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Collecting toll road fees is easy today, thanks to transponders and cameras that record the licence plates on vehicles that hit the pay-pavement.
Back in 1861, John Bullmin had a tougher time. He was a farmer who also operated the tollgate on the southeast corner of Davenport Rd. and Cruikshank’s Lane (now Bathurst St.) And collecting money from people using the roads was a thankless full-time job.
Bullmin had to be available, seven days a week, year round, in the rain, snow, darkness and sunshine, to collect fees for using a section of the privately owned Cruikshank’s Lane, and manually open the tollgate to let the travellers pass.
To do this Bullmin, his wife Elizabeth and their seven children lived in the tollkeeper’s cottage, a modest single story three-room cottage that abutted the south east corner of the intersection, where Starkmans Health Care Depot is today.
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Today, that very cottage is a public museum on the northwest corner of Bathurst St. and Davenport Rd., kitty-corner to its original location. It sits on city parkland and is owned and operated by the Community History Project.
The cottage was constructed so that the tollkeeper (or likely a family member) could lean out a small window and see who was coming up the road, says Marilyn Spearin, docent at the Tollkeeper’s Cottage Museum. The tollkeeper would stand outside on the porch, which was literally right beside the road, and collect the toll. Sometimes a driver might sit up high — perhaps on bales of hay. To collect from those sorts of clients, the tollkeeper likely used an object like a hollowed-out half coconut on a stick.
Records from 1851 show the fee for a wagon drawn by two horses was six pence, a one-horse or one mule-led wagon was three pence, a single horse two pence, those travelling on foot with 20 cattle or sheep paid a penny. Pedestrians weren’t charged.
Everything was scrupulously recorded in a book. The private operator of the road had to be paid to the penny, Spearin says.
It’s unlikely that tollkeepers, who were provided with a cottage to live in, were paid much, Spearin said. Most had other jobs. Bullmin, for instance, farmed 6.5 hectares, according to an agricultural census of 1861 found by Community History Project researchers. The 1861 census-takers also reported that his wife churned 50 lbs of butter that year, thanks to the family cow.
It’s also likely she helped collect the tolls.
“In those days, women would not have been given a job as tollkeeper — they would just end up actually doing the job,” Spearin says.
Toll gates came about in the 1800s with the growing cost of constructing and maintaining roads. In 1835, the Upper Canada government allowed private builders to bid on sections of road. The winner would construct the road, then set up toll booths and hire tollkeepers to make their money.
There was a system of tollgates at major intersections such as King and Yonge Sts., Queen St. and Ossington Ave., Queen and Bathurst Sts. and along major routes in and out of the city, including Kingston Rd.
This one at Davenport Rd. and Cruikshank’s Lane was one of five tollgates on a 13-kilometre plank road system that ran between the Humber and Don Rivers.
Nobody liked paying road tolls, therefore tollkeepers weren’t particularly popular.
“There are records of toll houses on Yonge St. being burned down,” Spearin says. York County ended the increasingly unpopular toll road system in 1896 and shifted the costs of roads to municipalities.
It’s not known how long Bullmin was the resident tollkeeper. But he was not the last. His tombstone in the Toronto Necropolis cemetery, near Riverdale Farm, states he died in 1867. His wife lived until 1912.
At some point, this tollkeeper’s cottage was moved to a lot nearby. It became a private residence and was more or less forgotten.
Then, in 1993, the Community History Project, a charity that advocates for preservation of historic buildings in central Toronto, learned from area resident Kulle Milles that an old tollkeeper’s cottage was in danger of being razed for a new development.
Project volunteers investigated the cottage on nearby Howland Ave. They were skeptical at first, but researchers were able to confirm that hidden under layers of siding was the original rare vertical plank construction of the local tollkeeper’s cottage and that it operated at Davenport and Bathurst from at least 1850.
Historians speculate this cottage was built elsewhere in 1835 and was moved to this intersection. It’s believed to be the oldest surviving tollkeeper’s cottage of its type in Canada.
The Community History Project bought the cottage for $ 1 from the developer, and in 1996 it was moved to a temporary space at the former Toronto Transit Commission’s Wychwood streetcar barns.
In 2002, it was moved to its present location.
The Community History Project covered most of the estimated $ 500,000 cost of restoration of the cottage through fundraising, donations and government grants. It constructed a classroom-sized addition at the back of the cottage where a shed would have been, to house instructional displays.
The inside of the cottage reflects the period and includes curtains made from flour sack cotton, beds with rope supports and tools such as a set of wooden shoulder supports used to fetch buckets of water from nearby Taddle Creek.
The Bullmins’ three sons would have slept in the shed in the warmer months, Spearin says. In the winter, they likely slept on the floor in the main room which was heated by a wood stove. Their parents had one bedroom, and the daughters shared the other.
The cottage was given a historical designation by the City of Toronto in 2004. The Community History Project hopes it will receive federal status as a National Historic Site.
No tolls are collected from visitors, but donations are accepted.
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