Thursday 30 November 2017

The Brills of Guelph

Postcard collectors know that the back of a postcard can be as interesting as the front. Just as the front may provide a picture of people, places, and events, the back of the card may provide a window on the life of its sender or addressee. That is the case with the card below:

The card shows the interior of Yeates & Thomas Confectionary Store, better known as the Kandy Kitchen. The Kandy Kitchen was a popular candy store, ice-cream parlor, soda fountain, and eatery located on Lower Wyndham Street. Although the business closed in the 1930s, the building remains today at 27 Wyndham St. N., home of Kwik Kopy.

rych mills briefly described the business in a recent Flash from the Past column.

As noted, the story for this post begins on the back of the card with the following message (25 Oct 1910):

Dear Sir:—Just a few lines to let you know that our furniture arrived all O.K. except a few scratches which could not be helped. We have the car unloaded in the house. 43 Richardson St. // Leo Brill
The postcard was addressed to Mr. J. Feathers of Owen Sound. So, who was Leo Brill and why was he bringing his furniture to Guelph?

The answer takes us back into the early history of the Royal City.

Leo Brill was a grandson of James Thomas Brill, a native of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, England. Born in 1828, James and his wife Louisa and son George emigrated to Canada West (as Ontario was then known) in 1855. The 1861 Census shows them living in St. Andrew's Ward, Toronto, where James was a grocer. Evidently, the Brills took a liking to the Royal City and relocated there sometime in the next few years.

Once situated, J.T. Brill entered the dairy and pork packing trades, founding the Wellington Packing House. The business prospered and, indeed, became an international concern. In 1876, J.T. Brill had a new building erected to house the work, a building that still stands at 21 Gordon Street (Couling 1996, p. 28):

We can get a sense of how the business worked in those days from a later reminiscence published by an old-timer in the Mercury (22 Feb 1948):

On the north corner there, that big stone building once housed one of the Royal City’s most prosperous business establishments. Dressed hogs were brought here by farmers from miles around and shipped to buyers throughout the country. In those days there were no abbatoirs or packing houses and the farmers killed their own hogs and sold them here. It was strictly a winter business, for the carcasses kept better in the cold weather. I can remember seeing hundreds of sleighs and wagons standing in line waiting to be weighed and unloaded.
It is interesting to imagine how this building would have looked surrounded by a crowd of wagons and sleighs, heaped with dressed hogs.

Farmers would bring their dressed hogs to the market square, where the new city hall stands today. Buyers like J.T. Brill would inspect them and purchase those they liked, which the farmers then delivered. A sense of the scale of this enterprise can be gained from the following report (Globe, 14 Dec 1868):

Pigs are not a bad institution, says the Guelph Mercury, when a man runs a mill. On Thursday, Mr. John Armstrong, Eramosa, brought to market 64 hogs of his own feeding, weighing over 18,000 lbs. He sold them to Mr. Brill of the Wellington Packing House, for $8 per cwt, realizing for the lot about $1,500.
In 1875, Brill bought 72,000 lbs. of butter in Fergus, shipping the lot to Britain in seven train car loads. In 1880, he purchased and shipped three car loads of butter and six car loads of eggs to South Africa. In 1885, he and other investors formed the Ontario Dairy Company, to consolidate their varied dairy interests.

As his business grew, J.T. Brill took prominent roles in civic life. He was a long-time member of the Guelph Board of Trade, predecessor to the current Chamber of Commerce. He was an official with the Ontario Creameries Association, and an alderman (think City Councillor) in 1884 and 1885.

(James Brill, courtesy of James Brill & Sharon A. McDonald of Teeswater, ON.)

He died at the age of 91, whereat his obituary notes that he was a member of St. George's Church and Society, which had presented him with a "handsome St. George's jewel," a Past President of the Speed Masonic Lodge, and "an ardent Britisher at all times" (Mercury, 16 Sep 1919).

George James Brill, son of James Thomas, was an employee and, likely, a partner in his father's business. Like his father, George took an interest on local politics, serving as an alderman for St. James's Ward in 1900. He was also active in the local Liberal party.

Unlike his father (so far as I can determine), George enjoyed sports, especially curling. His name arises frequently in lists of curling teams participating in local and regions competitions. For example, a team called the Grain Buyers, in which he played lead, defeated a team from the Mercury by a score of 12 to 11 in what was considered a well-played match in front of many spectators (Globe, 4 Mar 1892).

For reasons that remain unclear to me, George and his family departed for Cleveland, Ohio in 1902. Perhaps he inherited his father's need to strike out on his own.

