Park & Company: Early Entrepreneurs in the Western District of Upper Canada

By Dr.  John C. Carter.

American newspaper man Horace Greeley is known for writing; “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”* Brothers Thomas, John and Theodore Park did this, by moving from Massachusetts to the Western District** of Upper Canada. This occurred well before the famous saying became popular. This article will look at the significant, yet almost forgotten, commercial empire that the Park brothers established between 1824 and 1870.

Introduction:

The Park family traced its roots to Richard Park who had emigrated from England, and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1635. Successive generations of the family farmed in Cambridge, Newton and Framingham. The Park brothers were sons of John and Lucy Richardson Park. They grew up in a successful, upper class family in Framingham. By the 1820s, it was a bustling mercantile centre, a busy stage depot, and a prosperous and expanding community. In this milieu, the Park brothers would grow up and learn of Yankee*** enterprise and ingenuity. This environment would have a bearing on and help to shape future developments in the brothers’ lives and fortunes.

John R. Park from Belden’s Historical Atlas of Essex & Kent Counties (1880). Photo Credit:John R. Park Homestead, Essex.

The Park Story:

The development of both turnpikes for improved overland transportation and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1817 facilitated a shift in population. Many moved from the American eastern seaboard to lands opening up in the Michigan territory, and to areas further west. Thomas Fletcher, the eldest Park brother first took this route in 1820. John Richardson followed him in 1822. Both eventually settled in Amherstburg, Upper Canada. There they worked for a number of years with various trading and mercantile firms.

After gaining relevant experience, Thomas and John moved to Colchester Township in the Western District, and set up their own business enterprise. In 1824, they established a trading post/store known as the “Gosfield Adventure” on the Gosfield-Colchester Townline. Trade goods used in bartering for local agricultural products, were received from Detroit, Buffalo, New York and Boston. With the opening of the Welland Canal in 1828, additional merchandise was shipped from Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and Oswego, New York. The “Gosfield Adventure” evidently continued for at least twenty years. Neighbour Charles Gale wrote that; “I was in Jn. Park’s store in the winter [of 1844]. The work was too much for me. I got Mr. Park to get your brother James [Hackett] to come and help and James attended the store. I weighed wheat and tobacco for farmers.” Gale added; “Pay was so small we could hardly live. We cut hogs up at night and salted at so much a barrel. I was so apt I could cut a head off with a knife and not miss.”

In the interim, business prospered. This was reflected in an 1833 letter from Thomas to youngest brother Theodore Jones, who had remained in Framingham. He noted that; “…our prospects are good and all that’s wanting is close application to business. We cleared better than $1,400 last year and I think we shall exceed $1,000 this season.”****This optimistic report of economic success prompted Theodore to join his brothers in Upper Canada in 1833, to assist with the family business. He was instructed to take stages to Albany, New York, canal boats to Buffalo, and then proceed to Detroit by steamer. From there, Thomas was told to “…procure conveyance to our place…By the time you arrive we will be keeping Bachelors Hall…our residence on the lake shore.”  In 1833, John Richardson had purchased 114 acres of land in Colchester Township from John Arnold, for $300.  Thomas said of the property; “…we have an excellent farm which we amuse ourselves when trade is dull.” The trading business must have continued to be rewarding, as this property was paid for in cash. John described the new acquisition as “…a place 16 miles removed from Amherstburg and on the lake [Erie] shore.”

Above: Circa 1940 aerial image of the John R. Park Homestead on the shore of Lake Erie. Right: John R. Park family grave site (tombstone) at the Christ Church Cemetery, Colchester. Photo Credits: John R. Park Homestead, Essex

 

Amelia (Gamble) Park, the wife of John R. Park. Photo Credit: John R. Park Homestead, Essex

The year 1835, proved to be an important one for the Park brothers. In February, John married Amelia Gamble, and within a year daughter Ellen was born. Thomas and Theodore moved to Amherstburg, bought a house overlooking the Detroit River, and expanded the family business there. In March 1835, the brothers purchased the schooner Erie & Ontario. It would be the first of at least 35 vessels that would be owned or operated by Park & Company. Over the years, this enterprise would bring the brothers further financial success. John’s brother-in-law Lyman Perry who was still living in Massachusetts, described the family business as prospering beyond their “…most sanguine expectations.”

