Rouge Valley Conservation Centre

Rouge Valley Conservation Centre


The children of Reuben Pearse and Helen (Chester) Pearse, circa 1926. From left to right, Elda, Gladys, Mary, Keith, Chester, Austin. This photograph shows the south side of the Pearse House before the addition of the sun porch.


By George W.J. Duncan

From its position overlooking Meadowvale Road and the Metro Toronto Zoo, the Pearse House has been a silent witness to 120 years of Rouge Valley History. Its story goes back even further, to the early 1830’s, when the three Pearse Brothers, James, John and George, left their home in Tavistock, Devon, England and came to Canada after a brief stay in the United States. They were accompanied by two cousins, who, after arriving in Upper Canada, found that the country was not to their liking and decided to return home. It is thought by the Pearse family that the cousins may have then journeyed back only as far as Cobourg and settled here after all.

James, the eldest of the brothers, was a stonemason by trade. He was an innkeeper on March Street, now Lombard Street in the City of Toronto in the early 1840’s. According to family tradition, James and John considered themselves gentlemen, and both had drivers to transport them in their carriages.  In 1842, James married Elizabeth Polkinghorn, a widow. In her lifetime, Elizabeth was widowed three times.

John, also a stonemason, established a homestead and sawmill on a 200 acre farm lot at the north-west corner of present-day Meadowvale Road and Finch Avenue. The machinery for the sawmill was purchased in the United States and brought to Canada by the Pearses by boat, across Lake Ontario and up the Rouge River. John married Martha Keel, the sister of his brother’s wife, Elizabeth, and was listed in the 1861 census as a farmer. His fine old stone house and couch house still stand, built in the 1850’s to replace an earlier dwelling.

George, the youngest of the brothers, is thought to have resided with one of his older brothers, probably John, assisting in the sawmill operation. He later settled on the south half of the same farm lot. The 1861 census lists George Pearse as a farmer.

All of the property occupied by the Pearses was leased in the early years of their settlement. Although James worked in the city, he leased the land upon which the Pearse House stood, one concession below and one lot east of John Pearse’s farm, with an option to buy it from the owner. It is not certain if a house was even built by James Pearse Sr. on this site. Perhaps he stayed with his brother John when visiting from the city.

The journeying between Toronto and the Rouge eventually became James’ undoing, as he died in the fall of 1846 as the result of injuries received when his carriage was accidentally upset during one of his trips. His wife was pregnant at the time.  When her baby was born a short time after the accident, he was named James, and Elizabeth later married her deceased husband’s youngest brother, George.

The family eventually settled near the north-west corner of Meadowvale Road and Finch Avenue, building a small board and batten clad cottage, which still stands.

In 1869, James Pearse Jr. purchased the property, which was formerly the leased farm of his natural father, later leased then purchase in 1852 by his step-father George. Probably about this time, he built a modest frame dwelling similar to that in which he had lived with his parents. The fact that the new house was built with sawn lumber is not surprising, since John Pearse operated a sawmill nearby, fed by the tremendous timber resources of the Rouge River Valley.

James Jr. married Amelia Stainton in 1875. They had five children: James (Asa), Mary Louisa, Homer Henry, George Edwin and Reuben Richard.

The circa 1869 cottage may have been enlarged to some extent as the family grew, but the major improvements and expansion which resulted in the existing one-and-a-half storey, brick-veneered farmhouse came in 1893. Family tradition records a description of “…the family continuing to live as they had before, while the ‘new’ house was built around and over them”.

James Jr. died in 1919, and the old homestead passed into the hands of his youngest child, Reuben. The last phase in the expansion of the Pearse House was in the 1920’s, when the south verandah was replaced by a sun porch and ground-level cellar entrance.

The Children of  Reuben Pearse and Helen (Chester) Pearse, circa 1926. From left to right, Gladys, Mary, Keith, Chester, Elda and Austin. This delightful photograph shows the children posed
in order of size and age on the front verandah of the Pearse House.

In the 1930’s, Reuben Pearse sold the property to Dr. Jackson, who built his magnificent country estate house, Valley Halla, in the valley below the farmhouse. Dr. Jackson is known for origination Roman Meal Bread, an early “health food” product. The Pearse house was occupied by the farm manager.

Closer to present times, the Pearse House and property were acquired by Metropolitan Toronto to form a part of the Metro Toronto Zoo site. The Pearse family barns and carriage shed, in the vicinity of the venerable old farmhouse, continue to serve in the operation of the Zoo, a major attraction in the Metropolitan Toronto area.

Pearse House History (continued)

To donate to the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre click on the button below:

Click here to see photos of the Pearse House’s transformation into the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre.