Historic Walking Tour
If These Walls Could Talk
Aurora's History told through Architecture
In this tour we will discover the history of this town, as told through the buildings where generations of Aurorans lived out their lives. Few buildings survive from the town's humble beginnings as a quiet farming district some two centuries ago. Beginning in the 1850s however, when more people settled here, they brought with them an optimistic outlook on the future, and built homes and businesses designed to stand the test of time. Aurora is, after all, named for the Roman goddess of the dawn--and Aurora's dawn was thought to be especially bright. The community grew into a village, and then a town, and Aurorans erected buildings to reflect that new status. Many of the buildings we will see on this tour are historic landmarks that have played key roles in the development of the community, such as the Public School, the Armoury, and the Train Station. Some have not survived to the present. It took a long time for people to begin to awaken the value of preserving heritage buildings, and important buildings like the Inglehurst mansion, the Town Hall, and the Queen's Hotel, were demolished before most people could realize what had been lost. In the 21st Century the community has made great strides in preserving and rehabilitating the buildings that tell the story of its early years, and with continued vigilance they will hopefully still be standing for generations to come.
This project is a partnership with the Aurora Museum & Archives and the Town of Aurora.
1. 'Aurora's Early Years'
The land that would eventually become Aurora was first opened up to European settlement by the Queen’s Rangers under the command of Sir John Graves Simcoe in 1796. Utilizing a well-travelled indigenous route known as the Carrying-Place Trail, soldiers cleared the land between Toronto and Holland Landing thereby creating Yonge Street. The route was intended to facilitate the rapid movement of troops from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe, and from there to Georgian Bay. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, the British colony of Upper Canada expected invasion by the young American Republic at any time, and Governor Simcoe was taking no chances. The Queen’s Rangers would later become the Queen’s York Rangers with its headquarters in Aurora from 1874 onwards after the construction of the Aurora Drill Shed (Armoury). The Governor hoped to populate this land with farmers loyal to the British Crown. With that goal in mind his surveyors divided the land on either side of Yonge Street into farm plots to be granted to those willing to farm and defend it. Two of the first to here were American Loyalists, William Graham and William Tyler, who had fought for Britain in the war and fled to Upper Canada to start new lives.xx1 The land on the east side of Yonge was simply called Whitchurch Township, and the west side, King Township. A few more farmers arrived, and for decades a small agrarian community continued life here, largely untroubled by the outside world. In the 1830s Richard Machell arrived and established his general store at Wellington and Yonge, and it became the central meeting place for farmers in the area. The pace of change in these decades was slow. A map from 1851 gives us a sense of the quiet nature of the place. Over half the area was forested. There was a grist mill for grinding grain into flour by the creek on Tyler Street, and a small Methodist log church at Tyler and Yonge. But there do not appear to have been any other buildings on Yonge Street where the town's commercial strip is today.xx2 This was about to change.
2. 'The Public School'
After the arrival of the railway in 1853, Aurora began to grow more quickly. By 1871 it had reached 1,100 people, and by 1888, shortly after this school was completed, there were 2,100 people calling Aurora home. Over the next few years the population actually declined to 1,600, probably because the West of Canada was opening up to settlement and drawing many people from Ontario.xx2 Nevertheless, the building of this school showed how prosperous and optimistic a community Aurora was becoming. It was constructed in the exotic British India style that combined aspects of classical Indian architecture with British styles like Gothic Revival, and became popular throughout the British Empire in the late Victorian Era. The style is marked out by the stylized belfry tower over the front entrance, the patterned brickwork, and the bulbous globes on the roof line. The design was carried out by Thomas Kennedy, a remarkably versatile architect from Barrie. He designed over 100 prominent buildings in Ontario around this time in virtually all of the many style that were fashionable at the time.xx3 As the city continued to grow, the community's needs outgrew the old public school, and new ones were built. In the 1970s some local politicians claimed that the building was 'an eyesore,' and argued for its demolition.xx4 One of the few buildings in Ontario in the British India style, it is fortunate that the Aurora Historical Society, looking for a new home at the time, fought successfully to have the school turned over to them for use as a museum and activities centre. Many other valuable historic buildings throughout Aurora have not been so lucky.
