The Toronto Bretzes

By Christopher Bretz


Toronto has been known by many names in it's history. 'Little York'. 'The Big Smoke'. 'Hogtown'. 'Toronto the Good'. Among the earliest of these were the rather disparaging 'Muddy York' and 'dirty Little York' (labels given during the settlement's early growth when the streets were still unpaved). But for several generations of the Bretz family who sought a brighter future in the growing city, Toronto was simply known as home.

Toronto as a city was growing rapidly in the 19th century, as were many cities of the world. There was a Great Migration underway as people moved from the countryside to urban centres in search of prosperity. The population increased from 30,000 in 1851 to 56,000 in 1871 to 86,400 in 1881. Immigration, high birth rates and influx from the surrounding rural population accounted for much of this growth.

Our rural Bretz ancestors were part of this movement. Although they had farmed for generations in small Mennonite communities, several of the younger children of Jacob Bretz (1800-1879) made the decision to break with this tradition. The brothers Jacob, Abram, and Aaron each moved their families to Toronto and pursued more urban careers and lifestyles, and largely left their Mennonite heritage behind.



Jacob's Family

Jacob Bretz (1843-1926) was born on March 27th, 1843, the namesake of his father the Mennonite preacher. He was probably born on the family homestead near Fisher Mills, Ontario, and had a very rural upbringing. He was the eldest of the Bretz brothers who came to Toronto, but sixth born in his family.

In 1853, Jacob's grandmother Mary Strickler passed away at 86 years of age. She was buried at the Wanner Mennonite Church cemetery. Jacob was 10.

Jacob's father moved the family to near Plattsville in the late summer of 1865. The new farm was on the 13th line of Blenhiem about a half mile west of town.

In 1873 the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was formed and also opened a branch in Canada. The late 19th century saw the growing influence of these type of anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco movements.

Jacob married Martha Stratham in her hometown of Georgetown, Ontario in 1877. At the time his occupation was listed as a mercantile traveler (traveling salesman) living in London, Ontario. His younger brother Aaron was a witness to the wedding.

There is a record that indicates Jacob spent some time in Port Huron, Michigan around this time, perhaps because of his job.

Another record notes that Jacob was involved in some fashion with the local Waterloo area tobacco growers in the late 1870s. This might have led to him to the idea to open a shop since he could secure enough product.

In 1879, Jacob's father passed away. He was buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Church cemetery. Jacob was 36.

Jacob and Martha's first child Walter Percy (Percy) was born in 1880.

Jacob moved his young family to Toronto around 1881 and opened a tobacconist shop right downtown at 94 Church Street (as shown on the city assessment records). At the time, the east side of downtown was a hub of activity for the city. The city hall and main market were at Front and Jarvis, the courts were on Adelaide East, and the stock exchange on Wellington East, while the main shopping street was King East. Jacob's shop would have been at the centre of all this. He and his family lived in the same building as the shop for nearly 25 years. 94 was renumbered to 104 Church Street in 1888, This photograph from 1912 shows a cigar shop called Tom's in the same location as where Jacob's would have been (after Jacob retired).

A tobacconist shop in the late Victorian era was rather elegant to modern eyes. Before the mechanized mass production of the 20th century, smoking product providers were more of a local specialist than a simple salesman. Particular varieties of leaf were obtained only at specific shops, as were hand crafted pipes and other smoking paraphernalia. The shop owner would establish business connections in order to secure quality and unique products for his store. The most popular forms of tobacco were in pipes and cigars, followed increasingly by cigarettes, and with chewing tobacco also popular in the west. Machined rolled items had only just been invented in the 1880s, so products were mostly hand rolled. By the 20th century mass production had started to change the nature of tobacco sales and many of these shops closed.

The shop pictured to the left is from the Museum of London. Jacob's shop might have looked similar.

This map to the right is from 1889 and shows the location the Jacob Bretz tobacco shop.

Jacob and Martha's second son, Harold (Harry) Bertram was born in 1882 in Toronto.

This 1883 Bird's Eye Chromolithograph map shows the extant of the city when Jacob and his family arrived in Toronto.

In 1884, Toronto celebrated its first half century of incorporation as a city. An annual Industrial Exposition (later named the Canadian National Exhibition) was started to mark the occasion. As well that year, the first Toronto indoor shopping centre or 'arcade' opened up on Yonge Street between Richmond and Adelaide streets, not far from Jacob's shop.

During the coming years, two of Jacob's brother's would also move to Toronto. Abram first, around 1885, and Aaron by 1896. They would have all been raising their young children, and these cousins would have certainly known each other well.

In the 1880s the Women's Christian Temperance Movement published a "Leaflet for Mothers' Meetings" titled "Narcotics", by Lida B. Ingalls. It discussed the evils of tobacco, especially cigarettes. Cigarettes are "doing more to-day to undermine the constitution of our young men and boys than any other one evil". Interestingly it wasn't until the 1890s that governments started to pass laws banning the sale of cigarettes to minors.

