• Ed Brown

I Am a Pedestrian: Part 7

Walking around a city


I Am a Pedestrian is the result of a 159-kilometre walk around Toronto. The book consists of 159 observations gleaned from a 42-hour adventure at the perimeter. I Am a Pedestrian is a record of underexplored places, stories of people encountered and lost histories rediscovered at Toronto’s current city limits.


Before the onset of the novel coronavirus, I promoted I Am a Pedestrian in public libraries and other venues with a talk titled, The Time Travelling Pedestrian. With the aid of historical photographs, maps, and group discussion, the presentation revealed how Toronto has grown from a lonely French outpost in 1750 to today's bustling metropolis. Below is an excerpt from the book.

 

55—Heather Mallet's Story


I am leaning on a guardrail.


A marker/historical plaque should be installed at the intersection of Bayview and Steeles. The crossroads was once a hotbed of creativity in Canadian arts and letters.


A service station stands today where American expat Benjamin Fish established three mills and a distillery in 1828. Fire destroyed the enterprise. He rebuilt in 1866, sold the operation and prospered.


The new owners christened the operation Empire Mills. The mill was huge, sixty-five feet from valley floor to chimney top. Of the many mills on the Don, Empire remained in business the longest, well into the first part of the twentieth century. The building was framed with locally felled white pine. The hand-hewn support beams were forty-six feet long.


Canadian artist Angus Macdonald and his wife, author Billy Button, purchased the mill for a song in 1938. The young couple converted the structure into home and studio space.


Within months their daughter, Heather, was born. Five years later Heather got a brother, John. John loved everything about growing up in the old, drafty mill.


Heather, on the other hand, hated it.


Heather Mallet had an unhappy childhood. Starting in first grade, she trudged a mile and a half alone to school, sometimes in the dark. The area was rural. Friendships were hard to come by. Heather played alone on the banks of the Don. She collected pollywogs and made objects from clay. The Don teemed with catfish in numbers that were terrifying to young Heather.


Steeles Ave at Bayview, 1957

They may have been in proximity to wealthy elites, but the Macdonald-Button household struggled. Heather coveted the ponies that grazed in a nearby pasture.


Heather formed a brief friendship with an Indigenous girl named Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn’s family lived in dire conditions in a tarpaper barn where million-dollar homes stand today. Gwendolyn was worse off than Heather. The girls got on like a house on fire. The friendship ended abruptly when Heather’s parents got wind of Gwendolyn’s ethnicity.


For high school Heather attended class on Yonge near Eglinton. Her parents arranged a ride for her there and back from a parent of a classmate. Sleeping in meant walking a mile to Yonge then catching the southbound radial car at stop 38.


Heather’s father, Angus Macdonald, resented working traditional jobs. He only wanted to paint. Over time he became respected as this country’s leading stained glass artisan. Largely overlooked today, Macdonald’s creations are valued by collectors around the world. Samples of his works are displayed in the Royal York Hotel, the King Edward, St. James Cathedral, Sunnybrook Hospital and, before it was razed, the Sports Hall of Fame at Exhibition Place.


Heather’s mother struggled to find a balance between parenting and writing. Operating a household in a rundown mill wasn’t easy. She managed for a decade and a half, but it was tough. Like Susanna Moodie had a century before with Roughing It in the Bush, Billy Button put her experience of roughing it at the limits in her illustrated memoir, I Married an Artist.


The marriage was an unhappy one. The couple divorced when Heather was eighteen.


Bayview was straightened in 1965. The mill came down. By then Heather was long gone.


 

I Am a Pedestrian is available through this website.