Lions, Bears, and Guinea Pig Tails

My grandmother remembers the Danforth of her childhood.

By Christa Johnston

Contributed by Christa Johnson

In 1913, my great-great-grandmother Lucy moved to Toronto from her home in South England, bringing her sons, two of her three daughters, and two of her granddaughters with her. The family was quite happy with their new home in Canada, and they encouraged Lucy’s second eldest daughter, Florence, to bring her family to Canada as well. The following year, Florence packed up and moved her family—including my grandmother, Irene—to Toronto.

Irene was just a child when she arrived, but even now, nearly a century later, she still remembers the growing city of her youth. In the 1920s, her Granny, my great-great-grandmother Lucy, moved to Arundel Avenue, just north of Danforth Avenue. Here, Irene shares with me her childhood stories of the Danforth as she remembers it in the 1920s.

Granny’s House

“There have been a lot of changes since Granny was there,” she starts. Now, the red brick house stands out from the cluster of houses around it, its simple façade culminating in a plain peak in the centre. It gives no hint of the time period in which it was built; the Victorian gingerbread details my grandmother remembers on her Granny’s house are long gone. The climbing roses in the front garden and the verandah are gone too, the faint outline of the porch etched onto the old bricks surrounding the front door. “The first thing Granny did, she had a new kitchen built on the back. The houses had very long lots, and her lot was so deep that on one side she had a vegetable garden—tomatoes and carrots—and up closer to the house she had a flower garden with all kinds of perennials.”

Irene recalls more than just her grandmother’s beautiful climbing roses and lush gardens. She also remembers that the yard was home to a number of other creatures: “She had a chicken coop down in the garden, and, in addition, she raised guinea pigs because they were used for testing by the hospital…. My uncle Fred was always making jokes, saying that if you held a guinea pig up by its tail, its eyes would fall out.” Irene laughs at the memory. “So I told my father, and he said the next time he says that, reply with, ‘Uncle Fred, guinea pigs don’t have tails!'” The lot is no longer as deep as it once was; a parking lot and alley now lie behind the row of houses, and there’s no trace of a chicken coop or guinea pig cage.

Danforth and Broadview, 1920-1924, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7211.
Danforth and Broadview, 1920-1924, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7211.

The Neighbourhood
There have been other changes to Arundel Avenue, now a residential street branching off the busy Danforth. “In the ’20s, [Lucy’s] was the first house north of Danforth Avenue. Beside her the land was owned by a former moving company, from the days when everything was horse-drawn. It was a wonderful place to play because you could climb into the outdoor sleighs—that was great.” The lot was big enough that three more houses were eventually built on it in later years. The streetscape has also changed a lot: a number of houses were knocked down to make a pedestrian path through to the Chester station when the subway came to the east end.

Well before the subway was built, Irene and her parents would walk to her Granny’s house from their home in Cabbagetown. “We used to go down Sumach Street, past the lion house where the lions were on display.” Now the site of the Riverdale Farm, a zoo used to occupy the west side of Riverdale Park. Irene has fond memories of that zoo: “They had a round enclosure for bears and lots of rocks because they liked climbing on them. My father used to go to a little candy store and buy a few wrapped candies. One particular bear used to climb up on the rocks and open his mouth. My father would undo his candy and drop it in.”

The Don River
Irene would also cross the east-west divide of the Don River as she played with other children in the valley. The land is now flanked by the highway. “We would cross over the railroad bridge and the Don River—the river, however, was clean in those days. My buds and I used to go down there, and one time another kid brought home a fish in a pail. I don’t know what kind of fish it was, but I don’t think you’d find it in the Don River anymore.” By the 1960s, the Don’s water had become so polluted that concerned citizens launched a campaign to restore the river. The project has made progress but continues to strive for a cleaner river, just like the one my grandmother so fondly remembers.

Contributed by Christa Johnson
Contributed by Christa Johnson

School Days
“There was a big change on the Danforth in 1925 when Eastern Commerce High School opened up.” It is now known as the Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, but the original building still stands with its arched windows and stone carvings, the centre tower looming over the houses on the street. The back of the building is another story, where a hodgepodge of architectural styles was added on to the school in subsequent decades. The building was new when my grandmother attended. “There were workmen around because they were trying to get it ready and there were a lot of things to be finished. And one time I went to have a drink, and a grasshopper looked at me from the drinking fountain,” Irene laughs.

“Near where the school was on the Danforth there was a nice little bakeshop. So sometimes when we didn’t bring our lunch, we’d run across the street and we’d get little butter tarts, or maybe a meat pie for a quarter.” Irene continues to reminisce: “On the south side of the Danforth, slightly west of Arundel, there was an Anglican church. I think it was St. Barnabas. My grandmother used to go there.” St. Barnabas is still on that busy corner of the street, its blackened brick walls revealing its long life in the neighbourhood. The street now boasts many new buildings and several restaurants and businesses, including a 7–11 at the corner near the school.

Most days, Irene would walk along the Danforth to school with a friend. She even remembers many of the businesses along the street. “There was a nice movie house at Danforth near Pape, called the Palace. There was also a big drugstore, and my cousin Doris used to go out with the son of the owner.” The drugstores on the Danforth have since multiplied, but the small, independent movie houses have all disappeared.

Old Meets New
Toronto has seen many changes through the decades and through the eyes of different generations, each neighbourhood telling a story of its own. The Danforth of my grandmother’s childhood may no longer exist but the history of the neighbourhood colours the streets and the people who live here now.

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