As for the rest of Jacob's family during this time, many did not stray far from the rural life. His brother Henry was living in Washington around this time with his young family, and with his mother Nancy (all possibly living on the old Bretz homestead near Plattsville). Henry had a shop were he sold stationary and fancy goods. His brother Samuel was in Lambton near the town of Forest, as was his sister Polly and her family. His brother John was living Blandford, working as a housekeeper. His eldest brother Gerhard spent the 1880s in East Wawanosh near Huron Ontario, but emigrated to Oklahoma around 1890.

In 1894, Jacob's mother Nancy passed away. She was buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Church cemetery. Jacob was 51.

In the February 10th, 1899 edition of the Toronto Star, Jacob was featured in a small advert for Milburn's Heart and Nerve Pills. The clipping is shown to the left.

On April 19th, 1904, the Great Toronto Fire burned through a large section of downtown buildings. The glow could be seen for kilometers in all directions and was viewed by Jacob's family, who were just blocks away on Church Street. Young Percy was greatly affected by it. The fire destroyed 104 buildings, but fortunately killed no one. Five thousand people were put out of work, however (7% of the working population).

In 1905 Jacob would move to 112 Queen Street East (a block away from the Tobacco shop), but he might have also soon retired. He soon moved himself and his wife to a northern Toronto neighborhood around Collier Street. It isn't known what happened to the store.

Jacob's son Percy was working with Canada Publishing in 1898 (age 18). Percy's older cousin Frank had actually worked there a few years earlier and might have helped get him his job.

From an edition of the Toronto Star on November 1, 1900 we know that both Percy and Harold played rugby, as they are mentioned in attendance at meetings of the club.

Harry Bretz and his brother Percy began their professional careers as a newspaper men working as a stenographers/copy boys for The Toronto World newspaper in 1900. Harry would work with the World for most of his life and work his way up the ranks of sales. By 1921 he was in the editorial department. He moved at some point to the Mail and Empire where he was the assistant city editor. Percy had quicker advancement than his brother, becoming the city telephone editor by 1906. In 1910 Percy was hired away by the Evening Telegram as an editor, and before 1921 was a full city editor. He worked there until 1928, when he was forced to retire for health reasons. Later his is listed as an associate editor.

In those days an editor ran the office 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Reporters and contacts would phone him at home regardless of the hour, and he would then dispatch people to cover the fire or murder. Percy collapsed in 1928 covering the Canadian National Exhibition while running copy back to the office, and realized his days on the street were past.

In 1906, early in his career as city editor at the World, Percy was involved in a court case in which he was accused of handling stolen proofs from a University of Toronto Royal Commission document, obtained by a fellow World reporter from a private messanger. Charges were made on March 15th and the men appear to have spent a night in jail before released on $200 bail each (about $5,000 today), which was paid for by the World. The 1906 Fisher-Bretz trial made the local papers and was ultimately resolved, although we have not been able to obtain the concluding articles on the case.

According to his obituary, Percy's main writing interest was fires. He apparently spent so much time chasing fire trucks he inspired a cartoon in the Telegram, showing him leaving his wife at the theatre to chase a passing fire truck. This fascination perhaps began with the Great Toronto fire in 1904 when he witnessed the destruction it caused. He got so involved helping out that he didn't go to work for two days. Even as a child he would hang around local fire halls. In 1949 he was one of the founding member of the Box 12 Association, a group which volunteered to bring coffee and soup to fireman at major fires. To this day in Toronto there is a Box 12 canteen truck run by the Greater Toronto Multiple Alarm Association. Percy eventually became an honorary fire chief. In his later years he said he would have been happier as a fireman than a newspaper man.

Percy married Lizzie Barnes in 1907 in Toronto. They had a son, Douglas, but sadly he died at age 10 of pneumonia during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Globally it killed at least 22 million. People took to wearing masks and staying indoors. Even the harsh winter temperatures could not stop the spread of the Flu. The virus was different in that it affected young adults, who are generally hardy enough to fight off such infections. 30,000-50,000 died in Canada alone.

Harry Bretz was hit by a car on Feb 1, 1926 at 2:55am. He was working late and was on his way home when he was struck at Young and Scollard after getting off a streetcar. He was taken to the hospital but his injuries were too severe, and he died at just 43 years of age. His brother Percy arrived just 15 minutes too late to be with him. The driver of the car, Arthur Davison, took 250 feet to come to come to a stop and was found to not have a licence. He faced manslaughter charges for the incident and the jury convicted him. The results of the trial can be read here. Harry had never married or had children.

Their father, Jacob, died of pneumonia two months after his son in March, 1926 at age 83. His wife Martha would live on until 1935.

Percy would have a full life until he passed away in 1972, but his family line would end here.



Abram's Family

On August 25, 1850 Abraham (Abram) Bretz (1850-1940) was born to Jacob and Nancy, near Fisher Mills, Ontario. He was the 8th of 9 children.