3. 'The Mechanics Hall'
The Aurora Mechanics Institute and Library Association completed this building in 1870, and it became one of the town's cultural centres. Mechanics institutes were a common feature of 19th Century cities (there were already over a thousand across the British Empire by the time this one was built), and acted as a combination of community college and technical library.xx1 During the 19th Century, the sciences and engineering were not nearly as specialized as they are today, so any bright and curious mind could read and quickly grasp the latest academic papers--and perhaps use that knowledge to make their own innovations. After all, automobiles and airplanes were both invented around this time by curious bicycle repairmen. At a time when most libraries entailed expensive subscription fees, the Mechanics Institute allowed Aurora's poorer factory tradesmen and farmers to access books. The Hall was also used for lectures and concerts such as the Temple of Fame. First performed at the Hall in 1918 to raise money for the Aurora Overseas Auxiliary, the pageant featured great female figures from history making their cases as to why they should be awarded the crown of fame. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the Temple of Fame was updated and re-staged by the Aurora Museum & Archives over Mother’s Day weekend, 2018. As for the Institute, in 1895 it became a freely-circulating public library. The library moved to the Town Hall on Yonge Street in 1920, and then moved several more times over the decades until reaching its current location at Yonge and Church in 2001. Today the building the home of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
4. 'The Town Park'
Probably the most famous event to occur here was on October 3, 1874, when Edward Blake, a Member of Parliament, gave what has since become simply known as the 'Aurora Speech.' Speaking to a crowd of 2,000 in the Armoury, Blake outlined his nationalist 'Canada First' views.xx1 He eloquently argued that Canadians should take more control over their political affairs from Britain, and advocated for a series of important political reforms. Writing in the 1920s, the Canadian Historical Review, said "There have been few political speeches in Canada which have been more justly famous, and which have exerted a wider influence on Canadian popular opinion, than Edward Blake's 'Aurora Speech'... In its bold and daring originality it gave a real stimulus to Canadian political thought. A speech which, nearly half a century ago, advocated such advanced ideas as the necessity for the growth of a national feeling in Canada, the reorganization of the Empire on a federal basis, the reform of the Senate, compulsory voting, and proportional representation, can only be described as a landmark in Canadian politics."xx2
5. 'The Queen's York Rangers'
The Queen's York Rangers were dispatched to the Western Front in the First World War, where they were employed as combat engineers. They specialized in laying railway tracks up to the front lines, which were absolutely crucial for keeping the men in the trenches supplied. During the final German offensives in 1918, when the Allied lines were buckling, the Rangers were thrown into the defense and successfully repelled a series of German assaults. During the Second World War the Rangers were mobilized to serve in a home defence role, though many Aurora men were sent off to fight with other frontline units. All told, some 24 men from Aurora were killed during the First World War. In World War II the grim tally was 55.xx1
6. ' A 'Genteel Family' Home'
An advertisement for this very home has come down to us today. It was placed in Newmarket's New Era newspaper, and shows the attractiveness of Aurora for its proximity to Toronto goes back 160 years: " A comfortable two story dwelling house, newly erected, with every suitable convenience for the residence of a genteel family… situated opposite the railway station… There is also a well of excellent water. The location is healthy and desirable, being within one hour's ride of Toronto by railway."xx1 Homes like this were the standard for the working classes in the mid-1800s. While they lacked the modern conveniences of electricity and running water--which wouldn't arrive until the 20th Century in many cases--they were well-built and relatively spacious.
7. 'The Railway'
Railways have played a central role in Canadian history, and so it is significant that Aurora was one of the first places in what would become Canada to see a railway. A Ontario Heritage Trust historic plaque commemorates that event, saying "The train, consisting of four passenger and freight cars was drawn by the steam engine 'Toronto', the first locomotive constructed in what is now Ontario."xx1 Railways were a fairly primitive new technology in the 1850s, and it was the pioneering work done on railways like this that laid the groundwork for the vast transcontinental railways that made Canada possible a short time later. It is no coincidence then that the historic railway station has survived to the present. In an age before cars and highways, the railway brought most visitors to the city, and the station was the first place they saw. In 1886 one visitor to the town described their experience of arriving at Aurora's station to the magazine Rural Canadian: "On stepping from the [railway] cars the clean and business[like] air of the place is very striking, no loitering, all on business intent. The sidewalks are excellent, and may be placed without fear of a plank springing up and barking your shins, or being tripped up, or stubbing your toes, and I hear ken, ye city fathers of more pretentious places, a man was kept scraping the mud off the roads and keeping them clean!"xx2 Accounts like this are a reminder of just how much we take for granted in the 21st Century. Who today would think it especially noteworthy that one can walk on the sidewalk without hurting yourself?