The story continues with William Peter Brill, one of George's sons, born in Guelph in May, 1874. Like his father, he also had the peripatetic gene. On March 11, 1894, he married Minnie Evans in Lynnville, Norfolk County (near Simcoe). His profession is listed as confectioner. This skill is likely one that he learned in connection with this father and grandfather's dairy business.

The 1901 Census finds Mr. and Mrs. Brill, along with sons Leo and Clarence, living in Owen Sound, where William continued as a confectioner. Evidently, the gravitational pull of the Royal City was too great, and the family relocated to Guelph. Leo's postcard suggests that they arrived in October 1910 and took up residence at 43 Richardson, a charming duplex that remains in the same place today:

The postcard also suggests that William had already lined up a job at the Kandy Kitchen as a confectioner. He remained with the Yeates & Thomas firm, later the Royal Dairy, as a superintendant for the rest of his career.

If William delighted the children (and adults) of Guelph with candy and ice-cream, his own children became noted and important members of the community. His two older sons, Leo and Clarence joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the Great War.

Leo Keith Brill left his job as a watch maker and joined up on 28 Jan 1916. By July of the same year, he arrived in France as a Bombardier with the 11th Brigade of Canadian Field Artillery. He was transferred to the 9th Brigade in 1917 upon reorganization of the CEF. On 22 Aug 1917, he was wounded in a gas attack near Camiers. Despite recuperating from the attack, Leo continued to experience headaches, double vision, and a burning sensation in his eyes. He was declared medically unfit for duty and returned to Canada, arriving in Halifax on 7 July 1918.

Not long after the end of the war, Leo emigrated to the United States, ending up in White Plains, New York, where he got work as real estate agent. It may well be that the damage to his vision meant the end of his career as a watch maker, prompting him to make a fresh start elsewhere.

Like Leo, Clarence Brill was a young watchmaker in Guelph. He had inherited the family love of sport, having done well in events organized by the Guelph Cross Country Run and Road Association (Globe, 1 Nov 1910). Also like Leo, Clarence signed up for the CEF on 28 Sep 1915. He arrived in France as a Gunner with the 11th Brigade of the CFA in July 1916. He was also transferred to the 9th Brigade in 1917. He appears to have served out the war without major injuries and was returned to Canada in March 1919.

By the end of the year, Clarence had also emigrated to the United States, finding work as a watchmaker in Brooklyn, New York.

The younger two of William Brill's boys, Evan and Earl, were too young to serve in the war and, perhaps not by coincidence, remained in the Royal City afterwards.

The best-known of the pair was Evan. Like his older brothers, Evan Brill assumed the trade of watchmaker. However, he was mainly known for his passion and prowess for hockey. As soon as Guelph resumed placing a junior team in the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), Evan was "in" (Globe, 3 Jan 1921). In his history of local hockey, Harold Cole describes Evan Brill's style in this way (1971, p. 5):

He was not at all the free skating smooth type of player. It was his terrific drive and utter fearlessness that commanded the respect of all his team-mates, to say nothing of his opponents. Older Guelph hockey fans will recall his drives down the ice, during which, rival players cutely attempted to tangle their sticks in his flying skates, only to see him take to the air and leap over the wood which was intended to stop him.
Somewhere along the line, Evan earned the nickname "Chesty", so that his name often appears as "Evan (Chesty) Brill" in later discussions of him. The origin of the nickname is not clear.

Perhaps the apex of "Chesty's" career was in the 1932 season during which he played for the Crescent-Hamilton Athletic Club in Brooklyn, New York. The team was a minor professional team within the Eastern Hockey League.

I cannot help but wonder if Evan was considering a move to the U.S., maybe to join his brother Clarence as a watchmaker in Brooklyn. For whatever reason, things did not work out that way and Evan returned to Guelph, where he continued to play local hockey. In 1934, he was a member of the "Hall's Red Indians", sponsored by Halls' Service Station located, as luck would have it, at 23 Gordon Street, just across Nottingham Street from the old Brill pork and dairy building (where the Drop-in Centre now stands). The team won the Guelph League hockey championship (Globe, 14 March 1934) and is pictured in a team photo standing behind their trophy:

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1985.61.1)

Chesty Brill is the fourth player from the left. Here is a close-up:

(Thanks to Kathleen Wall and the Guelph Civic Museums.)

Evan Brill retired from hockey as a player in 1938 (Globe, 15 Feb 1938) but continued to support the game. Most notably, he was one of the organizers of the Guelph Biltmores O.H.A. team known as the "Mad Hatters," when it was reinstituted in 1947.