He was born quite late for his family, with his parents already in their 40s and 50s, and some brothers nearly 20 years older. Because of this generational gap he would have never known his grandparents. It is interesting to think that this might have encouraged a certain distance between Abram and his younger siblings and the rest his family. For example, when Abram turned 20, his own father was already 70 years old.

Abram's parents would also have been fluent in German as Mennonite worship was conducted in that language (and his father was a minister). Of course English was still likely spoken to fit in with the community, whether Abram and his siblings were the first of their generation to break fully with the German language is unknown. It is said Abram knew some German even into his later years.

In 1853, Abram's grandmother Mary Strickler passed away at 86 years of age. She is buried at the Wanner Mennonite Church cemetery. Abram was only 3.

Railways were slowly spreading in Canada and in 1856 the Kitchener/Waterloo region was finally connected to Toronto by the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1859 Hespeler was connected to Guelph. Abram would have been a boy at this time and must have experienced the excitement of the new innovation as they moved through the farmlands near his home.

Abram's father moved the family to near Plattsville in the late summer of 1865. The new farm was on the 13th line of Blenhiem about a half mile west of town. Plattsville was a young town at that time, but might have been more peaceful than (apparently) rapidly growing Fisher Mills. The deal was brokered by Aaron Clemens, son of longtime family neighbor Abraham Clemens.

A Wesleyan Methodist church had been erected at Washington on January 1st, 1860. Reverends Samuel Fear and David Chalmers were the first pastors there (and also at Plattsville).

The Dominion of Canada was formed July 1, 1867 with Queen Victoria signing the British North America Act. While the BNA Act gave Canada more autonomy than it had before, it was far from full independence from the United Kingdom. Foreign policy remained in British hands, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remained Canada's highest court of appeal, and the constitution could be amended only in Britain.

Abram as a teen would have attended school at Blink Bonnie (S.S. No. 1) very near Plattsville between 1865-68.

At age 18 he then went to Toronto to attend Normal School for the years 1868-1869. He entered into the school as part of its 41st class session. Those applying had to be over 16 years of age, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman's letter attesting to their sound moral character (provided for Abram by Rev. William Ames). It is not known what spurred his decision to become a teacher, but he was alone in his family on this path.

Abram listed Methodist as his religion upon his application, although it is not known why his religion differed from his father. Several of his brothers also called themselves methodists by this time. Reverend William Ames was the Wesleyan Methodist priest of the local Plattsville church who attested to his character. Applicants were also graded in their basic knowledge to gain entry. It shows Abram was weak in math at that point.

At the end of his first year of schooling Abram was graded as IIA, meaning Second Class, Grade A. The system used two Classes (I, II) and three Grade levels (A, B, C). Only one student seems to have achieved IA in most class sessions. Abram recieved a certificate number of #2422 upon completion of that year, but like many students, elected to return again in 1869. From the records it can be seen that some students attended for three or more years, or even returned to Normal School after a gap of some years in their training.

Abram would have stayed in Toronto during class season, perhaps at a boarding house. The photo on the left is of him with a group of six other boys titled 'Our Boarding Club' from that time. Abram is at the center. Some of the people around him are; David Bergey (above left) who taught in Waterloo county for many years, George W. Bowman (below left) who went on to teach at many US colleges, Isaac Birchard (right) who earned his Ph.D. and became a Mathematical Master of institutions in Brantford and Toronto, and was also school principal.

Interestingly, David Bergey was a Mennonite who had grown up near Preston not far from the Bretz family. He later taught and farmed near Wilmot and New Dundee, which was also near the Bretz farm in Plattsville. One wonders if he and Abram were friends given their common history. David later became a Deacon in the Mennonite church.

When in session, lectures ran from 9:00 in the morning to 8:00 in the evening with a curfew set at 9:30. All students had to attend church on Sunday. The course load was quite varied.

Below is a page is from a book of Normal School examinations showing graduating students of December 22nd, 1869. It shows Abram's proficiency in various subjects. His worst were Chemistry and Arithmetic. His best Spelling. All of the students appear to have been scored rather harshly on 'Aptitude to Teach'.

Abram graduated as IB, meaning First Class, Grade B, which is rather high marks, and an improvement from the previous year. The register of teaching certificates for 1869 lists Abram as 2nd in his class.

The Journal of Education for Ontario, Volumes 23-24, 1870 lists Abram's active teacher certificate number.

First Class

Abram Bretz, Grade B #2822

Shown here is Abram's class at Normal School from around 1868-69. He was the far right of the four men in the first row. David Bergey is next to him on the right.

In January 1870 Abram Bretz, at just 19, began teaching school near Wilmot at Green's School (Wilmot S.S. No. 4). The Wilmot area was largely old order Amish. He was quite successful and in 1873 moved to take over his old school at Blink Bonnie (Blenheim S.S. No.1), near Plattsville for 3 years. Abram is formally listed as a teacher in the local 1874-5 Directory for Oxford County. He lived at home with his parents at this time.

