this number he was able to thrill the world with the beauty of his literary contributions. Such public men of today, as RB Bennett or Mackenzie King have vocabularies of probably 10,000 words.

The average working man, oddly enough, gets along with the use of about 200 words. There is nothing highbrow, Col. Chappell said, in using well rounded speech. There is not such so much beauty in human expression as there was in other days, and yet colour and style belonged to all of us for our own use.

Slang was used a great deal to put emphasis on expression, but too much use of slang tended to spoil the language…

The speaker believed there should be a little more originality in speech. He deplored the use of words spelled backwards as names, and two instances of this recited. Canada, spelled backwards, Adanac, was used a great deal as a trade name, but it lacked the beauty and the meaning that is in the word Canada. Recently he came across an apartment house called Rolyat and upon investigation found that it was the owners name, Taylor, spelled backwards.

Practically all names have an origin in a trade or profession or characteristics. Strong men, denotes a characteristic, whereas such names as Bowman, denote art…

Oshawa Daily Times, 28 Oct 1935

Canadian Statesman, 24 Oct 1935, p. 7
In the Dim and Distant Past
Twenty-Five Years Ago, from the Bowmanville News, October 21, 1010

Rev. and Mrs. J Garbutt, Mrs FA Haddy, Mrs BM Warnica, Mrs LA Tole, Miss Annie Cryderman are delegates to the Provicincial Sunday School convention in Oshawa

Mr. Percy Piper of this town won 2nd prize for the best costume at the grand masquerade at Oshawa Roller Rink on Thursday.

Oshawa Daily Times, 28 Oct 1935
Aged Resident Died at Harmony Sunday Morning
Mrs. JL McGill was born here 83 years ago

Mrs. John L. McGill, a lifetime resident of Oshawa and district, died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. H Willson, Harmony, yesterday morning. Mrs. McGill had been in ill health for the past three months, but had only been confined to bed for the past few weeks.

Mrs. McGill, whose maiden name was Jennie Lorenda Henry, was born in the old Henry homestead, Oshawa-on-the-Lake, 83 years ago. After her marriage to Mr. McGill they moved to the McGill homestead in East Whitby, where they lived for a number of years. For more than 25 years, Mrs. McGill had been living at 102 Agnes St.

Mrs. McGill was a member of Centre Street United Church, formerly the Christian Church. It was largely through the efforts of her father, Elder Thomas Henry, that the Christian Church was established in Oshawa. She was a member of the Women’s Association of that church, and had been an active member and convener of a group until the past year prevented her from taking a very active part.

Predeceased by her husband 12 years ago and by her only son, Orvill McGill of St. Catharines, 11 years ago, two daughters, Mrs. H Willson Ann Mrs. CI DeGuerre, remain. There are ten grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. Mrs. McGill was the last member of her family, the last of 16 children.

The funeral will be held from the home of her daughter, Mrs. H Willson, Harmony at 2:30 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. Rev. WP Fletcher, former pastor of Centre Street Church, will officiate assisted by Rev. GCR McQuade. Interment will be made in the Union Cemetery.

Oshawa Daily Times, 28 Oct 1935

Oshawa Daily Times, 28 Oct 1935
Relief Lists Continue to  Grow Smaller in Oshawa
Number on Relief Reached the Lowest Point Here Today Since 1930 – Board Hopes to Complete Year Without and Overdraft

The reduction in the number of families on relief in the city of Oshawa continues at a very gratifying rate, and the figures issued this morning by Relief Administrator J. C. McGill, indicate that the situation is more satisfactory than it has been at any time since relief on a large scale became necessary in this city. This morning, the number of families on relief had dropped to 662, this being the lowest figure recorded at this date since the year 1930. Since the meeting of the Public Welfare Board on October 9, the number of families on relief has decreased by 79, the figure on that date being 741 families. This reduction is entirely due to families becoming self-supporting by reason of the wage earner going back to work.

A year ago, on the same date there were 813 families on relief, and the number was increasing rapidly, in contrast to the present condition of almost daily reductions. In 1933, there were almost 1,202 families on relief on October 28, and the number was also increasing steadily in that year.

These figures show the very satisfactory position of the relief situation today, as compared with previous years, and Mr. McGill is very hopeful that the present decreases will continue, and will effect a very considerable reduction in relief costs for the balance of this year and the early months of next year. It is just possible that, by reason of the fewer families on relief, the welfare board will be able to finish the year without an overdraft on the budget set aside for it for the year of 1935, which would be a considerable reduction from the total costs in 1934.

