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Threshing on west side of Yonge Street, north of the North York Civic Centre, circa 1945. Given to the NYHS by Robert McQuillan.
Threshing on west side of Yonge Street, north of the North York Civic Centre, circa 1945. Given to the NYHS by Robert McQuillan.

Tales of Old North York

In 1960, long time North York resident, Harold Gray, collected and recounted anecdotes about early North York life. These stories are in the North York Historical Society’s scrapbooks which are currently being integrated into the North York Central Library’s Canadiana Department.

Grinding for Tolls: In his grandfather’s time there was not much money around and a lot of the grinding was done by toll; that is, the miller charged a certain number of pounds (currency) for each 100 pounds (weight) as toll. This brings to mind a story of the miller who had two sons. He asked one boy, “Tom, did you toll this grist?” The boy said “Yes father.” Then he asked the other boy, “Did you toll this grist?” (the same grist) “Yes father,” he said. The father said, “Well, you are both such damn liars I will toll it myself just to make sure.”

Bees (gatherings): In the early days they arranged working bees to clear the land. Neighbors would come with their teams of oxen to dig around the stumps of the trees to be removed, cut off some of the roots, hitch the teams to the stump and pull it out.

And then there were bees for threshing. A farmer spread his sheaves out on the barn floor and threshed them with a flail. Most of the farmers in the district exchanged hands at threshing time. When threshing machines became available about a twelve man team was required and the thresher and helper. Four or five men passed the sheaves to the men feeding the threshing cylinder. One would cut the bands on the sheaves, others spread them out so that they would feed evenly into the machine. Two or three men would be needed to carry the grain to bins in the granary. Men would also stack the straw outside. Later powered self-feeding separators, which cut the bands and fed the sheaves into a cylinder, replaced the men. Then came the steam engine, thresher and separator, to be replaced by the tractor and then the combine harvester.

Christmas time: There would be a decorated Christmas tree at the churches; adults and children took part in the program. His mother liked Spanish onions, and she was pretty sure of getting one or two from the tree. Some of the farmers, who were jolly fellows always played a joke on his mother. However, they did not get too far ahead of her. He remembered before one Christmas, she made a batch of tarts, which really looked good from the outside but, while she was mixing them, she asked him to go to the woodshed and pick up some thin chips of wood and some sawdust. This was the filling for the tarts which she boxed up nicely and put on the Christmas tree for a couple of the farmers.

In those days people made their own amusement. They would have a house party and neighbours would be invited for dinner and a dance. Those who did not dance could play cards and there would be someone who could play the violin to provide the music.

His father and mother quite often had parties, and he remembered one time they were playing a game, which would not be considered very healthy today. They chose sides, each side had a goal keeper, and every other person on the sides was playing the opposite way. They held a sheet up under their chins and the game was to blow a small downy feather and try to score on the goalkeeper at either end. One elderly lady took a deep breath getting ready to blow and swallowed the feather. “Is that the game?” she asked.

Groundhog Hunting: His father, Timothy Gray, was a great man for hunting. There was usually a man or two working around their place and they sometimes amused themselves at noon shooting at a groundhog which lived in a hole in a bank on the far side of the mill pond, about three hundred yards away. They had been shooting at this groundhog one day and then gone back to work. His mother came out of the house, saw the animal sitting up and decided she would take a crack at it. She did, and spoiled the fun for the men, for she killed the groundhog.

Settling an estate: He had a little book which his uncle, Thomas Gray, used when he was executor of an estate in 1895:

  • Funeral expenses $125.45
  • Digging Grave $4.00

He went to Toronto in connection with the estate and his expense account each day was 35 cents. In addition there were other costs.

  • 1 overcoat $5.00
  • Drawers and shirts $1.14
  • 1 pr. Pants $0.50
  • 2 pr. Stockings $0.50
  • Dinner in Toronto $0.25
  • Hostler for hitching horses $0.10
  • Hay for horses at hotel $0.25

Recipes: Thomas Gray’s little book also contained recipes.

  • As a cure for a cold: 2 parts rum, 1 part glycerine.
  • For pickling pork: 5 pails cold water, 1 pail salt, 1 quart black strap molasses and ¼ pound saltpetre.

By Susan Goldenberg, Director, North York Historical Society

Originally published in the March-May 2014 North York Historical Society Newsletter