The Oxford County Genealogical Society has this to say about the Blink Bonnie;

The first school in S. S. #1 stood on the 14th line, lot 23. It burned down in 1854 after 10 years of service to the community as a church as well as an educational institute. A frame school was erected on the present site to replace the old one. The building, which was later bricked in, was known for its attractive exterior. Its windows were flanked by green shutters, which made a pleasing contrast to the white siding.

The life of a teacher in early rural Ontario was not easy. In return for poverty level salaries, teachers prepared for and taught all grades, and maintained discipline through harsh measures. They kept the schools clean, hauled wood for the stove, brought water from the well, and started a pot to boil in the morning so students, bringing whatever meager offerings they could from home, would have a hot lunch at noon. Some teachers tended gardens on the school site to provide additional food for themselves or their students. The average annual wage for someone like Abram in 1870 was $260 (less than $30,000 today). From the history of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, some common rules a teacher had to follow in 1872 included;            

- Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks.
- Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day's session.
- Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual tastes of the pupils.
- After ten hours in school the teachers should spend their remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
- Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to Church regularly.
- Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barbershop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intentions, integrity and honesty.
- The teacher who performs his labours faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents per week in his pay providing the board of education approves.

Around this time the Hobson family moved to Bright in Blenhiem county, not far from Plattsville. Ben Hobson and his wife Elizabeth were Irish Quaker immigrants who came to North America aboard the HMS Riverdale in 1851 and settled in Galt, Ontario. Their daughter Alice was just an infant at the time, having been just born in Belfast. It was likely this proximity which allowed Abram to meet Alice and court her in the 1870s. Ben Hobson worked as a grocer and shopkeeper. This photo is of Elizabeth Pillar Hobson in 1901. For more on the history of the Hobson family see here.

In later years, Abram and Alice's grandson Howard would own a 250 year old book on the Quaker's history in Ireland. It is not known who originally purchased the book, but it is likely Howard received it from his own father Frank. The book now rests with Cory Bretz.

From 1873-1885 there was a severe economic depression in North America. In some places (like Canada) it lasted well into the 1880s earning the nickname the “Long Depression”. The cause was the Panic of 1873, a credit market crash in the US formed by runaway railway and real estate speculation.

More about the social mood of the time comes from the history section of the website:

Toronto's rise as an industrial city saw the accompanying emergence of industrial classes in place of the older hierarchies that had divided society. Families like the Gooderhams, Masseys, and Eatons formed a commercial-industrial elite. Below them a large middle class developed, as did a significant working class and a smaller underclass. Much of the working and underclass lived in marginal conditions because of unemployment, infirmity, age, or other affliction at a time when social services were in their infancy. In seeking to better their conditions in the face of competing elite interests, workers organized unions with increasing frequency during the Victorian era, with a watershed occurring with the establishment of the Toronto Trades Assembly in 1871 and the 'Nine Hour Movement' of 1872, which sought to cut an hour off the length of each of the six days in the work week. Nine hours, higher wages, and the very right to strike itself became burning issues in 1872 when printers walked off the job against free-market employers such as the famous Liberal, George Brown of the Globe. During the confrontation, the police arrested printers and the courts found the strikers guilty of participating in an illegal 'combination' to restrain trade. Yet, this heavy-handed response saw public opinion shift to a more favorable stance on unions, and the federal government of Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald responded by legalizing unions in Canada on the same, more generous, footing that their counterparts in Great Britain already enjoyed.

In 1873 the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement is formed and also opens a branch in Canada. The late 19th century saw the growing influence of these type of anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco movements.

On July 26, 1874, Alexander Graham Bell displayed his new invention, the telephone, to his family on the outskirts of Brantford, Ontario (not far from Kitchener/Waterloo). He goes to demonstrate it in Boston the following year. While the telegraph had been used to communicate written messages great distances since the 1830s, the telephone was the first device which could transmit voice.

This period of time was marked by the closeness of the Bretz family to one another. Abram lived at home with his parents and when he walked to work everyday at Blink Bonnie he passed two of his brothers, Henry and Samuel's, young families on their own farms. His older brother Gerhard lived to the east just a few kilometres.

There is a record of Abram witnessing the wedding of John Johnson and Barbara Gibson on May 30, 1876 at Blenhiem. The same day Abram's older brother Henry married John's sister Catherine Jane Johnson. Clearly the two families were close.

At a Christmas wedding, in 1876 Abram Bretz was married to Alice Hobson at Bright, Ontario. Abram was 26 years old and Alice was 25. The witnesses on the marriage register were Abram's brother Aaron Bretz, and the bride's sister Mary. Interestingly, Abram's profession is listed as 'accountant' on this document, yet other documents later on still note him as a teacher. Perhaps he decided that in order to support a family he needed a profession which would pay more that teaching and so decided to move into accounting. If that's the case, steady accounting work seemed to take Abram a few years to achieve. But another possibility is that Abram used accounting to supplement his income when the school was out session. Sometime after the wedding the couple move to Tavistock where Abram works, possibly in both fields, for the next five years. The marriage register lists Abram as Wesleyan Methodist and Alice as Society of Friends (Quaker).

