April 23, 2013

The Lighthouse - A Toronto House History

A few years ago I wrote that I  live in a red brick Victorian row house. It’s 17 feet wide and three storeys tall. It's positioned in the middle of seven identical houses,on a regular street in a regular Toronto neighbourhood. (see previous post)

About a decade ago my friend Laurie and I pieced together the history of who lived here from 1892 to 1997 through the directories at the Toronto Reference Library. The additional help of Ancestry.com and the L.D.S. helped me create a chronological record of who lived in our house.

Through this research I knew that a family, I'll call them the Le Bruns, had lived here from 1919 until the late 1950s. I had found notebooks under the floorboards in my bedroom written by a chap named Albert Le Brun focusing exclusively on what he wanted to to with a female colleague at the nearby tire factory. The name Le Brun is also etched into a brick at the back of my house. 

Fast forward to just the other day when I should have been studying for exams, when I Googled my street number and the name Le Brun. Seconds later, I found out that the father, Joseph Le Brun, had written a 190-page memoir of his life in my house and it was to be found at the public library at the end of my street. Again my house is just an ordinary shabby-chic house in the middle of thousands of others. But somehow, the history of my house could be found at the library. 

The only thing that could make this house stand apart is that it was once the home of 13 children.

As soon as the library opened the next day, I sat down with the memoir and took copious notes. I've never been so tempted to steal a book.

In 1919 Joseph Le Brun, a French Canadian from the Penetang area bought the house. He was a translator for R.L. Lister and Massey Harris, a large farm equipment company. At the beginning of his marriage, he and his wife Anne and family moved about between Lafontaine, Ontario, Quebec City and his in-laws in Toronto's East End while the house was rented out. A crazy coincidence is that in 1988, I lived on the same east end street, this time not the same house. Swanwick Avenue is just another run-of-the mill address. I lived at 32 - seventy years earlier they lived at number 14. 

The first Le Brun child died from drinking unpasteurized milk. The remaining 13 all lived under my roof at one time. 

Paul was a bookworm. He liked to invent things and went on to invent some rocket firing equipment for the Air Force. At the end of his life in Nova Scotia, he donated his stellar cactus collection to Dalhousie. 

Alda worked at Eaton's and Simpson's. Somehow the news made it into the Toronto Star when she fell down the stairs. Olive, who married late had many jobs. She was an independent woman. Martin was in the Merchant Marine. He also rode the rails. Emma was an artist who studied in New York. Surprisingly, she drew from live nude models at Toronto's Western Tech High School! That would be unheard of now. 

Albert, who wrote the notebooks found under my floor, was mentally handicapped as I had predicted. He got kicked out of the Brighton Theatre for eating onions. He loved the movies and went twice a week for the rest of his life. 

John liked boating and swimming. He worked on the boats that ferried between Toronto and St. Catharines.

There were twins Marie Therese and Lucille. Marie Therese somehow ended up working in the Pathology department at St. Barts in London. Lucille was another accomplished artist. Her father's memoir shows a meticulously copied picture of the Sleeping Pope. This picture hung in my husband's family kitchen for years. Another strange touchstone. 

Henry loved horses. He spent his summers at a riding school at the corner of Galley and Sunnyside - that's were Garden Avenue School is now.  He took care of the horses so he could use the swimming "tank" at Sunnyside Amusement Park at the foot of Roncesvalles. 

Walter was the moody one. Probably bi-polar, he wouldn't eat Christmas dinner with family. Through the Toronto Star I found out he was in trouble with the law. He stole a car and punched a cop. He left home in the 50s and was never heard from since. The fact that he was called "chicken heart Walter" may have contributed to feelings of ill will. (I know that he went on to lead a normal, productive life in Calgary). 

Dorothy loved the song "I've Got You Under My Skin". She joined the convent at 18, but left after 15 years and became a teacher. The baby Joseph was the first LeBrun to have a bike and he was the most sentimental about this house. He became a printer and although seventeen years younger, he became the warden of his brother Albert when his father got too frail to look after him. 

The memoir was filled with lots of other interesting things, like how six of the kids were quarantined for polio in the garage for 12 days. That there were chicken pens in the backyard. That they used 100 loaves of bread over two weeks to feed every mouth. 

The 15 of them were only ever together for one meal. The age difference of the children would account for this. When Paul returned from the war he was 27 - his youngest brother was five. I have a photo of this occasion. Paul and Alda, Olive, Martin, Emma, Albert, John and the twins Marie Therese and Lucille, Henry, Walter, Joseph and Dorothy, Mom and Dad are posed in my living room in front of where the french doors dividing the living room an dining room once were. And a happy bunch of ghosts they are. 

More Googling revealed that four Le Bruns are living in the Toronto area. Another awesome coincidence, and I don't bandy that word about lightly, is that Dorothy, 78,  and I have Facebook friend in common, and that she was on the same tour of Greece that my long time childhood friend took. Dorothy and my friend are regularly at the same "pizza night" and I probably have already met her. But she will be coming by officially to the house later this Spring.

Dorothy told me the house was nicknamed "The Lighthouse". I like that. It was probably called the Lighthouse because of all the stairs and the fact that it was a beacon to the Le Brun children in the neighbourhood. I have a large framed photograph of a lighthouse at the top of the attic stairs. Just like everything else - it fits together. 


Roy Schulze said...

This is only awesome! Congrats to you and all the detectives that helped you along the way.

Andrew Simpson said...

I like the way you integrate the events of the house. Good detective work.

Laurie Leclair said...

One day you'll have to write about all the groovy stuff you've found in the heating ducts!

The Clever Pup said...

Laurie that might be *too* groovy.

Nancy said...

What a great story about the house you live in! Thank you so much. I have been wondering how you have been.

I hope you have a wonderful time with Dorothy.

Diane said...

Very cool! I think you could photograph the pages of the book and then bind them for your private copy. :-)

Wonderful story!