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A 19th Century Entrepreneur: William Cane (1822 – 1899) and the Cane Woodenware Factory

Some time ago on this blog, we learned about the Black settlement which existed in in East Gwillimbury in the mid-19th century, many of whom were employed in William Cane’s sawmill business. Today, we shall delve into the life of William Cane who was a prominent figure in the municipalities of East Gwillimbury and Newmarket.


His family was originally from County Antrim in Ireland. His father, Mr. Samuel Cane, emigrated to Albany, New York in the late 1810’s; this was where William Cane was born on October 8th, 1822. Later, his father moved the family up to the Township of Caven, about fifteen miles from Port Hope in Upper Canada. Some years later, both his parents died tragically in a fire, leaving him an orphan. He lived in Mariposa (now known as Orillia) and Lindsay for a time, before moving to Queensville in 1840. He started up a wooden ware business, creating pumps, wagons, and other wooden goods.


He married a local girl from Queensville named Catherine Belfry in 1844, and they eventually had 11 children together. He was a prominent member of the community, serving “as reeve, deputy reeve, and for fourteen years as a school trustee.”[1] In addition to his civic pursuits the woodenware business seemed to thrive and was well used by the residents of East Gwillimbury. For example, on September 18, 1871, Ezra Doan reported in his diary that he “drew from Cane’s mill 600 ft. plank inch measure. Paid him $3.90c, for it being at the rate of $6 ½ per thousand…”[2] Cane lived with his family in Queensville until 1875, until he moved to Newmarket to take advantage of the better business opportunities there.



Figure 1: Photograph of William Cane, c. 1890's. Photo retrieved from the Internet Archive.


Due to popular acclaim, he became Newmarket’s first mayor in 1881, after Newmarket was incorporated into a town the previous year. He would be re-elected as mayor of Newmarket a further nine times and would also serve on the Town council in his later life. Through Cane’s efforts, a new town hall and market building were constructed, cementing Newmarket’s status as the economic hub of the region.


He purchased a building known as the Sykes foundry and engine works on Huron Street (now known as Davis Drive). Three months later, it burned to the ground, so he rebuilt it into a tanning factory. That building also burned down as well. In 1885 he managed to rebuild his woodenware factory known as William Cane and Sons, but it too was soon destroyed by fire. He then took steps to mitigate the chance of fire wrecking his business by building “a three-building complex constructed of brick with a huge firewall incorporated [into it]. It was to employ more than 250 local workers.”[3]



Figure 2: William Cane's woodenware factory, c. 1910, originally located on the corner of Davis Drive and Bayview Parkway. From the collection of Terry Carter.


When he died in May 1899, the flags on all the town buildings were lowered to mourn his passing. The wooden ware factory continued to be managed by his sons after his death. It started to produce pencils there in 1920; the Cane factory was eventually acquired by the Dixon Pencil Company of Canada in 1931. Eventually, the Dixon Pencil Company closed the factory on September 30th, 1990, and the building was subsequently demolished. The lot is now occupied by the Dixon Medical Centre on 531 Davis Drive.


Let us know in the comments if you ever owned anything produced by the Cane wooden ware factory or remember using a pencil made by the Dixon company!

[1] Carter, Robert Terence. (2001). Stories of Newmarket: An Old Ontario Town. Toronto: Dundurn Press. 149. [2] Rolling, Gladys (1967). East Gwillimbury in the 19th Century: A Centennial History of the Township of East Gwillimbury. Toronto: Ryerson Press. 95. [3] Macleod, Richard. (2018, November 3rd). “Remember this? Cane family one of Newmarket’s first dynasties”. Newmarket Today. Retrieved from https://www.newmarkettoday.ca/remember-this/remember-this-cane-family-one-of-newmarkets-first-dynasties-1108774

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