There are two large family bibles which date from this time. Both are beautifully illustrated and encyclopedic in nature. The Bretz bible was presented to Abram in 1883, a few years after his wedding. It contains handwritten notes of some of Abram's family tree information. The Wood bible was printed in 1873 and possibly presented to Thomas Moore Wood for his wedding to Hannah Gilbert in 1876. The two books would come together for the marriage of Sydney Bretz and Josephine Wood in 1914.

Two large family photo albums also date from this time and belonged to Abram. They contain numerous wonderful photographs of persons old and young, but unfortunately many of their names are now lost to time. One book has a note written in the front showing the book was "Presented to Abram Bretz in kindly remembrance by his friends at Tavistock, On, including the pupils of the public school. December 22nd, 1882." The other book is clearly more of a family album with pictures of Abram himself, and various Hobsons, and apparently relations from Ohio. Perhaps someday we will identify more of those pictured on its pages. The albums are under the care of Harry McFee.

On January 26, 1878 Abram's first child, Franklin Hobson is born in Tavistock. Abram is 28 at the time. Interestingly, the Hobson name of his wife’s family will be passed on to Frank as his middle name, starting a tradition of including the Hobson name which lasted for 3 generations. What the significance was to the act is has been lost, however.

In 1879 Abram’s father, Jacob, died and was buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Church north of Plattsville. Abram was 29.

Abram and Alice's second child, Agnus, is born April 28th, 1880 in Tavistock, but tragically she would die in 1882 at only 2 1/2 years of age.

The Bretz family is listed in the 1881 census as;

1881 Census, Oxford North, township of Zorra
            Abram Bretz 30 - Schoolmaster
            Alice Bretz 29
            Frank Bretz 3
            Agnes Bretz 1

An Abram Britz is listed on the voter rolls of East Zorra township living in Tavistock in 1881. It notes he is a tenant.

Around 1881 Abram's older brother Jacob moved to Toronto and opened a tobacco business. He had a shop on Church Street for many years. He also would have two young boys, Walter and Harry.

Around 1882 Abram moved his family to around Bosanquet in Lambton county where he had a brother and sister living. On May 4th, 1883, a daughter, Ethel Alice is born to Abram and Alice.

It is probably a few years later in 1885 when Abram Bretz decides to move his young family to Toronto. He is first known in the city is as a grocer in 1886, living at 280 Queen St West.

This 1883 Bird's Eye Chromolithograph map shows the extant of the city just before Abram arrived. This image shows the locations of his family at that time.

Abe and Alice had another son, Benjamin Herbert, possibly in Toronto on December 27th, 1885, but he dies as an infant at only 8 months of age.

A third son, Sydney Gordon is born to Abram and Alice April 14th, 1887 in Toronto.

In 1887 Abram began working for the London Life Insurance Company. This is a job he very successfully held for the rest of his adult life. The company was only just started in 1874, so is quite new when he joined. It was expanding with it's new Dominion Charter and was instrumental in providing policies to regular Canadians, as opposed to only the upper class. It is not precisely know why Abram stopped teaching and went into life insurance and accounting, though from the known working conditions of his earlier career, it was better for his family.

Life insurance was a rather new concept in the late 19th century, and not always equally offered. From the London Life website:

In the latter part of the 19th century, medical risks and underwriting decisions were different than today. For example, because of dangers on the job, London Life would not insure hotel and tavern keepers, and was also reluctant to insure railway workers or sailors on the Great Lakes. Accident policies were not granted to people planning to travel to the wilds of Western Canada or to the Southern United States, because of difficulties in settling claims.

The company was particularly concerned with tuberculosis, then a major cause of illness and death. Immediate family members of anyone dying from the disease were disqualified from obtaining insurance until reaching the age of 35 in good health.

The company widely promoted the story of its fourth death claim, that of a man who drowned three days after taking out his life insurance policy. This helped agents illustrate not only the need for life insurance, but also the good faith and fair practice of London Life.

Abram moved his family to 31 Sword Street were he and Alice began to raise their three surviving children (Frank and Sydney, and Ethel) in the city.

In 1887 Alice's parents, the Hobsons moved to Toronto with their unmarried daughters. They had been living in Muskoka for most of the past ten years, but now were only blocks away from Abram and Alice at 405 Gerrard. Ben Hobson, now getting on in years at 63, worked as a book keeper for Elias Rogers and Company.

The family was recorded living in St. David's Ward for the 1891 census;

1891 Census, East Toronto, St David's Ward
            Abram Bretz 40 - Ins agent
            Alice Bretz 39
            Frank H Bretz 13
            Ethel A Bretz 7
            Sydney Bretz 4

This 1889 map to the right shows the part of eastern Toronto where the family lived between 1887-1890. Some of the streets look as they did back then, but many blocks were flattened for low income housing in the later 20th century.

