Arts + Culture

Shadows of the Past: Curtis Family History on the Danforth

A light mist of rain wafts down on my face as I look toward the Don Valley. I’m standing in a small parking lot behind a narrow red-brick building with a rickety cast iron fire escape. To my right is a large, gnarled tree with a protruding clothesline wheel half-buried in its trunk. Layers of time and growth have hungrily eaten its steel spokes, leaving behind a memory of the people who lived and left a legacy at 754 Broadview.

Earlier on this rainy Saturday afternoon, I’d watched from the window of the Black Swan Tavern as passersby milled around on the sidewalks, carrying grocery bags, children, and other cargo. I waited for John Scully, my first cousin once removed, so we could share the family stories—the stories of the Curtis furriers on the Danforth.

Wearing a bright blue rain jacket, John cruises up on a bike and joins me at a round table by the front windows of the tavern. A tall, relaxed, and friendly man in his early fifties, John works as an artist educator and freelance photographer. He has lived in the Danforth area with his family for 25 years and considers it to be home. As a young boy, John has fond memories of visiting Grandma Betty and Grandpa James at Broadview and Danforth. He loves to tell stories about the Curtis family, passed down to him by his mother, Jane Curtis. “This is our family history,” John says. “These are the stories that dissolve away . . . you have to pass it down to other generations, otherwise it gets lost.” As we launch into the details, a vision of the Danforth in the twentieth century slowly starts to materialize.

Before the 1920s, the Danforth was sparsely populated with little shops and roads traversed by horse and buggy. The neighbourhood was made up of working-class residents, mainly of British, Irish, and Scottish descent. In this era, the intersection of Broadview and Danforth was abuzz with the noise of building a bridge that would connect two major parts of the city. The Bloor Viaduct, later renamed the Prince Edward Viaduct, was completed in 1919 and allowed traffic to flow to and from the downtown core, opening up the small community of the Danforth to the rest of the city.

My grandfather, John J. Curtis, was born on July 9, 1921. His parents, Elizabeth Curtis (née Corrigan) and James Curtis, lived on 44 Sparkhall with their four other children: Irene, Ruth, Catherine, and Jane. In those days, groceries were often delivered straight to each home, especially milk and eggs. That would have saved my great-grandmother Elizabeth a trip to the market. As a family of Irish Catholics, they attended Mass at the newly built Holy Name Church, which was completed in 1926 for a cost of $200,000. The children went to Holy Name School, conveniently located nearby. It’s not hard to imagine the Curtis family going for a picnic at Riverdale Park, viewing exotic animals at Riverdale Zoo, or swimming in the Don River next to the Brick Works. A young John Curtis must have snuck into a moving picture or two at Allen’s Theatre, now known as The Danforth Music Hall.

James Curtis worked as a furrier in a small office in Dundas Square with two of his siblings, Theresa and Ralph Curtis. In 1933, James bought a three-storey commercial building at the corner of Broadview and Danforth to open a furrier shop of his own. With the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct, it made his shop an easy point of access for the rest of Toronto. While the family lived in the rooms upstairs, the shop operated out of the front and basement of the building.

As furriers, they made custom mink coats for clients. Having already worked in the business, James Curtis was able to procure the furs from a dealer, take the customer’s measurements, cut the fur, and sew the pieces together. My cousin John explained: “That was a real skill. You’ve got to cut [the piece of fur] exactly right. If you cut it wrong, that whole piece is no good… Mink fur is not very wide and you’ve got to cut it into strips and sew it together seamlessly so it looks really beautiful.”

Business wasn’t as good as one might expect. Despite the popularity of fur coats in the 1920s and beyond, the family struggled through various financial setbacks. “Imagine you are running a furrier shop which has products that are slightly expensive, and the Depression hits,” John says. “Who’s going to be buying your stuff?” On one occasion, the Curtis family wasn’t able to pay their water bill and the water got turned off. In order to wash and cook, they had to haul water in buckets from a tap in Riverdale Park. John also told me a story of my great-grandmother picking up a pot from the stove with a roast inside. As she picked it up, she realized too late that it was scalding hot. “She carried it over to the table and put it down after completely burning her hand, because she would not drop it. If she did, that meant her family wouldn’t eat,” John said. “That’s how desperate they were.”

The survival of the family was mainly owing to my hard-working Great-Grandma Elizabeth. “My grandmother was one of the sweetest, most delightful, kind, and caring people I’ve ever met,” John said. “In pictures, she looks so serious and harsh, but that’s not how she was at all.” With chronic health problems of her own, five kids to take care of, a business, and a household to manage, it’s not difficult to imagine what her life was like. “She was keeping the business going, and my grandfather . . . I don’t know how focused he was at it,” John said. “If there was money to be made in the furrier business, it was most likely because my grandmother put herself to make it happen.”