For the next 35 years, shipping and trading became the paramount focus of Park & Company. Theodore remained in Amherstburg, to co-ordinate business transactions from wharfage on the Detroit River. Thomas, the company agent, travelled widely throughout the Canadas and into the United States, selling, taking orders, and expanding financial holdings. This often took him away from his home base in the Western District. On his excursions he experienced the travails of travel, as described in a March 24, 1835 letter that he sent to Theodore: “Dear Brother Dont you think I started on the tramp at a pretty season of the year the first days half frozen and jolted to death the last three days of my journey neck deep in mud and the only consolation i had was that your old cloak got the worst of it and was fast approaching to its latter end poor thing it is in the last stage of decay and if it ever lasts to see Colchester I do not think it will be recognized by its oldest and dearest friend and alas such will be the case with all my outward apparel, by the time I return to Colchester I shall be naked of clothing as a birds arse of feathers.” During this business trip, Thomas also negotiated to purchase tin ware, water conductors, staves, crockery, earthenware bulk pans and churns. He anxiously awaited the opening of the 1835 shipping season. Writing from St. Catharines on March 30, he said; “The [Welland] canal I am sorry to say (I don’t think) will be open before the 1st May and I hope the ice will not be out of Buffalo Harbour before this time as I wish to have a fair start with the other schooners on Lake Erie.”

Theodore Jones Park. Photo Credit: Park House Museum, Amherstburg.
Caroline Kevill Park. Photo Credit: Park House Museum, Amherstburg.

Meanwhile, John stayed in Colchester Township, directed business transactions in the country, and continued to farm at the homestead. In 1842, he completed the construction of a 12 room, timber framed, American Greek Revival house. Local postmaster and farmer, John G. Buchanan, confirmed this in a fall entry in his diary; “Mr. John Park built his new house this summer.” In this opulent and expansive structure, Park would welcome business associates, entertain his neighbours, and raise his ever-growing family. He was also involved in other business ventures and community work. He acted at various times as treasurer and councillor for Colchester Township, was one of the founding members of the Colchester Agricultural Society, served as a local school board trustee, and aided in fund raising for the Irish famine relief fund. He loaned money to area residents, and held mortgages on numerous properties in Essex and Kent counties.

In the 1840s, business endeavours for Park & Company expanded. A sawmill was erected on Cedar Creek, and the brothers became involved in operating a tannery, a gristmill, and an ashery. Local goods shipped out included wheat, rye, apples, corn, tobacco, salt pork, potash, hoop and pig iron, timber and finished lumber. An 1848 letter from the Jacques and Hay Company of Toronto, explained the nature of one of these transactions: “Your Mr. Parkes [sic] called at our place some-time back and gave to us understanding that it was likely you would send us, alot of walnut lumber this fall, and take furniture for most of it.” Park vessels also won contracts to carry the Royal Mail, and to transport government troops.

The Park & Company fleet sailed the Great Lakes carrying passengers, merchandise and trade goods. Regular ports of call included, Goderich, Chatham, Detroit, Port Rowan, Port Burwell, Port Dover, St. Catharines, Sault Ste. Marie, Port Arthur, Toronto, Kingston, Buffalo and Montreal. Periodic visits were made to New York, Boston, London and Liverpool. A line of agents and company representatives was established in Gosfield, Mersea and Howard Townships, and at other locations including St. Thomas, Vittoria, Long Point, Simcoe, Port Stanley and Toronto. Associated with the shipping and trading, Park & Company also owned the majority of wharves in Amherstburg. There boats were built, vessels docked, and cord wood was sold as fuel for the many steamers plying the Detroit River. The diversification of business interests also occurred. These pursuits included land speculation, the holding of mortgages, the development of a subdivision in Amherstburg, tobacco farming, and investing in early railroad initiatives, by holding shares in the Amherstburg and St. Thomas, and the Canadian Southern railways.