Just a short walk in the Don valley was the new Riverdale Zoo which had just opened in 1888. It was grown largely through donations and by 1902, the zoo had sixteen pheasants, two ocelots, a male camel, a female dromedary, a buffalo bull, six pens of monkeys, a Siberian bear, a young female crane, some lions, and a hippopotamus. The Bretz families surely visited here as it was a popular Toronto attraction. Sadly the Riverdale Zoo was a typical zoo of its period, with animals displayed as curiosities in dark cages and cramped enclosures, but Abram and his children likely did not think of it that way. The old zoo was moved in 1974 and today the site is an interpretive pioneer farm.

From the history of website:

Free education became widely available after the creation of a public school board in 1850, to be followed by compulsory schooling in 1871, and the implementation of kindergarten programmes in 1883. In 1884 a public library system began to serve the population. There also were advances in public health reform and hospital construction. These and other initiatives paid off, as represented by the decline in the death rate, from 21 per 1,000 people per annum in 1883, to 15 per 1,000 by 1896, in a city that had become much larger, more complex, and hence more difficult to manage than the one that had existed on the eve of the railway era almost half a century earlier.

Abram and his family moved several times during the 1890s. They left Sword Street in 1889 to live at 159 River Street for 2 years, then spent a year at 139 Simpson Avenue out in the new district of East Toronto before settling down the road at 25 Brooke Avenue, from 1892-1899 (Brooke Ave has since been renamed to Simpson). Abram was promoted to a Superintendent at London Life in 1891, which perhaps prompted their move to a larger home. The move to Simpson Avenue is interesting because it was across the Don valley from where they had been living in the new township of East Toronto (the neighborhood would be called Riverdale). The town was incorporated in 1888 with a population of 750 and would have been much rougher living than in the city. Why they moved after only a year is unknown. Abram worked at the time time at an office at 9 Victoria Street from 1891 to 1893, only a block from this photo of Victoria Row.

As for the rest of Abram's family during this time, many did not stray far from the rural life. There is a record of his brother Aaron and his young family living in Ayr, south of Waterloo where he worked as a miller on the 1891 Canadian census. They would shortly move to Toronto. The same document also mentions that his brother Henry was living in nearby Washington around this time with his young family, and with his mother Nancy (all possibly living on the old Bretz homestead near Plattsville). Henry had a shop were he sold stationary and fancy goods. His brother Samuel was in Lambton near the town of Forest, as was his sister Polly and her family. His older brother John was living Blandford, working as a housekeeper.

Abram's eldest brother, Gerhard, spent the 1880s in East Wawanosh county near Huron, Ontario, but emigrated to Oklahoma with some of his children around 1890. At that time, areas of the American great plains were still recovering from the depression of the 1880s and a lot of property was being foreclosed upon by the banks - who then looked to turn a profit quickly. This attracted many new immigrants into the area looking for cheap land. It is said the modern image of a haunted house dates from this time, because there were so many empty Victorian style homes.

It is not known exactly where young Frank, Sydney, and Ethel attended school, but it seems likely that it was once located First and Bolton Aveenues. Today the grounds are occupied by the East York Collegiate Institute, which was built in 1927.

The bicycle gained in popularity immensely during the 1890s. Their use and public perception from being a dangerous toy for sporting young men to being an everyday transport tool for men and, crucially, women, of all ages. Bicycle historians often call this period the "golden age".

The primary means of getting around Toronto at this time was by streetcar. There were extensive track systems laid in the streets for trolleys, which although had been horse drawn for many years, underwent a change during the 1890s to electrical cabs.

From the history section of the website:

The ongoing innovations of the Victorians continued to shape the maturing city. Telephones and electric lights in homes, businesses, and on the street arrived in the 1880s. Asphalted streets appeared in 1887 and slowly replaced the macadamized, cedar-paved, and dirt roads of earlier days. Between 1892 and 1894, with over 100 kilometres of track in place, streetcars were electrified. (Later, in the first decade of the 20th century, power from Niagara Falls rather than from local coal-powered generators reduced the cost of electricity, and the city took over the supply of hydro, further securing Torontonians' access to reliable, low-cost power). One important development in transit occurred in 1897 when a majority of voters agreed to allow streetcars to run on Sundays, despite opposition from labour unions fearing that a more open Sunday would thwart their dreams of shorter working hours and from Methodists worried that the Sabbath would be desecrated by such an innovation. New technologies affected building construction, whether they were the elevators and steel construction that allowed for such 'tall' buildings as the seven-story Board of Trade at Front and Yonge streets in 1889, or were improvements to personal comfort, such as people's widespread adoption of the modern flush toilet towards the end of the 19th century.

In June 1891 Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, died. His state funeral was held on June 9, attended by hundreds of thousands of Canadians. A newspaper insert was found inside the Bretz family bible marking the event.

The photo to the left was taken in the 1890s along King Street East. The neighborhoods where the Bretz, Hobson, and Wood families all lived at the time lies to the north (right). When Thomas Moore Wood (Frank's future father-in-law) first emigrated to Toronto he lived along this street in 1861.

In 1893 the first (and only) early electric car was built and driven around Toronto. It was charged off the overhead streetcar lines, and generally causes a stir. It is certainly possible that Abram and Frank (a teenager at the time) witnessed the event.