The pressures of living in difficult times took another toll on the Curtis’ scant finances. Like many working-class Irish men at the time, James was a little too fond of the bottle. In fact, the Black Swan Tavern was the approximate location of his favourite drinking spot, the Commerce Hotel. “Imagine you don’t have enough money to pay your water bills, you’re not making much money with your furrier business, and you’re going off and drinking away the tiny bit that you’ve got,” John said. As sad as the scenario seemed, John assured me there was humour as well: “The Irish sensibilities of tragedy and comedy are only a step away.”

Just across the road from 754 Broadview is Playter’s Society Hall, built originally in 1909. The hall often came alive at night with dances and shows. Alcohol was prohibited at the dances, but one night, Great-Grandpa Curtis heard two men talking by the fire escape outside the window. When he looked out, he saw they had brought a bottle with them to hide in his backyard. “They’d come there, drink the bottle, then go back to Playter’s Hall,” John said. In between rounds, they would bury the bottle out of sight. James Curtis saw where they hid it, so he snuck down the stairs, uncovered the whiskey, and drank it up. When the men came back from the dance, he enjoyed the sight of the them rummaging in the dirt. “They both accused each other of coming over and drinking all the drink, so they had a big brawl in the backyard,” John says, laughing. Another time, Great-Grandpa was out drinking with a few of his friends, including Ralph Day, who owned a funeral home next door. After the Commerce Hotel had closed for the night, they decided to continue their drinking session at the funeral home. One of James’s buddies climbed into an open coffin to take a nap. Somehow, the lid fell closed, and the group forgot all about him. Luckily, he was found later, still alive in the coffin, but a little short of breath.

As the years went by, the Curtis family retired from the furrier business and rented the front shop space out to a hair salon. “They made more money renting it out to that hair salon than they did any year as furriers,” John said. Although the retail space was rented out, the family still lived in the apartments upstairs. James Curtis was an old man by that time, and spent hours sitting by the window overlooking the Don Valley (long before the Don Valley Parkway was built). When visiting as a little boy, John remembers it as a loud street corner. “There was a streetcar stop right in front of their house and the old streetcars used to clang and smack when the doors would open,” John said. The streetcars weren’t the only noise at Broadview and Danforth. Ruth Curtis’ son, Paul Emo, was in a band with a few Greek musicians from the neighbourhood, and they chose to rehearse in the basement. “Every Saturday, they would jam in the basement,” John says. “They must have been just rockin’ the place.” After a while, the building was sold and became Master Chui’s tailor shop, and was later replaced by Neolook Accessories. 

It’s hard to picture that stretch of the Danforth without the towering skyscrapers of downtown looming in the distance, the Tim Horton’s on the corner, and with nothing but open country beyond Pape Avenue. The reality is that the Danforth has shifted and expanded many times, often to welcome new immigrants. After World War II, many Italian immigrants settled in the area. As they gradually moved to different parts of the city, the Greeks began arriving in the early 50s after the Greek Civil War. As the area became more diverse, Italian coffee shops opened, Greek restaurants sprang up, and today it’s affectionately and officially known as Greektown. “When I was a kid coming here in the 60s and 70s, I remember it being a really Greek neighbourhood,” John said. “They had the Greek street signs up and it was more homogenous with lots of restaurants. It was certainly not as culturally diverse as it is now.”  

Over the years, the Danforth has evolved. From a small borough cut off from the rest of the city, it bridged the gap with the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct. From there, churches, schools, and places of entertainment opened up, allowing for more small businesses to flourish in the area. It survived the Depression, and soldiered on through both World Wars. It has welcomed immigrants from Italy, Greece, China, India, and many more countries. It has exploded into a hub of multiculturalism where the simple things in life are still valued: friends, family, and leisurely meals followed by Greek pastry, Italian gelato, or European chocolates. “I think the Danforth is going through an interesting resurgence right now where it’s becoming a place that’s not just candle shops and it’s not just Greek restaurants,” John says. “It’s becoming a really interesting and dynamic place with all sorts of things.”

Seven months ago, as my landlady handed over the keys to my rental space, she said apologetically, “It’s not a very sexy area.” I smiled and wondered what she was talking about. Here I was in one of the most unique boroughs of Toronto, surrounded by restaurants, little shops, parks, and old buildings. I’d carved out a new life for myself, a life which wouldn’t have been possible without my ancestors at 754 Broadview, who worked and struggled so their descendants could have a better life. I knew very little about the Curtis furriers when I first moved to the Danforth, but now I can almost see Great-Grandpa James’s charming Irish grin, smell the pineapple upside-down cake Great-Grandma Betty was baking in the kitchen, and hear sounds of my Grandpa John Curtis as a young boy, shouting and playing outside with his friends. The horses and buggies are long gone, but the clang-clang noise of the streetcars is the same now as it was then.

From the lonely red-brick building at Broadview and Danforth, to the old clothesline reel embedded in the tree in the backyard, to the towering bell tower of Holy Name Church, to the historical buildings of Playter’s Hall and The Danforth Music Hall—they are a silent nod toward the people who’ve gone before us and left their stories for us to tell. They are enduring symbols of a life that’s meant to be continued by those who live, work, and play on the Danforth today, and for those who somehow find themselves back where their ancestors came from.

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