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Gibson House Museum, photo: Sarah McCabe
Gibson House Museum, photo: Sarah McCabe

Gibson House Museum

The David Gibson House is located at 5172 Yonge Street (Ward 23 Willowdale). It is a designated heritage site under by-law 27975 passed by North York City Council on December 15, 1980.

The Gibson House Museum in North York is a red brick Georgian Revival farmhouse located on land that was acquired by the Gibson family in 1829. David and Elizabeth Gibson lived in a wood frame house on the site until they were forced to flee to the United States during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. The building that now stands was constructed in 1851 after the family’s return to Toronto, and was home to David and Eliza’s household as well as their son, Peter Silas Gibson’s family until 1916. The house was occupied by a series of owners and tenants until the Township of North York acquired the property in 1965. Gibson House was restored and opened as a heritage museum on June 6, 1971.

Gibson House is associated with the domestic and public lives of David and Eliza Gibson, who were prominent members of the rural Willow Dale community in the North York Township and significant figures in the history of Upper Canada. Gibson House is one of a number of 19th century farmhouses that survived the major urban development that accompanied the city’s expansion into North York in the 20th century. The building has been modified over time to suit the needs of several generations of the Gibson family, as well as those of various later owners and tenants.

The Gibson property has produced a number of archaeological finds, including artefacts dating from the mid to late 19th century that are associated with the domestic lives of the Gibson family and of later inhabitants.

Gibson House was once part of an active and progressive working farm, and was a significant feature within the Willow Dale community, nine miles from the town of York. The expanding city gradually absorbed the farmland and villages of North York. Gibson House is now surrounded by a thoroughly urban landscape and serves as a reminder of the borough’s early settlements and rural history.

Gibson House is historically significant for its connection to the Gibson family. David Gibson, (1804-1864) immigrated to Quebec from Scotland in 1825 and worked as a surveyor in Upper Canada for many years. Gibson assisted in mapping much of early Toronto, including the city’s streets and sidewalks, and was also a successful farmer and an influential politician in his local district. David was a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1834 and 1836 as well as a leader of the Reform Movement. After the Rebellion of 1837 he was forced to live as a fugitive in Upper Canada before escaping to the United States. His wife, Elizabeth Milne Gibson, and their four children joined him after the first Gibson House was burned by Government soldiers. Eliza Gibson travelled regularly to Upper Canada to collect rents from the family’s properties until David’s father, James and half-brother William arrived from Scotland and began to manage the Willow Dale farm. The Gibson family returned to Upper Canada in 1848, and moved into the second Gibson House in 1851.

The Gibson property was willed to David and Eliza’s daughter, Margaret Jane, upon David’s death in 1864. The property then passed to Margaret’s brother Peter Silas and his wife Eliza Holmes, who raised their ten children in the house. Most of the historic Gibson farm was sold for sub-division in 1913, except for an acre at the southeast corner where the Gibson House is, and where the Gibson Park was located. And a third of an acre on the south east corner that was deeded to Peter Silas’ eldest son, Harold Holmes, upon his marriage in 1897. Harold built a large red brick house on this site that was used as the new family home and then as a public library until its demolition in 1957.

The Gibson farmhouse was rented to relatives of the Gibson family in the 1920s. In 1942 the house was sold to local contractor Noel Knowles who modernized the building and introduced a number of extensive renovations. After Mr. Knowles’ death in 1952, the house was sold and then rented to a series of tenants. In 1960 the North York Historical Society was founded by a group of citizens who had come together to advocate for Gibson House. The Township of North York purchased the remaining Gibson House property in 1965 for $1.00 and other considerations “for the purpose of a museum, historic site, or public park,” and in 1966 the building underwent exterior and structural restorations under the direction of the restoration architect B. Napier Simpson.

The site was used as a storage facility until 1970, when the North York Council chose to restore and operate Gibson House as a heritage museum in response to the National Centennial in 1967. Council entered into a private restoration agreement with Brigadier-General J. A. McGinnis of the Toronto Historical Board, and the house was recreated, under the direction of Museums Advisor Dorothy Duncan, to reflect the Gibsons’ home circa 1851, based on contemporary documents from the period. The museum was opened to the public on June 6, 1971.

The Museum’s artefact collection includes a small but significant collection of Gibson artefacts, including David Gibson’s surveying instruments and a tall case clock the works of which were removed from the first frame house by Eliza Gibson before fire consumed her house. The remainder of the collection was purchased or acquired from local donors and consists of materials representative of the various local homes, farms, and business of the mid-19th century.

Gibson House is one of the few surviving features of historic Willow Dale, a small crossroads community that was situated on Yonge Street, nine miles from the Town of York. Willow Dale was originally known as Kummer’s (or Cummer’s) settlement, and contained a population of 150 in the late 1850s. Willow Dale and its neighbouring North York communities benefited from their placement on Yonge Street, one of the earliest and most heavily traveled transport routes in Upper Canada. David Gibson petitioned the government to open a community post office in the mid-19th century, and suggested the name Willow Dale in honour of the numerous willow trees that grew in the district.

A Tolman Sweet apple tree, the last remaining tree from the orchard that David Gibson established in 1832, stands on the parkland south of Gibson House. Cuttings from the two Tolman Sweets and a Snow Apple that were standing in the late 1980s were used to establish a number of trees that now stand in Dempsey Park.

Originally published in the November 2011 – January 2012 North York Historical Society Newsletter. Information edited from Statement of Significance, City of Toronto Museum Services.