Canadian Statesman, 31 Oct 1935, p. 3

Oshawa Daily Times, 28 Oct 1935, p. 6
Harbor Deserted

Oshawa Harbor at the present time presents rather a sererted appearabce. All the small pleasure craft, that during the summer season swung at their moorings, have been removed to winter quarters. The only craft remaining is the crusier “Harry H.” which is moored at the north side of the turning basin.

Canadian Statesman, 31 Oct 1935, p. 7
Holy Trinity AYPA of Oshawa were guests on Monday night of St. John’s AYPA at a Hollowe’en masquerade in the Parish Hall. Eric Colwell won the prize for the most original costume, Russel Hatherly of Oshawa for the comic, and an Oshawa girl for the prettiest costime. The hall was gaily decorated for the event, and about 75 young people attended.

Whitby Gazette and Chronicle, 31 Oct 1935, p. 9

Whitby Gazette and Chronicle, 31 Oct 1935, p. 7
Raglan

Plans are being made for a Hallowe’en masquerade in the hall on Thursday evening. The school children are preparing entertainment and are inviting the ladies to help provide. Everyone is cordially invited.

An Audio Project Update

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

For a little over a year, the OM has been offering an at-home volunteer project. Our Audio Transcription Project is making our collection more accessible and user friendly. We are digitizing cassette recordings in the collection – volunteers can access the digital files online, and they have dedicated HOURS to transcribing, typing out word for word, what is said in the recordings.

As mentioned, this makes the collection accessible. If someone is deaf or has hearing loss, the written transcription will now be readily available. The transcriptions will also be easier to search thanks to the typed transcription and search functions with PDFs.

The transcriptions get completed and returned to the OM, and I’ve been reading through the files as they get submitted. Like with many items in the archival collection, it’s very easy to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ with these transcriptions as many recollections shared within are simply fascinating.

There are a few recordings with Robinson descendants who shared their memories from when Robinson House was their family home:

INTERVIEWER: We are now in the large north room on the main floor. Percy is going to tell us how he remembers this room.

PERCY: I remember, readily, that when this room was a barber shop, the poles were out in the front, we used to sit in the front steps, and I suppose catering to the traffic down to the beach, people coming and going, especially on the weekend. But, this room was used for some time, for some years, as a barber shop.

INTERVIEWER: And the entrance to the barber shop would be the door on the north side, which we are not using today.

PERCY: Double doors

Alan Barnes was involved with the restoration of Robinson House in the 1960s before it opened as the Robinson House Museum in 1969. Through the years, the OM is often asked if we are haunted, and this is a decades old question, considering what Mr. Barnes had to say about it.

The house you know, had the reputation of being haunted, and I don’t think it was really haunted. I think it was some of the comings and goings of our less fortunate friends that went in with bottles and came out, rather staggeringly, that the kids saw the shadowy movements and assumed that it had to be spooks, so to keep the kids out, the building had been boarded up.

Stephen Saywell, in 1982, gave a talk on Oshawa’s educational history, but he also made the following, and rather prophetic, observation.

And Tom Bouckley has done a yeoman service to this city in the two books which he has written entitled Pictorial Oshawa and which I’m sure many of you have. And if you haven’t you want to have because someday, they’re going to be out of print and they’ll become collectors’ items.

Bouckley ended up publishing three volumes of Pictorial Oshawa and, sure enough, they have indeed become collectors’ items. (Shameless plug – Volume I was republished in 2010, a partnership between the OM, OPL, and RMG. You can buy your copy from the OM’s online website.)

Finally, I was delighted to find a little of my own family history in the audio cassette recordings. My grandfather’s second wife, my Grandma Doreen, was born and raised in Oshawa (she and my grandpa met while working at Duplate). Her father, George Trainer, was a barber in Oshawa, and my family donated some of his barber tools to the museum in 2010.

George Trainer

We have a recorded interview with “Ivan Richards, age 62, who lives at 20 Oshawa Boulevard South. They draw upon his own memories and those of his father, both of whom have lived in Oshawa all their lives.” In his reminiscences, Richards shared

You asked me about Cedar Dale. I know a lot about Cedar Dale having talked to people that have lived there for a great number of years, and what I said –when I should have been delivering mail, I was in the barber shop of George Trainer, and I think a story here comes to -to mind. We run into George Trainer to get your hair cut and a checkers game was on, they were playing checkers, Frank Sherwood and Trainer himself, and Ed Powers, and anyone that might want to come along and play a game of checkers this is where they played it. When you went in to get your haircut you waited until the game of checkers were over to get your hair cut. Now this was an honest fact, I seen many people sit down and wait until they got done their game of checkers and then George’d trim their hair.