8. 'The Railroad Hotel'
Writing a 2018 article for The Auroran, local historian Jacqueline Stuart asked who would come and visit a hotel such as this? "Aurora had and has many fine qualities, but a wealth of tourist attractions has never been among them. The hotels were not occupied by people who came to see the sights, or even by train passengers who wanted to break a journey with a good night’s sleep in a hotel: if you were outbound, you would not yet need to stop for the night, and if you were on your way to Toronto, why not just carry on to the big city and all it had to offer? "If you were visiting family or friends in town, you would stay with them: that is what spare rooms were for. "Much of the overnight trade for small town hotels came from travelling salesmen. "Commercial travellers formed a world unto themselves… They formed friendships as they repeatedly encountered their fellow 'drummers,' some of them rivals for the same business. On a wider scale, they came together in mutual benefit associations which also negotiated good rates with the railways and hotels. They even established charitable organizations to assist those in need beyond their own circles… "For the commercial traveller the hotel was not only a place to lay his head and eat his breakfast: it was a place of business. Here he planned his local campaign, organized his samples, and then, if all went well, wrote up his orders after a day of sales. He might even nip across to the station telegraph office to send those orders back to the home office.. If the traveller stayed at a station hotel he could be on the railway platform two minutes after checking out, ready to move on to the next town on his route. "Then there were the users of the hotel bars, mainly locals. "The tinkle of ice in glasses, some background music, the buzz of conversation and an occasional outbreak of laughter: this was not the ambience of the typical small hotel bar, in Aurora or anywhere else in nineteenth century Ontario. General rowdiness, drunkenness, and fights, all fuelled by inexpensive liquor, were more likely to be found at the Railroad Hotel, as we have seen, and at some other Aurora hotels. The local newspaper had many a report of the collusion of landlords in all this, selling liquor illegally. "But for going on 130 years now, the greater part of its life, the Railroad Hotel building has been quiet and well behaved, very far from its days of being the worst place within the boundaries of the municipal corporation of Aurora."xx2
9. 'Kindness of Strangers'
"Everything here is novel to us. The people are so very kind and friendly and they seem unable to do enough for us to make us feel at home. "One of the unusual things here is the absence of drunkenness. We have not seen an intoxicated person or heard an improper word in the two weeks of our stay. "We are welcomed by a look of friendliness in the stores and on the streets. "The butchers on their delivery rounds in the morning call their customers out by a bugle. We first thought them a club of wheelmen [cyclists] coming. "The town constable is a busy man. He rings the City Hall bell at six o'clock in the morning, at noon and at six o'clock at night, attends to the waterworks business and on market days, Thursday, is at the City Hall to set the prices of the day on farmers' products brought there for sale. "We have visited the foundry, the brick and the tile kilns and were pleasantly shown about. We have seen no poor degraded persons, but all seem contented and happy. There is no element of the Plainfield hurry and worry."xx1
Joseph Fleury, in the manner of other leading Victorian businessmen, including Hart Massey, Timothy Eaton, Robert Simpson, and Edgar Jarvis, asked the prestigious architectural firm Langley, Langley & Burke to design his own grand Victorian residence. Construction on 'Inglehurst'--'hurst' meaning a wooded rise--began in the spring of 1876 on a 3-acre property at the corner of Yonge and Maple streets, a ten-minute walk north-east of the Fleury Works at the northern entrance to Aurora. Inglehurst was more than a family home. When Canada’s Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie, visited in 1877, this was only the beginning of a fascinating history; Inglehurst became a destination for distinguished guests and community events--a source of local pride. Unfortunately, Joseph lived only four years in Inglehurst. His second wife, Sarah and their very young family continued living there after his death. In 1887, Joseph’s son Herbert, his wife Leila, and their young daughter Marguerite made Inglehurst their home. Under Herbert, the Fleury home evolved into a centre of social life that reflected his magnanimity and community-minded nature. For example, Herbert opened the grounds for public high teas during World War I to raise funds for the Girls’ Red Cross Auxiliary. These events attracted motorists going through town, raising additional funds for Aurora’s war effort. Pictures of these teas can be found elsewhere in this app. For many years, Herbert was also a director of the Aurora Horticultural Society. His gardeners carefully tended the grounds at Inglehurst and reports of Herbert’s produce made their way into the local newspaper. In 1919, Herbert’s table bouquet, collection of perennials, lettuce, hickory and endive all won first prize at the summer flower show held by the Horticulture Society – in 1927, his delphiniums. Herbert Fleury died at Inglehurst in 1940. Upon her return from Paris in 1946, Marguerite sold the house and, in 1980, it was demolished. Its tall, striking front doors with frosted glass panels, and a marble mantlepiece, still reside in Aurora. They await new life as a memorial to their grand past, on display or in a building to come.
11. 'Horton Place'
The Italianate elements include the symmetrical front, ornamental brackets, tall chimneys and the prominent front entryway. An architectural historian describes this style of home as "Characteristic of the Ontario psyche, The Canada Farmer house is an accomplished compromise. It satisfies the desire to be modern or up-to-date with Italianate features, but not lavishly so."xx1 The third of the three prominent homes is Hillary House, located just north of Horton Place. Built for the town's doctor, the home was also threatened with the wrecking ball. The Hillary family, Aurora Historical Society, Ontario Heritage Foundation, and Parks Canada all banded together to save the home, and succeeded in turning it into a museum and home to the Aurora Historical Society.
