The Vaccarellis like to unwind from a busy day with a good television show in the family room. They’ve been doing that for years, unaware that the creepy crawl space below the room was filled with archeological treasures from pioneer families who also lived on this same land. Those families had different options for relaxing, judging by the bits of smoking pipes and a mouth harp found in the soil.
There have always been signs that their home in North Etobicoke had a story to tell. Vito and Teresa Vaccarelli bought the farmhouse in 2001, and since then, their three children have found old pieces of pottery and rusted coins in the garden. The front of the home, with its gingerbread detailing, faced west toward Mimico Creek. It was the ideal position when this was a lonely farm in the 1870s, but when the street began to fill in with bungalows in the 1950s, the house looked backwards. The outhouse was in the front yard, as far as the new neighbours were concerned.
In September, Vito Vaccarelli took a yearlong unpaid leave from his job as a high school history teacher to supervise renovations of the heritage home, which included underpinning and lowering the basement and excavating the crawl space beneath the family room.
Vaccarelli has a master’s degree in anthropology, specializing in Euro-Canadian archeology. He worked as an archeologist at several sites, including Hamilton’s Dundurn Castle, Toronto’s Fort York and Highway 407, before he began his teaching career. While artifacts had turned up in his yard over the years, he wasn’t sure what he’d find inside the home, if anything.
The soil-filled crawl space had only been accessible by a hatch in the floor, which was carved sometime in the 1950s when the home was upgraded and turned into rental units. The crawl space was not a nice place to be, with about half a metre of space on top of the soil. It had been sealed off from the rest of the basement by a stone wall in the 1870s, when the Coulter family built the farmhouse.
When a crew took the crawl-space wall down this past fall, Vaccarelli saw the dirt in layers — broken bricks and old demolition debris at the top, the glacial deposits of sand and clay near the bottom of the room, and not far above that, a thin layer of ashy charcoal soil where he found fragments of plates from the early 19th century and blacksmith coins that predated official currency. The soil was dry but it smelled like a century of rodents, and he saw why: there were little tunnels everywhere, and as he’d discover, many historical mouse droppings in the insulation.
Based on his extensive research, he knew that Robert Coulter and his wife lived in a one-storey log cabin on this parcel of land in 1851. Later tax assessments suggested the cabin was replaced by something better, but he was never sure exactly where or when the buildings existed. The documents could only go so far. Etobicoke Township was surveyed in 1795, and this particular acreage — Lot 13 of Concession One — first appeared on the books in 1809, when the land was granted to Eleanor Stephenson, the daughter of a prominent military man who served under John Graves Simcoe.
The next year, the property changed hands and the new owner was a man who would soon be serving in the War of 1812. There were some plate fragments that reflected this early era, and many more objects that show an early occupation “by at least 1820-1830,” Vaccarelli says.
Based on the sheer number and age of artifacts, Vaccarelli believes the earlier pioneer homes were built on the same footprint his farmhouse now occupies. In the kitchen, he holds a dainty sewing pin in his hand. “People don’t carry safety pins through the forest. Safety pins get lost through floorboards.”
The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport regulates archeology in Ontario. A spokesperson with the ministry says that if homeowners find an artifact while excavating or building, they should leave it where it was found and contact a licensed archeologist who can recommend next steps. The ministry issues licences to archeologists, and requires that archeologists preserve the artifacts they find and report on the work they do.
Vaccarelli had an archeological research licence for the house back in 2003, to document the items that turned up in an earlier renovation.There were always new finds that kept delaying his final report and he was always tracking down new information about the home’s occupants, including Victor Kugler. Kugler was a member of the Dutch resistance who helped Anne Frank and her family hide in the secret annex in Amsterdam, and was one of the first tenants of the home in the 1950s, when Robert Coulter’s granddaughter turned the farmhouse into apartments.
Referred to in early editions of her diary by the pseudonym “Mr. Kraler,” Kugler was an employee of Anne’s father, Otto Frank, and as Anne noted in her diary, he was the one who came up with the idea to hide the entrance behind a bookcase that opened like a door. He continued to help the family until the annex was discovered, and he was sent to prison and then a series of hard-labour camps.
He later moved with his second wife to Canada, where he lived as a tenant at the Coulter house until 1965. He worked as an electrician and insurance agent in Toronto and was recognized by Israel as a “Righteous among the Nations” for helping the Frank family. Kugler also received honours for his ongoing work challenging Holocaust deniers.
The house was endlessly interesting, and cataloguing the latest archeological finds along with the stories became an ongoing family hobby. Amid his busy life with three children and his teaching job, Vaccarelli never completed the report, which he had tentatively titled “Rodents in the soffit, heritage in the garden,” although he knows the ministry officials would probably prefer something like “Coulter site: final report.”
Vaccarelli imagines there are many homes and sites where found artifacts are “being lost on a daily basis.” His licence had expired but he wanted to save everything. He says he is in the process of reactivating the licence with the ministry.
“I still feel that I have this professional responsibility to deal with it as best as possible,” he says. “Heritage preservation is something that has always been under attack … people see it as a burden, a waste of time and money.”
But for Vaccarelli, the archeology was an important part of the story that needed to be protected. It answered questions the documents could not. Once the renovations are completed, he plans to fully research and date the artifacts, create a database, and file his report to the ministry. Through that process, he hopes that his home will become an officially recognized archeological site.
Most of the farmhouse basement foundation was cut stone packed with mortar, but once excavation began, Vaccarelli noticed the crawl space foundation was a shallow, four-foot trench packed with dry-laid field stones, brick rubble and large granite boulders. Nothing was squared. He thinks that the Coulter family reused the foundation of the older log or frame home for this part of the basement, and tossed in some of the debris from that building (like the bricks from an old chimney and fireplace) to help bolster the foundation for the back section of their new farmhouse.