Abram worked at the London Life office on 61 Victoria Street between 1893 and 1895. He then moved to work from 24 King Street East until 1905.

The Toronto Centre islands were always a popular recreational destination. In 1894, a land reclamation project by the Toronto Ferry Company created space for an amusement park, further increasing the appeal.  At the time, Toronto's own beaches were far too polluted to use, largely a side effect of dumping garbage directly in the lake, but parks were highly valued. This image shows the ferry terminal with young children similar in age to Sydney and his cousins, Walter, Harry and Edna.

In 1894, Abram's mother Nancy passed away at age 84. She was living in Washington, perhaps on the old homestead, at that time. She is buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Church cemetery. Abram was 44 at the time.

One of young Frank Bretz's first jobs was as a clerk at the Canada Publishing Company in 1894. He was also taking courses at the same time, as he was also listed as a student on the city directories. Frank was the oldest of his siblings and his Toronto cousins, and seemingly would get his younger relatives jobs at the companies he worked. His cousins Harry and Walter both later worked in low level jobs which Frank got first.

Between 1896 and 1903 Frank Bretz worked as a stenographer for the newspaper The World. Frank's cousins Harry and Walter both started at the paper in 1900 and so all worked together for a few years.

On Monday, August 31st, 1896 the first moving picture show was presented in Toronto at Robinson's Musee Theatre, a Vaudeville theater located on the southeast corner of Yonge and Richmond streets. Several 'movies' were shown, each less than a minute long, using a Vitascope, which was developed by American inventor Thomas Edison and associates just a year earlier. The next day a local newspaper's review of the experience declared that the Vitascope "projects apparently living figures and scenes on a canvas screen ... it baffles analysis and delights immense audiences."

Abram joined the Imperial Lodge in 1897 (IOOF).

The Toronto Normal School celebrated 50 years of education on October 31st through November 2nd of 1897. It was a gala affair which Abram attended with over 100 other graduates. Record of it can be found in Toronto Normal School: A Jubilee Celebration, 1847-1897, p. 84 and p. 167.

In April 1898, the first known gas powered automobile in Canada was imported by Colonel John Moodie Jr. He bought the Winton from the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Cleveland, Ohio for the hefty price of $1,000 (about $130,000 today). On August 16, 1898 the first automobile is seen in Kitchener as E. J. Philip drives into King Street from Toronto, a journey which took about 6 hours. “Gas-buggies” were general viewed as rich man’s playthings and were looked down upon in rural areas as they scared the horses. The Bretz family surely saw their first automobile around this time.

May 30th, 1899 was the 50th Anniversary of the Hobson-Pillar wedding (Alice's parents). A gold and silver fruit spoon was crafted to mark the occasion and kept with the original Quaker wedding dress. The dress would be passed down the female side of the family and is currently with Harry McFee.

Abram moved his family a few blocks south to 179 First Ave at Tiverton Ave around 1899. At the time the streets were known as LeFroy Ave and East Ave, and were renamed right around then. The family rented the home from Isabella Cahoon and her husband Robert, who lived next door in 177.

This 1899 map shows the area of Riverview where the Bretz families lived for many years. From 1892 to 1915 Abram, Frank, and Sydney's families walked these streets. Also shown is the house where Ben Hobson was living when he died in 1901. One can also see how empty the new community was in areas as buildings had yet to fill in.

Frank Bretz had likely met Lillian Wood around this time in their old neighborhood as the two families lived only a few blocks from each other. Lillie was two years older than Frank. The Wood family had come to Toronto in around 1859 and lived on Sackville for over twenty years. Lillian's father Thomas was from England and was a carpenter and joiner specializing in window blinds. Her mother Hannah sometimes spent her time as a nurse, and worshipped with the Church of Ireland. Hannah's parents (Lillie's grandparents), the Gilberts, also had immigrated from England during the 1860s, but had come up through the United States, from near Baltimore. She told the story of as a child having to hide from Civil War troops (it didn't matter which side). Whenever they came by their property, she would jump in empty barrels for fear they would rape them. It is to Thomas and Hannah that the large Wood family bible first belonged. For more on the history of the Wood family see here.

People of the Victorian era were quite romantic but, as was their way, had a good deal of rigid structure and custom surrounding the custom of marriage; from the courting, to the wedding, to the happily ever after.  Marriage and raising children was a way of life, and every young girl began to prepare for her wedding before she was out of grade school. Choosing one's mate was the subject of many articles and games. In fact, there were few things in a girl's life that did not center around preparation for domestic bliss. Needlework was taught in school, as was cooking and maintaining a home; and only very rarely were they encouraged to seek a career. The Wood family, with it's English origins, very likely expected Lillian and their other daughters to conform to these Victorian expectations.

Toronto City Hall was completed in 1899. When it opened on September 18, 1899 it was the largest building in Toronto, and the largest municipal building in North America.

