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Visiting Ontario's Gibson House at Willowdale: local roots and memories of exile

Updated on February 23, 2016
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
Gibson House, Willowdale
Gibson House, Willowdale | Source
Historical panel re. David Gibson (1804-1864)
Historical panel re. David Gibson (1804-1864) | Source
Map location of Willowdale, Toronto
Map location of Willowdale, Toronto | Source

Tracing Toronto's history

Once a quiet country area close to historic Yonge Street, Willowdale is now part of Toronto, following the incorporation in recent years of North York into Toronto's Metropolitan area.

When David Gibson built the house which is now a local museum, however, it was hardly at a landmark location, but, rather, a farmhouse. Indeed, Gibson later had to lobby the authorities for a post office to be established in order to improve services and communications in the district.

Gibson House, completed in its basic, present form in 1851, has become established as one of Toronto's more important historical structures and museums which the City maintains. It is a somewhat typical Victorian farmhouse structure with two stories. An adjoining interpretive centre and gift store complement the actual house, in which costumed guides provide fascinating commentaries and insights into conditions at Gibson House during the lifetime of David Gibson. I was impressed by the narrowness and steepness of the stairs leading to the upper level of the house. The kitchen, with its large hearth area, was evidently once a hive of activity for a resourceful and prosperous 19th century family and its employees; various Victorian-era implements, unusual today, are displayed here.

Born in Scotland, David Gibson emigrated to Upper Canada at a young age and by 1825 was a Deputy Land Surveyor. His association with William Lyon Mackenzie meant that after the failure of Mackenzie's Rebellion in 1837, he was compelled to go into exile in the United States. Not until 1848 was he able to return, pardoned, and free to resume his surveying work.

Indeed, David Gibson was later to become quite closely identified with the Crown authorities against which he had once rebelled. He was appointed Inspector of Crown Land Agencies and Superintendent of Colonization Roads. David Gibson died at the age of 59 while on a visit to Quebec.

Also worth seeing

The visitor attractions and cultural sites of the Greater Toronto Area are rather too numerous to summarize adequately here; a mere few of these include the following:

In Downtown Toronto , (distance: approx. 13.2 kilometres) the monumental Richardson Romanesque Parliament of Ontario building in Queen's Park and the adjacent University of Toronto area attract many visitors. Impressive church architecture includes that of three close neighbours: the United Metropolitan Church , St Michael's Roman Catholic Cathedral and St James's Anglican Cathedral . The second and third of which have tall spires which serve as local landmarks. Almost opposite St Michael's Cathedral at #82 Bond Street is Mackenzie House , now a museum, the former home of William Lyon Mackenzie (with whom David Gibson was associated; see above). On Queen Street East, and adjacent to the Eaton Centre , renowned for shopping is Old City Hall , dating from 1899. On Queen Street West are both the imposing Osgoode Hall and the historic Campbell House . The CN Tower , off Front Street, is of course a must-see attraction to which very large numbers of visitors find their way.

The Ashbridge Estate (distance: 25.8 kilometres), further east along Queen Street East, has a centrepiece building dating from 1854. This estate was associated for over 200 years with the family whose name the property bears.

The Thomson Settlement and Scarborough Historical Museum (distance: 16.6 kilometres) situated in the Thomson Memorial Park, Scarborough. This complex comprises Cornell House and the McCowan Log House.

Fort York (distance: 18.9 kilometres) is a museum located in the former British fort, which was originally established in 1793. It saw action in the War of 1812. The adjacent Fort York Armoury, is still used by the Canadian Forces.


How to get there: Air Canada, flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. (Distance from Toronto Pearson Airport to Willowdale: approx. 23.4 kilometres). Highway 401 and Yonge Street give access to Willowdale. Alternatively, travellers may wish to travel by public transit, via Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) services. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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