Excavation of the crawl space was delicate and strategic given the state of the foundation. As crews removed the soil in stages, Vaccarelli assigned each quadrant a letter and a number so he could track the depth and location of each item found in the soil, which is important context about the site. Once sections were removed, he sifted through the soil and placed the items in systematically labelled small plastic bags, causing the family’s Ziploc stocks to reach historic lows.
“Chances are, people are reading this and thinking it is over-the-top ridiculous,” he says.
Robert Coulter was an infant when his parents, Andrew and Martha, first arrived in a deeply forested Etobicoke in 1822, “It was dark and gloomy,” says Denise Harris, the chief historian with the Etobicoke Historical Society. Land was cleared in small portions so newcomers could begin planting the food they would need to survive.
“They were driven crazy by the trees, because it was so hard to get rid of them,” she says.
The first lot the Coulter family bought was to the east of modern Highway 427. Mimico Creek ran through the property and Coulter’s father Andrew operated a sawmill, back when the creek still had a reliable flow of water. Most settlers were living in rough-hewn lumber cabins, slowly cutting down the forest to farm the land.
In 1830, the family had prospered enough that Andrew Coulter bought another 100-acre lot on Mimico Creek, near modern-day Martin Grove and Rathburn Rds. This is the lot where the Vaccarellis now live. (Most of the 100 acres have been swallowed by suburbs.) Coulter sold part of the property off in 1835, but his oldest son, Robert Coulter, bought it back not long after, preparing for a life of his own.
In 1851, Robert Coulter — nearing 30 — and his wife Ann Jane, 20, were newly married and living in a log cabin when their first child died of influenza, Vaccarelli says. He believes the cabin was likely in bad shape by that time, and maybe that spurred them to eventually build something better.
An agricultural census of 1851 shows that Robert Coulter’s property had 40 acres of tree cover, and he was growing wheat and barley, and had an orchard. A log structure was still there in 1861 with five children added to the family. The next census in 1871 listed “three houses owned” by Coulter, according to a city heritage report. Vaccarelli says that during the day, the main room of the cabin would have been the scene of female domestic chores, like sewing and cooking. (He found fine china fragments, part of utensils and buttons.) It’s also where children would have played — hence the ceramic chicken figure — and at night, the family likely sang and told stories.
By the middle of the 19th century close to 3,000 people lived in Etobicoke, and half of the land had been cleared, Harris says. The pioneer era was coming to an end as farmers began to specialize, and their growing prosperity led many of them to ditch the log cabin in favour of something more stable, like a brick home.
The nearest community was Richview, a hamlet with a blacksmith, tavern and a post office, a half-hour walk north along the creek. Robert Coulter was a farmer — like everybody else — but he was also a co-founder of a non-denominational chapel that became Richview United Church, and a public school trustee.
With their own fortunes growing, Robert Coulter built his modern farmhouse during the 1870s.
Vaccarelli thinks many of the fragments and items he found in soil belonged to the Coulter family, but there are many fragments of lives that came before, too.
In the layer of soil just below what he came to call the “pioneer layer” he found around 60 flakes of Onondaga chert — a type of stone that was good for making tools because of its tendency to break into sharp edges. A few flakes might not be significant, but this amount suggested that an Indigenous person had perhaps fashioned an arrowhead or a spear point nearby. He didn’t find either of those tools, and no other signs of a long-term Indigenous settlement, but Vaccarelli wondered about a temporary campsite, given the proximity to Mimico Creek.
The headwaters of Mimico Creek are in Brampton, and the narrow creek winds through Mississauga, just east of the airport, and into the western swath of Toronto on its way to Lake Ontario. The creek has not been researched very well when it comes to Indigenous history, Harris says. The Mississaugas were one of the most recent groups to use it. “They would go further north hunting and fishing, and come down the creek valley, on their way back home closer to Lake Ontario,” she says. “That’s about all we know.”
Jon Johnson, a lead organizer with First Story Toronto, a tour company that explores the Indigenous history of the city, says Mimico is an anglicized version of the word “omiimiikaa,” which refers to the wild pigeons that used to roost in the area. (The Toronto Region Conservation Authority notes that “the extinct passenger pigeon” stopped over in the creek during migration.) Johnson said the creek could have been a good place for hunting, accessed by a trail system nearby. There was a Mississauga village at the mouth of the Humber, he noted, and “It would have been a well travelled area for perhaps millennia,” he writes in an email.
Vaccarelli imagines that European settlers were drawn to sites that were already cleared in some way. “We often forget that pioneer farmers followed paths that were laid out by Indigenous people thousands of years before,” he says.
Vaccarelli stresses that archeology is not treasure hunting. There is little monetary value to the items he has found. He hopes to find them a good home at a local heritage site. Their true value, he says, is in the stories they tell.
Robert and Ann Jane Coulter were buried at Richview Memorial Cemetery. The hamlet where they used to pick up supplies disappeared with the expansion of Pearson airport, but you’ll still find the Coulters in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cemetery where the ramps of Highway 427, Highway 401 and Eglinton Ave. intersect. The church that used to be next door was moved when the highways came, but the cemetery has stood its ground, which is soft underfoot on a warm winter day, surrounded by an incessant drone of traffic gearing up for a high-speed merge.
During Coulter’s lifetime, it was a peaceful spot a short walk from his home, with forests and fields and cows grazing nearby. The only cows these days are the ones loaded into transport trucks.
The Coulters may have stopped time in their crawl space for close to 150 years, when they heaved old debris into the soil to shore up the foundation of their new life — but the progress they set in motion never stopped. Once smothered by majestic forests, the Etobicoke pioneers are now locked in by a swirl of concrete, their graves only seen fleetingly as travellers drive by on their way to somewhere else.
Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs