He played a prominent role in the development of East York. Written by John Michailidis and originally posted July 10, 2008.
It is rare that ordinary citizens have the financial means or the passion to make contributions of land to their community. One such rare individual is Billy McKay (1862-1943), an East York farmer born of Irish parents, in what is now the community of East York. His contribution of land in the early 1920s set the stage for the pattern of development of the eastern part of the old Township of York, creating a hub of public buildings at Coxwell Avenue and Mortimer Avenue to serve the community. His contribution of land may have played a significant role in the province’s decision to establish the Township of East York in 1924.
In 1891, at the age of 29, Billy purchased farmland in the vicinity of Coxwell and Mortimer, near his father’s farm. In 1921 and at the age of 58 – and still a bachelor – after many years of raising pigs for market Billy decided to make donations of land to his community.
He donated the southwest corner of Coxwell and Mortimer to the Public School Board, Section 7, which would become the site of R.H. McGregor public school and the office of the East York Board of Education. The school still exists and the old Board’s office is the new Toronto East General Hospital Medical Building. Also in 1921, he donated the northwest corner of the intersection to York Township. The site would later become the home of the Township of East York municipal offices. Today it’s the East York Civic Centre, Memorial Park and East York’s war memorial cenotaph. Many veterans made East York their home after the second World War, and this site, especially the war memorial is treasured by long-time East Yorkers.
In 1924, Billy sold 5 acres of his farm to the City of Toronto for the development of the new Toronto East General Hospital on Coxwell Avenue. At the same time Billy donated an additional one and half acres to the City for the hospital site. Since the opening of the hospital in 1927 it has undergone a number of expansions, and is today the mainstay of health care for citizens in east Toronto.
Billy was known to be an eccentric fellow. In the late 1920s rumours spread around the Township that Billy had found a bride, albeit he was well into his 60s. Perhaps Billy started the rumours himself. What ever the case, Billy kindled the rumours by building a gorgeous red bricked house beside the new hospital for his bride to be. Unsurprisingly a marriage never materialised and the house remained vacant as Billy choose to live in its barn instead.
In the early 1930s the fledgling Township of East York decided to reassess Billy’s remaining farmland for industrial development, increasing his property taxes. Billy opposed the Township’s curious decision and he refused to pay the increased taxes. Billy lived in the barn until 1937 when neighbours reported to local officials a foul smell emanating from the direction of the barn. Upon investigation the officials were horrified to find Billy sleeping in the barn among layers of horse manure and beside a horse that had been dead for some time. In May 1937 Billy was admitted to the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in the west end of Toronto, where he died on April 15, 1943. His death notice states that he was indigent.
Before the Township could demolish Billy’s barn, it mysteriously burned down. As for his red bricked house, it became a nurse’s residence for the hospital until the early 1960s when the hospital demolished it to make room for a larger residence building.
In late 1939 the Township took over Billy’s farmland for tax arrears. His farmland was developed for housing of the type East York is famous for – no nonsense, solid wartime bungalows, built to last generations. To this day and well into Toronto’s future, Billy has left his mark on the community of East York.
Billy donated close to 12 acres of his land to benefit the community. The reasons for his generosity remain a mystery. Whatever the reasons, Billy’s contribution are rare for a man of ordinary means and his passion to better his community is worthy of recognition. On June 25, 2005 the East York Historical Society along with the Toronto East General Hospital and the McKay family recognised his contributions by unveiling a plaque in his honour at the East York Civic Centre.