Conclusion:

Why did the Park brothers decided to settle and spend a good part of their lives in the new settlement of Upper Canada’s Western District? It is likely that in the 1820/30s, this region appeared to be a prime location for “enterprising Yankees” like the Parks to establish business ventures, and to prosper. There was good farmland available, many settlers were of American background, and at that time there were few merchants established in the area. The Parks astutely perceived the benefits of setting up a trading and mercantile business. As emigrants continued to flow into the Western District, the Park brothers would capitalize on their need for supplies and provisions. Their shipping endeavours would facilitate moving numerous locally grown products to nearby growing Canadian and American markets, which were readily accessible by water. As brother-in-law Lyman Perry noted; “…the Yankees you know are behind nobody in point of enterprise.” This was an apt portrayal of Park & Company, and it accurately described the three entrepreneurial brothers who were behind their highly successful business ventures!

An 1845 C.A. Band portrait of Eliza (Park) Slack with her children Benjamin and Kate. She was the sister of the Park brothers. Photo Credit: Park House Museum, Amherstburg

Afterward:

While many years have passed since Park & Company existed and time has faded memories, visitors to Essex County have the opportunity learn about the Park clan at the John R. Park Homestead and the Park House. They are the two most southerly, living history, house museums in Canada. They are also the only two museums in Ontario that are dedicated to and publically commemorate one family. Both sites continue to stand as lasting tributes to the Park brothers, and they act as important links between the history of our past and to the events of the present.

The John R. Park Homestead is located at 915 County Road 50 East, R.R. # 1, Harrow, Ontario, N0G 1G0. The 1842 house and associated farm buildings are restored. They interpret and bring to life rural Ontario of the 1850s. For further information call (519) 738- 2029, or email jrph@erca.org.

The Park House Museum is situated at 214 Dalhousie Street, Amherstburg, Ontario, N9V 1W4. Originally built in the 1790s, this structure was disassembled and moved across the Detroit River from Michigan. It became the Amherstburg headquarters for Park & Company, after 1835. Today it depicts the history of Amherstburg and the Park family, and features a working tinsmith shop in the Pensioner’s Cottage. For further details, phone (519) 736-2511, or email curator@parkhousemuseum.com.

Park House Museum Photo Credit: Park House Museum, Amherstburg

Visit both museums, step back in time, and re-live the interesting history of the Park brothers and their amazing early entrepreneurial ventures in the Western District of Upper Canada. Go have a look at these two lasting monuments to Massachusetts Yankees in Upper Canada. You’ll be glad you did!

Endnotes:

*Greeley was the editor of the New York Tribune, who is credited for coining this phrase. Some suggest that it was an altered version of “Go West, Young Man, Go West,” which Indiana journalist John B.L. Soule may have first used. Both concerned America’s expansion westward, then popularly known as “Manifest Destiny.” For his comments on improved water transportation to the west, see Horace Greeley, “Westward Ho! – Travels on the Great Lakes,” Littell’s Living Age (1847), v. 14.

** The Western District was made up of what are today’s Essex, Kent and Lambton Counties in southwestern Ontario. In the (January-April, 1840) issue of the Colonial Magazine, p. 310, the following quote described growth there; “…with all the new villages and cities that have been laid out in ‘the far west,’ during the last twenty years – where, in what place, through all that broad region, can there be shown an extent of country which has surpassed Upper Canada in the permanent increase of population, business, and settlement.” The Park brothers had chosen correctly.

***This word is explained in the British American Guide-Book (1859); “For the fact that the British first landed in New England, the word Yankee thus became applicable to them, and it still retains, to this day, its significance as a term applicable to all who belong to the New England States, and to them only… It is the New Englanders, alone, who are considered Yankees.”

****Quotations from family letters come from the Park Papers, Aikman Collection, Fort Malden National Historic Site, Amherstburg.

Acknowledgements:

The author would like to thank Janet Cobban, Kris Ives, Stephanie Pouget, Liza Price, Jackie Rabe, Ron Tiessen, and Edith Woodbridge, for their assistance in preparing this article. Dr. John C. Carter is a Research Associate, School of Humanities, University of Tasmania. He can be contacted at drjohncarter@bell.net

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