The vast, rugged landscapes of Mongolia and the colourful exploits of Genghis Khan seem far removed from the pastoral landscape of rural Ontario, but somehow in 1865 David Nighswander was inspired to choose the name “Mongolia” for the local post office.
Nighswander was a community-minded farmer and landowner in a rural crossroads hamlet known as California Corners. This part of Markham Township, centred on Reesor Road and Elgin Mills Road, didn’t have much in common with California either. It was a very small cluster of businesses in the midst of a farming community south of the village of Stouffville.
David Nighswander chose Mongolia from a list of potential names provided by the government of the day. It was necessary to ensure that names were not duplicated so that confusion between different places could be avoided. Were Nighswander’s choices so limited that he was faced with few options that were a good fit with the area, or did the name of an exotic locale inspire him?
Mongolia, in the nineteenth century, was a place much like many others in rural York County. It was the centre of an agricultural community that provided some of the essential services needed by farming families. There were a general store and post office, a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse and a church. For a time there was a tavern and its polar opposite, a Temperance Hall. People who worked in the cluster of businesses lived in modest houses nearby. The services provided at the crossroads were sufficient for the day-to-day needs of the surrounding residents, who had the option of travelling to larger places like Stouffville or Markham Village if they wanted a wider selection.
The general store, at the southeast corner of the crossroads, was the focal point of Mongolia. Its story began in 1853 when a small plot of land was purchased by James Holden from David Nighswander, who owned a farm at this location. Two years later the property at the corner was sold to William Holden, a relative, at a price that suggested a significant improvement had been made that increased the value. That improvement was the construction of a store.
In 1855, in the days when Mongolia was still California Corners, the store was sold to Marshall B. Crosby. The next owner, Robert Curtis, was the person in charge when the post office was granted by the government and the name change happened. Curtis was the first postmaster at Mongolia, Canada West. He must have enjoyed a good measure of success at his business because in 1864, three years after buying the corner lot and store, he purchased some additional land from David Nighswander where he built a house somewhat removed from his place of work. His brick residence, which dates from around 1870, still stands at 10725 Reesor Road. The store didn’t fare so well – it burned in 1920 and was not rebuilt.
The blacksmith shop at Mongolia still stands as a historical landmark at the northeast corner of the crossroads. This utilitarian brick structure was constructed circa 1860 on the land of Henry Barkey, a farmer and preacher of the Mennonite faith. Henry Barkey was a member of the Pennsylvania German community of eastern Markham Township. He lived in a brick farmhouse to the east of the crossroads. The blacksmith shop and a frame residence next door were rented to tenants.
The Calvert family of blacksmiths were longtime tenants of the house and shop, starting with George Calvert whose name and occupation can be found in the 1861 census returns. The Calvert family were also involved in the blacksmithing trade in Buttonville, another hamlet in old Markham Township. John Calvert, George’s younger brother, had taken over the business at Mongolia by the time of the 1871 census. He remained the tenant into the early 1890s. In later years, the shop was operated by Jacob Barkey, not the Reverend Barkey, but a Jacob from a later generation.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Mongolia was a giant American Elm tree that once stood on Elgin Mills Road. This tree, at least 200 years old, was of such significance as a community landmark that when the road was first constructed, the tree was not cut down but left in place within the road allowance. This required Elgin Mills Road to detour around the tree to allow it to remain.
The old elm at Mongolia was said to have been a meeting place around the time of the 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. A history of Mongolia written in 1976 described the tree as a rendezvous place for the local militia. In that same history, it is noted that it was the Dutch Elm Disease that regretfully caused the end of this natural wonder, which had attained a height of 84 feet and a trunk 18 feet in circumference. For years, a section of the enormous tree trunk was featured in the front yard of the Markham Museum, placed there after the elm was cut down by a hydro crew in 1973.
BY GEORGE DUNCAN, LOCAL HISTORIAN
Photo: The blacksmith shop at Mongolia, 7528 Elgin Mills Road, was built about 1860.