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Sunnybrook Farm

Sunnybrook park, hospital trace origins to Toronto grocery bag, box baron

Sunnybrook Park was Toronto’s largest privately-owned land gift, writes Susan Goldenberg

  • AUG 31, 2022 UPDATED AUG 31, 2022

North York’s Sunnybrook Park has the distinction of being the largest gift of privately-owned land for a public park in Toronto’s history.

Given in 1928, it was 170 acres, more than the 120 acres privately donated for High Park a half century earlier, which the city added to, bringing the total to 400 acres. Toronto’s biggest municipal park is Centennial Park in Etobicoke, 525 acres, opened in 1967, Canada’s centennial year.

The Sunnybrook land was part of the 200 acre “Sunnybrook Farm” owned by Joseph Kilgour, owner of Canada’s foremost producer of cardboard boxes and paper grocery bags, and his wife, Alice. Joseph had bought mostly scrub land in 1909 when he was 57 and transformed it into a beautiful estate. He married Alice Margaret Grand in 1912.

Joseph and Alice didn’t have children. They raised prize-winning cows and horses, hosted fox hunts, horse-jumping competitions, and one year, a provincial ploughing match. On Oct. 14, 1923 eight of their prize Clydesdale work horses were killed when their stable suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames.

Joseph died January 26, 1925. His financial worth was $1.5 million, equivalent to $24 million today. On May 9, 1928, Alice donated the 170 acres for a municipal park “in respect to my husband’s wishes.” She continued to live in their home, York Lodge, which had 30 acres of land, including extensive gardens.

So that the public could enjoy the park in tranquility Alice stipulated it be closed to through traffic.

“The beauty of the estate has long been known to the citizens of Toronto,” the Globe wrote September 14, 1928 when the land was handed over in a formal ceremony. “The Don River, free from impurities received lower in its course, adds to the scenic value.”

Alice lived in York Lodge until 1930, then moved into the city. She died in 1938.

When World War II began the estate’s trustees agreed to deed a portion of the park to the Department of Veteran Affairs for a veterans hospital. Called Sunnybrook Hospital, it officially opened in 1948. One section is Kilgour, “K,” Wing.

Left to right: Gate to Sunnybrook Park, Garden party at Sunnybrook Farm, Sunnybrook Farm barn, Toronto Mayor Sam McBride, presides at the official opening of Sunnybrook Park in September, 1928. It was a gift from Alice Kilgour, in memory of her late husband, Joseph. Photos from Toronto Star file photos

Susan Goldenberg is a director and membership chair of the North York Historical Society, which preserves North York’s heritage. For further information, visit www.nyhs.ca.