My grandparents on my father’s side lived in Chicago before moving up to Canada. My father often told me stories of how my grandfather was a musician who played violin in what he called “pit bands” in Chicago. I don’t know anything about his background in the glove business, though, which afforded my grandparents and their family a decent living later in Toronto. Why move to Canada? My dad never talked to me about that, and now it is way too late for me to ask. I wish I had documented more of that family history. I know they moved up to Montreal first, as my father was born in Montreal in 1917.
It must have been in the early 1920s that my grandfather opened the Queen’s City Leatherworks in the area of Toronto known as The Junction. The Junction was part of West Toronto and it was a separate entity from the City of Toronto. It was also the junction of four rail lines, hence the name, and it was amalgamated into Toronto in 1909 (even back then we had amalgamation going on).
Another interesting historical curiosity about the Junction is that it was a dry community for the longest time. A quick search on the internet tells me that residents voted to make the community alcohol-free in 1904 because of the rough and rowdy drunken behavior of residents who worked in local industries. When I was growing up, and my father had a business in the Junction (one day I’ll tell you more about that), I remember it being dry from Keele west to Runnymede. On Dundas, just west of Runnymede there was a pub, and further west near Jane Street, there was a beer store and liquor store, both of which still exist.
Ontario was pretty conservative about booze in those days, although there were plenty enough drinkers. I recall going with my dad to the liquor store. It was a sterile place, not at all like today’s customer-friendly Ontario liquor stores. My father would write down the codes for the booze he wanted to buy on little slips, with those short pencils which for some reason we called golf pencils – the same ones they used to have in the old Consumers Distributing catalog stores. Dad would write down the code for Canadian Club rye whiskey, his usual poison, and hand it to a clerk behind a counter who would take the slip, walk away and come back with a bottle in a brown paper bag. Looking back, the whole business seems very bizarre. The Junction remained dry until residents voted to change that and allow alcohol to be served in the area – in 1998. Not surprisingly, this move is one of the factors that helped revive this neighbourhood.
The Queen’s City Leatherworks was on Dundas St W, on the south side, just half a block east of Runnymede. We always just called it The Glove Shop in our family. I can’t remember a Queen’s City Leatherworks sign on the building but there must have been one. They made gloves in a basement workshop. There was a retail store on the main floor that sold the gloves (which were also sold wholesale) as well as other items a railwayman might need, from overalls to hats to shirts and work socks. Behind the store, there was what I remember as a big dining room with a very large table. I can recall a somewhat cranky collie usually curled up under it. I think the kitchen was further back on the same level, and bedrooms were upstairs. Maybe my brother and sister, both older than me, can add to the description. I recall my grandmother – we called our grandmother on my dad’s side Nanny, different than our grandmother on my mom’s side, who we called Babcia – held court, often at one end of the big table. I don’t remember my Grandpa Lou that well. He stayed mostly upstairs when I was a child. I don’t know if he was just getting really old or if he was ill or what. I wish I remembered and I wish I knew him better, but I do recall that my mom or dad would sometimes take me upstairs to see Grandpa and that was always a special event. I also recall that when he wasn’t making gloves, my grandfather made and repaired violins.
My dad grew up in the Queen’s City Leatherworks, with brothers Billy, Harold, Eugene and Louis and sister Madeleine. There was a lot of music in that family. Harold had a big talent for piano from an early age. Eugene, like his father, went on to play, repair and build violins, and later became a well-respected violin maker in the Chicago area. My dad played clarinet and sax and drums and at one time played in dance bands. We had a photograph in our house of my dad playing the clarinet. It had been hand-coloured by my mom, who had a work-from-home job hand-colouring photos back in the black & white days. My mom knew I loved that photo and after I had moved out on my own she gave it to me. It still hangs in our house today. By the time I came along, my father had long given up music. Later, as an old man he talked to me about how much he loved to play the clarinet and how he had been thinking he might pick one up and start playing again. I thought about going out to buy him one, and at one point I started pricing them, but at that time his health had started to decline and when I talked to him further about it he said no he didn’t really want to play again.
My dad used to tell me that Grandpa invented what he called the “one-finger glove”. I have no idea if that is true, because when it came to my father’s stories, the gap between truth and fiction was narrow and variable. I do know that he made one-finger gloves though because as a child I had a pair. They were tough, made from lined leather, and they were a combination of a glove and a mitten, with one finger and a mitt. As I recall, they were quite long. They went half-way up my arm, flaring out to go over a winter coat. I loved those one-finger gloves because they were unique and because they were made by my family.
The thread they used for the work gloves had tremendous strength. One day when I was a child, my dad bought me a kite. It was one of those bat kites but my dad had me make long tail for it. He stopped by the glove shop and brought home a huge spool of this thread. Dad used to say there’s a mile of thread on this spool, son, let’s go fly that kite. We substituted the glove-making thread in place of normal kite-string. Our goal was to fly the kite out of site. We’d be in the neighbourhood park, and if there was a good breeze we would get that kite up there until it was just a dot in the sky. Because the thread was both strong and had a small diameter, there was less drag than with kite string, and we got great height. One windy day we got this kite so far up there I could barely hold onto it. That was so much fun. I suppose the pressure on the thread finally overcame its strength because suddenly it broke and we watched the kite disappear into the sky. I rode around the neighbourhood on my bike for hours trying to find where it landed and eventually convinced myself it must be in orbit.