Like his grandfather George and great-grandfather James, Evan was elected a city alderman in 1949 (Globe, 4 Jan 1949). However, he was unable to assume office. As a sponsor of the Biltmores, Brill had an interest in a concession contract that the City was negotiating with the team. Regulations forbade city aldermen from having such conflicts of interest. Certainly, it speaks to Chesty Brill's priorities to learn that he resigned immediately as alderman.

It is also worth noting that Evan Brill was very successful in the watchmaking trade. In 1948, Brill became the sole proprietor of Savage and Co., a jewelry business founded in Guelph in 1848, and where Evan and his brothers had learned the trade (Mercury, 22 Feb 1948). Brill decided to keep the name Savage & Co. as this remained well-known to Guelphites. The business was located at 21 Wyndham Street North, today the location of Dino's Athletic Direct and just two doors down from the old Kandy Kitchen location where his father and brothers had worked.

Certainly, there is much more that could be said about Evan Brill but it is time to move on.

Earl Brill's early career was quite similar to his older brother, Evan's. He was a particularly good track athlete, winning the overall honours at the Guelph Collegiate and Vocational Institute (GCVI) in both 1923 and 1924. In 1924, Earl set three GCVI records in his category for the 100-yard, 220-yard, and 440-yard dashes. He won the shot put event, and came in second in the pole vault and running broad jump (Globe, 4 Oct 1924).

Like Evan, Earl took to hockey like a duck to water, playing in the Royal City's junior leagues often on the same side as his older brother. He was a good player and played alongside Evan with the Crescent-Hamilton Athletic club in Brooklyn in the 1932 season. At some point along the way, he was dubbed "Curly" Brill, perhaps in honour of his hair, to distinguish him from Evan, and because "curl" rhymes with "Earl", I presume.

Curly had his jaw broken from being hit in the face by a puck shot up the boards (Globe, 5 Jan 1933). It may be no coincidence that I have not found much information about him after that date. It appears that he moved to Toronto in the next few years, perhaps to continue as a watchmaker there.

In addition to Leo, Clarence, Evan, and Earl, William and Mary Brill had two girls, Vida and Wilma. It is always harder to follow the careers of women in the usual records, which tend to concentrate on men. However, I can report that Vida had her moment of local fame when she was crowned the "Queen of the May" for Guelph (Globe, 12 May 1922). She was crowned in a ceremony at the Armouries by Lieutenant-Governor Cockshutt, who decked her with a garland of roses and bestowed upon her the golden sceptre of her office. Most likely, the ceremony was a toned-down version of those carried out in the Old Country, like the following one at Knutsford:

Keeping with tradition, a maypole dance followed on the grounds, under the Queen's supervision. Perhaps it looked like this:

Wags and sceptics may find this procedure outlandish and medieval but I say: If it helps enhance the harvest, then we'd better bring it back!

The next year, Vida married George Brydges and relocated to Toronto.

I am sorry to report that I know very little about Wilma except that she remained in Guelph and unmarried until the death of her father William (Mercury, 29 Dec 1944). It was not an unusual custom at the time for one daughter of a household to remain unmarried and at home to look after her parents and family. That role may have fallen to Wilma. By 1960, she had removed to Woodstock.

The story of the Brills of Guelph is of interest in its own right, as the family has been a part of the life of the Royal City for much of its history. It also illustrates how the historical memory of a place can be revived and illustrated by little things, such as the postcard that Leo Brill dashed off to let friends know that his family was returning to its old haunts, bringing its old furniture, and continuing its part in the life of the city.

Wait! Guelph also had a bonus Brill! James Thomas's second son, Samuel, moved from Guelph to Teeswater to manage the Teeswater Butter Factory that his father had bought in 1879. There he married and raised a family including Louisa Brill, born in 1910, who was thus a cousin to William.

The Public accounts of the Province of Ontario show that Louisa was an "instructress" at the Macdonald Institute in Guelph, first listed in 1942 and continuing until at least 1964. The OAC/OVC 1947 Yearbook provides a nice picture of her, standing in the doorway of the Institute with some of her colleagues:

Louisa is on the lower left.

Louisa was an instructor in home economics, a core subject of the Institute. Evidently, she was a good instructor as several of her pupils won accolades for their accomplishments (Globe, 3 Feb 1959):

A proud teacher and victorious student made a triumphant return to Macdonald Institute, Guelph, last Friday, after Anne Heslop emerged as Canada’s champion cherry pie maker. This was the fourth time that Miss Louisa Brill, of the Institute staff, had chaperoned an entrant, when regional winners have met in Toronto in the annual final baking competition.
Anne Heslop gives much of the credit for her success to her home economics teachers—Miss Brill at “Mac,” and Miss Winnifred Walton of Weston Collegiate, where she had her earlier training.
After her retirement from the Institute, Louisa Brill returned to southern Bruce County.