12. 'Queen's Hotel'
The Queen's Hotel became a 'temperance house' in 1878, meaning they no longer served alcohol. This was the result of lobbying by local temperance activists, who saw alcohol as a societal evil that needed to be banned. Alcohol was often cited as a driver of poverty: working husbands often frittered away all their pay on drink, leaving nothing for their families. It was also associated with domestic violence. Nevertheless, halting the sale of alcohol put a large hole in the hotel's revenues, and food prices had to rise to make up for it. While Aurora voted down the proposed Local Option bylaw banning the sale of alcohol in 1913, the Ontario Temperance Act passed in 1916, putting the Queen's Hotel on a level playing field with all the other hotels in town. Prohibition would remain in force as late as 1960.xx1 Public awareness of the value of heritage preservation rose markedly in the 1960s and 1970s, but it would not come soon enough to save this important building. It was demolished in 1971 to make way for the TD Bank that remains there today.
13. 'The Fleury Works'
Joseph Fleury’s legacy began in Aurora in the 1850s when he, and partner Thomas Pearson, established a Blacksmith shop at the corner of Wellington and Temperance Streets. While that partnership did not last, the foundations were laid for an industry that would ultimately change the local landscape. In 1859, Joseph established a new foundry on the same site with his brother Alex that would later become known as the Aurora Agricultural Works. Joseph’s aim was to manufacture cast beam plows which were better suited to conditions in North America. Alex Fleury remained an integral part of this business until 1868 when he left to establish his own foundry in Markham. Like other successful pioneer owners of foundries in Ontario, Joseph had exceptional personal qualities: he combined inventiveness with good business sense, dogged determination and resilience. In 1862, an agent of R.G. Dun & Company of New York, paid a visit to Aurora and assessed the credit worthiness of five of its businessmen. In his judgment, Joseph was, “Honest and industrious (and) works hard at the trade. Has small means but intends doing business in a (professional) small way and thinks will pay his debts.”xx1 The following year, after noting that Joseph owned the foundry and a house worth $1,200, as well as 100 acres in Simcoe County, the agent sized him up as “Sharp and active, attends well to business, prospects good, means small but gaining.”xx2 As a testament to his extraordinary energy level, throughout his professional life Joseph would face the demands of running a successful business, raising a growing family, managing a political career and playing the role of an influential community leader in Aurora, and wider afield, in York County. In 1937, J. Fleury's Sons merged with the Bissell Company. The head office and primary manufacturing plant was based in Elora, Ontario, and the Aurora location operated as a branch office. The following year, a notice was posted in the local paper stating that J. Fleury's Sons Limited was submittng an application to surrender their Charter, which would formally disolve the independent Fleury firm. In April 1940, the decision was made to centralize all Fleury-Bissell operations in Elora and permanently leave Aurora, bringing with them 35 employees.
14. 'Downtown Aurora'
The most striking things about these photos of Yonge Street taken 110 years ago, is just how quiet the street appears to have been. Traffic was light and mostly horse-drawn. Cars would remain rare luxuries for a few more years, only really coming within reach of the middle classes in the 1920s. Before that Yonge Street's most common sight were the streetcars that ran on the interurban Radial line. The Radial Line into Aurora was one of three that radiated out from Toronto (hence the name), and probably first reached Aurora in 1899. The streetcars ran straight up the centre of Yonge Street to a station located where T.C.'s Burgers is today, just south of here. The line was never profitable and only lasted until 1930. In Aurora, as in most North American cities, competition from cars, which were faster and offered more flexibility, drove the streetcars to extinction. Not without a touch of symbolism, the streetcar station was sold to Imperial Oil in 1930 and converted into a gas station.
15. 'The Town Hall'
By the 1940s the building had fallen into disrepair: the walls were spreading apart and the exterior was starting to look run down. In 1943 it was decided to relocate the municipal offices to a building down the road. The Town Hall continued as a public building, but there appeared to be little desire to save the building. In 1956, after 81 years of life, the Town Office was sold to developers and torn down. Historian Jacqueline Stuart lamented the apparent lack of interest in preserving a building of such obvious heritage value: "There should have been a public outcry at the destruction of the old town hall: a good-looking building whose size and style were appropriate for one of the "gateposts" of the main business block of town- the towered United Church performed the same role across the street. For eighty years it had been where decisions, large and small, which had directed the town's course had been made. It was a landmark! "There was no public outcry, if the local papers are to be believed. The publisher of the Aurora Banner made a few pro forma comments, and invited readers to share their memories of the old building. " There was only one respondent. "There was no photo essay about the last hours of the building, as the old bell was removed, the tower taken down, and the dignified brickwork reduced to rubble. "Perhaps it was because at that time people were consciously looking forward to a bright, new, modern world, and were not interesting in being reminded of the old world, which in the memories of all adults in 1956 included at least one world war. Perhaps Aurorans were just realistic: the old building was held together with iron rods and had an awkward interior layout and for a long time had not worked as the town office."xx1