Records show that in the early 1900s Abram, now 50, and his brother Aaron Bretz were working together for London Life Insurance in Toronto. Abram as a senior Superintendent, and newly arrived Aaron is an Agent as shown by changes in listings in Toronto city directories. He possibly had gotten his job through Abram in 1899. They were both working downtown at 24 King Street east, until 1905 when Abram moved offices a short distance to 72 Queen Street West.

The City of Toronto's population grew strikingly during the first two decades of the century, from 208,000 in 1901 to 522,000 by 1921. It was a boom time, with plenty of jobs in finance and construction for all. Automobile registration in Toronto climbed from only 178 in 1903 to just over 2,000 by 1908.

From the history section of the website:

In 1901, Queen Victoria and her era passed away. At that moment, Toronto was the Dominion of Canada's second largest urban centre after Montreal (having surpassed Quebec City shortly after Confederation). Economic growth derived heavily from financial services and the creation of companies to manage them. A good example of that commercial strength was the city's Bank of Commerce. In 1915 it boasted 379 branches across Canada along with a number of international offices. Much of the profit made by the banks (and stockbrokers, lawyers, and others) came from financing lumber, farming, and mining expansion throughout the country during an era when primary production generated much of the nation's prosperity. As might be expected, rail and water transportation systems grew to meet the demand. The creation of the Toronto Harbour Commission in 1911 by the federal government was particularly significant because of the commission's work to rectify decades of inadequate and uncoordinated development on the waterfront, beginning with a revitalized plan for the harbour in 1912. Older wholesale and retail businesses, service industries, and manufacturing also participated in the economic expansion of the time. In fact, with 65,000 workers, manufacturing was the single largest source of employment for the city's residents in the 1911 census year. (Many workers found employment in pork packing, and hence Toronto gained its famous nickname, 'Hogtown,' although at least some people in small-town Ontario thought it referred to the greed of the city's banks and businesses.) In comparison, commerce and finance engaged 40,000 people that year, the building trades offered work to 20,000 (much of it seasonal), and domestic service and similar jobs provided 18,000 'situations.'

In 1901 Abram Bretz and his wife Alice were still living at 179 First Ave in Toronto East. Their children Frank, Sydney and Ethel were also living with them. Brother Aaron and his family lived nearby, as did Alice's parents Benjamin and Hannah. Abram’s brother Jacob and his two boys were living in central Toronto where Jacob still has a tobacco shop on Church Street.

At the time the Wood family is then living only a few blocks away from their home on Sackville. Perhaps this proximity is what allows the Bretz sons to meet the Wood daughters.

1901 Census, East York, Ward I
            Abram Bretz 50 - Sup Int Life Ins
            Alice Bretz 49
            Frank H Bretz 23 - Stenographer
            Ethel A Bretz 17
            Sydney Bretz 13

Alice's father, Ben Hobson, died in 1901 from toxemia (blood poisoning). Her mother Elizabeth moved into a small unit at 303.5 Gerrard Street sometime before 1903, but it is unknown for how long. Ben was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Abram and his brother's only sister, Mary Ann Clemens, passed away in 1903 at age 72. Aunt Polly, as she was known, lived in Lambton County and left behind a large family.

Frank Bretz married Lillian Wood on June 10th, 1903 when they were 25 and 26 years old. Frank's cousin Walter and Lillian's sister Ethel were witnesses to the union. The couple moved out of their parent's to a house at 787 Gerrard (in those times also known as Rambler Road), about a block from where Abram was. They would remain here for 14 years. The family rented the home from Samuel Collinson, who himself lived next door in 789 Gerrard, and was the owner of all the units down to 773 (at least up to 1905).

On April 19th, 1904, the Great Toronto Fire burned through a large section of downtown buildings. The glow could be seen for kilometers in all directions and was surely viewed by Abram's family, who were just across the Don Valley from it. The fire destroyed 104 buildings, but fortunately killed no one. Five thousand people were put out of work, however (7% of the working population).

Frank and Lillie's first child was Marjorie Josephine, born in 1904, but sadly she died as an infant. By modern standards there was a great number of children who died as infants during this time. At the beginning of the 20th century, infant mortality was at such heights that organized attempts to attack it began more or less simultaneously throughout world. Urban centres were very dirty and rife with disease compared to past generations lives. Nearly 1 in 10 babies did not live past their first year. The primary causes of death were perinatal conditions (birth defects, complications during childbirth), diarrheal diseases, influenza, and infections diseases.

It was around 1905 that Sydney got a job with Nerlich and Company, a catalog-based department store which specialized in fancy goods, dolls, games, novelties, china and glassware. He would work there for many years as a clerk and later a salesman. By 1922 he was their advertising manager. This photo of him is from the 1908 50th anniversary booklet when he worked as a clerk in the catalog department for Mr. Wilton. Sydney was 21. The main Nerlich warehouse was at 146 Front Street W and remains there to this day.

Vaudeville theatres increasingly began to show motion pictures in the early 20th century, but the Theatorium, opened in 1906 at 183 Yonge Street, was Toronto's first permanent feature movie theatre. