As a child, Katherine Taylor was obsessed with ancient Rome and Egypt and wanted to become an archaeologist. She never pursued it (becoming a banker instead), but her love of researching history remained. “And Toronto, being my home, became my focus,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to discover people and events that have been forgotten. Digging deep into the lives and work of earlier generations paints a truer picture for me of what the city was like to live in through the centuries.”
Years ago, Taylor began taking photos of old buildings and factories in the west end, concerned they might be razed for new development, and shared her shots online. She was bowled over by the response. “People would write to tell me that a grandparent had worked in one of the buildings or shared an experience they themselves had had at a particular site,” she says. “I began to realize that many Torontonians feel a really deep connection to the cityscape – that even the most nondescript structure can inspire strong memories and becomes part of our own lore.”
In 2015 Taylor began a blog, One Gal’s Toronto, to document Toronto’s rich history. Poring over city directories, newspaper archives, patent applications, trade periodicals, obituaries, assessment rolls, fire-insurance maps and archival photos she uses for research, Taylor was especially drawn to the city’s historic businesses. “It’s really business that leave lasting traces,” she says. “Companies build factories and warehouses. Shops hang signs or have their name tiled across an entrance. Often these traces are not wholly removed, and they resurface.” She found enough compelling commercial tales to fill a book, so she wrote one: the newly released “Toronto: City of Commerce, 1800 – 1960.”
In it she tells many fascinating tales, such as the story of the four Cary brothers, free African Americans who came to Toronto from Virginia in the 1830s and opened barbershops, becoming active in the anti-slavery movement.
Then there’s the Hicks’ Butcher Shop, opened in 1908 and run by brothers Arthur and Edmund Hicks. Edmund would serve in the First World War and be taken prisoner by the Germans in 1915. After more than three years in a prison camp, he returned to Toronto in 1919, where he resumed his post at the shop on Queen Street West near Bathurst.
Former retail powerhouse Tamblyn’s also makes an appearance, when Taylor relates how Gordon Tamblyn launched his first drug store in the Beaches in 1904 – then opened at least one new store a year for many years, quickly building one of the largest chains in the city.
For Taylor, capturing these narratives feels more important than ever. “Where once it was older generations that noted changes in the city, I’m finding now that even newer residents feel it’s changing by leaps and bounds,” she says. “So, creating a record of what once was becomes important. It reassures people to think that these places and stories won’t be forgotten.”
Next for the blog: she’ll be spotlighting famous daredevil cyclists of the 1880s and a Dundas Street West penny arcade and nickelodeon. She’s also working on a book about Toronto’s early infrastructure, from gas lamps to sewers.
“To understand the city we live in today, it’s important to look at the past,” she says. “And hopefully we can also use it inform our future.”
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