• Ed Brown

My Flemingdon Park: Historic Meagher Homestead

It is accepted knowledge that Flemingdon Park’s name honours former Toronto mayor and majority landowner Robert Fleming. A closer examination, however, reveals a different story. Fleming possessed only a portion of land in the neighbourhood that bears his name, and the rest belonged to a family with deeper roots in the area.

Final days of the Meagher Estate and the future site of the Ontario Science Centre

On a warm spring day in 1922, a 56-year-old farmer named James Meagher hitched a team of horses to a disk farrow, took up the reins and began tilling a furrowed field beside Don Mills Road when a moving truck heading north bumped along the gravel road beside his property. James stopped to watch it pass. The truck contained the household possessions of former Toronto mayor Robert Fleming and his family. The Flemings recently purchased the Maclean property on the west side of the concession, a stone’s throw north of Eglinton Avenue.


Later that day, when James took a break and went back to the house for lunch, he told his wife Annie about the moving truck. Annie was in the kitchen preparing apple pies, stuffing them with rosy fruit ripened on trees from their apple orchards. James and Annie had two teenage daughters, both away boarding at Loretto Abbey Day School. Other Meagher family members assisted James with farm work. Some resided on the Don Mills Road property; others lived away. Annie proposed a farmhand deliver a fresh-baked pie to the new neighbours, accompanied by a welcome note. James agreed. He finished lunch, kissed Annie and left her in the kitchen to resume tilling a field Meaghers had worked for generations.


James’ late father, Thomas Meagher, was born in Tipperary, Ireland and migrated to Upper Canada in 1845 at eighteen. Before taking up farming on what was then known as Don Road, he crisscrossed Upper Canada working as a Provincial Land Surveyor.


In 1850 Thomas and 19-year-old Limerick-born Bridget Hannon married in Toronto. The fifty-two-year marriage would produce seven children, five sons and two daughters. A few years later Thomas and Bridget purchased a roughly 200-acre estate half a mile north of the Forks of the Don River from the Taylor family.

James Meagher on disk furrow in 1922

Called Meagher Estate, the landholding was vast. In course of time, the property stretched from approximately Eglinton Avenue south to Gateway Boulevard, east from the CPR train bridge near Leslie Street across to the Don Valley Parkway. The neat and prosperous farm cultivated various crops, abundant apple orchards, and prizewinning livestock. Thomas developed a particular interest in breeding champion racehorses. Over their lifetime Thomas and Bridget accumulated significant wealth, hobnobbed among the upper-class of Toronto society, had membership at the Granite Club and enrolled their children in local elite Catholic boarding schools.


Daughters Mary and Margaret remained on the family farm, tending the household and caring for their aging parents. Neither married. Younger brothers Michael and James eventually assumed responsibility for the farm. Before this James trained and sold pedigree equine. First born Thomas II and brothers John, and George ventured off to create their own wealth. John became a successful hotelier and proprietor of the Royal Canadian Hotel on Front Street for over thirty years. Thomas II, also a hotelier, was celebrated throughout North America as a breeder of top-tier racehorses and cattle. He owned the Bayview Hotel, once located near Gates Race Track, west of Danforth Avenue and Main Street. Today known as Oak Park Avenue in East York, Meagher Avenue was named in his honour.


In one generation, the Meagher surname became synonymous with champion racehorses. Both Thomas II’s sons, Patrick and Thomas III, became celebrated jockeys.


Thomas and Bridget’s youngest son, George Meagher, for reasons never revealed, disavowed his family. The outcast would play a key role in pitting siblings against one another upon the death of their parents.


Nothing could blight Meagher’s success until the clan experienced significant loss in 1902 when 19-year-old jockey Patrick was crushed to death under a horse competing in a steeplechase. They buried family matriarch Bridget, a few months later, dead at seventy-one. The same year John Jr, known affectionately by family as Johnny, perished on his ninth birthday from appendicitis. Three weeks before Christmas, Thomas III died unexpectantly at twenty-three.


A little more than a decade later, the Meaghers commenced a very public feud after 84-year-old patriarch Thomas Sr. died on a Saturday morning in October 1911 at his home on Don Road.

Thomas Sr. bequeathed his wealth and landholdings to his eldest daughters, Mary and Margaret, who cared for him in his dying days, while exiled son George was excluded from the will entirely. Believing he was duped out of his rightful inheritance by sisters who manipulated their ill father into altering his will a year before his death, George sued his siblings over the legitimacy of their late father’s will.


Ensuing litigation brought out a staggering twenty additional heirs claiming an interest in the estate. In a complicated case involving a significant amount of money, on average, litigants spent $1,000 a day retaining counsel. Newspapers covered the strife with zeal. After weighing the evidence, a judge sided with the sisters in the end. George inherited nothing, remained estranged and died indigent twenty years later.


Mary and Margaret resided on the farm until their deaths. Brothers Michael and James and five of Michael’s offspring managed the property, now reduced in size by the selloff and appropriation of land.


Farmers in the province had a tough go in the 1920s, and the Meaghers were no exception. Hiring reliable fieldhands proved difficult, and then Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission began steps to expropriate swathes of Meagher land to convert into a hydroelectric corridor. Rather than allowing expropriated land to become fallow, the Commission leased seized property to market gardeners George Bell and Everett Earl Magee. With the more extensive operation, Magee established EE Magee & Son Farm on land east of Don Mills Road beneath the hydro wires. Bell’s operation opposite was smaller in scale. By the autumn of 1928, the Gatineau Hydro-Electric Corridor was operational.


Michael and James died within a year of one another in 1932. Five of Michael’s adult children continued to work and reside at the Don Mills Road farm.


Robert Fleming was deceased for over 25 years when his descendants sold their property to William Zeckendorf’s development company in the mid1950s. By this point, much of the Meagher farm had been dispersed. The question remains, why was Fleming, not Meagher, used in naming the future neighbourhood? A possible explanation is difficulty pronouncing the Gaelic surname.


In 1961 when Flemingdon Park opened to tenancy, siblings Thomas IV, William, Hugh, Kathleen and Ellen remained in the heritage home at 770 Don Mills Road. The once vast Meagher Estate now stood 23 acres of valley land on the southwest corner of the intersection of Don Mills and Eglinton, plus an additional 15 acres on the west side of Don Mills at St. Dennis Drive, valued at $20,000 an acre.


The siblings, either approaching retirement age or well past, were all unwed and without children. They sold the final remnants of land to Metropolitan Toronto for $675,000 and moved together into a Don Mills bungalow on Plateau Crescent.


Officials initially discussed relocating the City of Toronto Zoo from Riverdale to the site but changed direction when the Ontario Science Centre construction was proposed. The last of the Meaghers, Thomas IV, vacated the property in 1967. The same year, the lease of EE Magee & Son Farm expired, and son Donald relocated the operation to Markham. Bell’s Market Garden lasted an additional three years.


The 118-year-old two-story house, home to generations of Meaghers, was demolished the same year, making way for the Ontario Science Centre. Half a kilometre southeast, the large Meagher cattle barn had been razed a few years earlier to construct Grenoble Public School. Hugh Meagher, 84, a former resident of Meagher Estate and last surviving direct descendant of Thomas and Bridget, died in 1994.


Evidence of the once plentiful Meagher apple orchards is evident on hilly land behind the Science Centre today.

 

Ed Brown lived in Flemingdon Park at 58 Grenoble Drive from 1969-1991


edbrownwriter@gmail.com