On a warm day in June, 1911, a delegation of City of Toronto officials piled into a car and drove 16 kilometres up Yonge Street to a 386-acre farm owned by James and William Russell, members of an old pioneer family. The group -- which included Mayor Horatio Hocken and Alderman Tommy Church, who would succeed him -- strolled across the pastures, pausing to admire a stream running across the land, located near Richmond Hill. A tumble-down colonial farmhouse stood nearby.
Their guide on this day was Toronto’s energetic properties commissioner Roland Caldwell Harris, who had pressured the Russells into granting the city an option to buy the farm for $162 per acre. Harris’ plan was to establish an “industrial farm” where minor criminals could serve short sentences doing agricultural work, instead of rotting in the notoriously over-crowded Don Jail.
As Harris later told The Star, “We don’t want it called the jail farm or to have the name of the jail associated with it. The object of this place is to give the men who have fallen a chance to lift themselves up again – to show them that reclamation lies in their own hands. We seek to help – not to punish.”
A century later, such sentiments sound almost impossibly remote and even naive. With Stephen Harper’s Conservatives bent on imposing a retributive criminal justice agenda featuring longer sentences, larger penitentiaries and fewer pardons, the government has been closing existing prison farms, ostensibly to save money.
But in the Toronto of the 1910s, the notion of diverting minor offenders from the Don had gained broad popular support. “We have a barbarous system of handling the fellow who gets drunk,” as one controller put it. “He hasn’t done anything or stole anything. He is a victim of his own weakness.”
It took R.C. Harris several more months to close the deal, and the city finally spent $60,000 to acquire the Russell farm and some adjacent land, as well as cows, horses and pigs. The sale closed shortly before council named the 37-year-old Harris as works commissioner, a post he held for 33 years, during which time he oversaw dramatic changes in the way the City of Toronto looks and functions.
Despite the promotion, Harris insisted on keeping a hand in the development of the industrial farm. Aiming to have capacity for 500 inmates, the city planned to erect cottage dormitories, a main building with a kitchen, dining room and common areas, and barns. The property, according to a council report, could someday house facilities for very poor seniors and “the indigent.”
Conspicuously absent from the plans were bars, fences and other symbols of incarceration. The routine revolved a nine-hour shift working in the fields. As Alderman Joseph O’Neill, who chaired the committee overseeing the project, said in late 1912, “We have no locks or keys, cells or guards. We put the men on their honour.” Only a handful ever escaped.
The facility functioned without incident, easing congestion at the Don Jail. Initially taking 65 prisoners, it eventually held several hundred.
It was a time when social reform ideas were in circulation. During an election debate organized by women’s groups in December, 1912, speakers called for improved housing for slum areas, campaigns to treat milk and water, psychiatric hospitals and female police officers. Also on the agenda: the establishment of an industrial farm for teenage girls found guilty of minor offenses. As one participant said, “We ought to send them out into the fresh air to grow vegetables and flowers and raise chickens.” Two years later, the City agreed, acquiring a 200-acre farm, in Concord, to house female inmates.
The City touted its investment to taxpayers. As Hocken said in his 1914 mayoral address, “One has only to visit the institution to ascertain the great difference between the men who are confined at the farm and those incarcerated at the Toronto Jail...I feel satisfied that the reformation of those sentenced to the farm warrants the step taken by the municipality…”
As time passed, Harris moved on to other projects, such as the water filtration plant in the east end. The industrial farms, for their part, began to generate controversy, revolving around chronic infighting between the city and provincial officials who shared administrative responsibility. A 1926 inquiry into the simmering conflicts led to layoffs, but Queen’s Park continued to question the city’s use of the farm as a place to also house infirm and poor seniors. By the early 1930s, the province had taken over the operation of the farms.
The men’s facility was converted for use as a hospital in 1938, but continued to serve inmates after World War Two. Rob Leverty, executive director of the Ontario Historical Society, recalls driving past it on family outings in the late 1950s. “It intrigued me that there was a farm with prisoners,” he says, noting that the conditions seemed humane by contrast to movie depictions of chain gangs.
After province closed the facility in 1958, tenant farmers rented the land, paying as little as $7,800 per year. But in 1982, the Langstaff Jail Farm stormed back into the public consciousness when Toronto council decided to sell the property, which sat in the path of Greater Toronto’s sprawl. It encompassed a desirable chunk of real estate bounded by Yonge, Bayview, Highway 7 and the 16th Sideroad.
For four years, Toronto officials bickered with the Town of Richmond Hill over a fight that involved ambitious development schemes from well-connected builders and auto-parts magnate Frank Stronach. In the end, the winning developer anted up $75 million but soon flipped some of the land for a hefty profit.
There’s a curious coda to this story. Shortly after the sale closed, Toronto council earmarked $23 million of the proceeds to establish the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, an agency mandated to finance energy efficiency retrofits for both public and privately-owned buildings. TAF proved to be one of the first such funds, and the model has been widely emulated elsewhere.
It's fascinating to discover how these two progressive-minded ideas from very different eras turn out to be linked by the long arc of time.