I knew my step-great-grandfather was a barber – we had the clippers – but I was young when my grandmother passed away, so I didn’t think to ask her stories of her family of what growing up in Oshawa was like for her. To hear this story, and others that I’ve learned through this audio project, helps to illustrate the time and provide a glimpse of this community, how it’s grown, and what’s stayed the same.

If you would like more information about the Audio Transcription Project and how to get involved, please send me an email! High School Students – this is a GREAT way to earn community service hours! Email: membership@oshawamuseum.org

Or, you can visit the OM‘s website for more info.

A Visit to the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

By Quinn J., Summer Student

On Wednesday July 21st, I visited an Anglican holy order, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, in Toronto in order to access their archives. The order used to own the Bishop Bethune private girls school in Oshawa, and thus they had primary documents related to my research into the school which could help me better determine the school’s purpose and who exactly attended it. The visit was one that I was looking forward to, not only because of the benefits for my research and because it would enable my possibly unhealthy obsession with mundane things from the past, but also because being able to experience history first hand, something that my time in school had never given me the opportunity to do.

The sisterhood was very welcoming to me, and I had a nice time talking with the archivist about the various materials they had to offer me. I was looking specifically at things related to the Bishop Bethune school, but from what I could glean, the sisterhood was involved in other educational ventures outside of city of Oshawa, throughout the province and country. It was overall a very enjoyable experience for me as I was able to dig through various records and even copies of the school magazine for my research into Oshawa’s educational past.

The most interesting thing in the collection, however, was the school’s ledger. It was a giant book that was over 100 years old, having been first written in when the sisterhood took control of the school in 1889. It’s probably the oldest thing I’ve ever touched, and it gave me a bit of a thrill to be able to just be able to go through it and get a window into how people lived over 100 years ago.

Perhaps I’m being a little too subjective, but I still get such a thrill from experiencing history, no matter how I experience it. Getting that glimpse into the lives of people who lived even just a hundred years before me is still very exciting for me, and this visit to get a window into the past like that was an incredible experience.

How Visual Art Can Help Narrate History

By Jessica R., Summer Student

As I come to the end of my summer job at the Oshawa Museum, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to apply what I have learned in university into real life research projects. I believe that the strongest take-away from my personal projects at the museum is the idea that we form our perspectives of history in relation to the evidence and research we view. I learned that there is a surprisingly strong co-dependency between literary history and visual art during each era. It seems self-explanatory for someone who is regularly involved with historic research. But for me, having this first-time experience to see the value of artefacts, architecture, and visual art was exciting. Art in any genre or style is usually focused on its aesthetic value, such as the art style, colours, or perspective. But no matter how abstract or grand the art piece is, it will always contain historical evidence of some sort.

I was assigned to work on uncovering and researching the backstory and meanings behind historical paintings and drawings by the late Canadian artist, ES Shrapnel. The process to find the history behind the paintings was fairly difficult at times. But I found through my research that combining the written information I found with my own examination of the art style and colours in the sketches added the missing pieces of information I needed to finish the background information or support the visualization of the author’s ideas. Besides being an excellent primary source of information, the prints I examined were also good examples of the trends within local artists of that time, and it showed how society was progressing in terms of art styles. I noticed that ES Shrapnel promoted his talents often in the Whitby Chronicle, saying he would hold lessons for anyone who was interested. The community was then able to create art which reflected the narrative of their own lives at the time because of artists like Shrapnel who encouraged this participation. Shrapnel’s networking abilities are still seen today using different, modern technological ways. As we draw parallels with today’s society, we can appreciate that this was one of the many ways that visual art can continue to have historic usefulness.

Whitby Chronicle, November 4, 1880, Page 03.

In general, visual art is a core aspect engrained in everyone’s culture, lifestyle, and community. I appreciate that it gives an additional view on historic communities that did not rely on written literature to depict their stories or actions. Visual art gives historians and researchers an opportunity to expand their knowledge and help us understand in our modern perspective how people co-existed with one another through history. I find the universal understanding of art in history helps expand the ideas of written language and can narrate a scene of moments that were never documented in words.

In conclusion, throughout my time at the Oshawa Museum, I felt greatly satisfied and fulfilled seeing local artists from our community contributing strong and impactful sources of information simply through visual art. With my research of the ES Shrapnel prints, it gave me a newfound appreciation for the artist and others of his time for their dedication to their passions. The beauty of visual art grows deeper than just the material used, but more with their significance in writing history. Visual art gives metaphorical colour to the incomplete paintings of society and its ideas. I hope that people in our community continue to keep making art, regardless of it pertaining to the landscape of our area, as it gives a glimpse of the artistic minds within in our community.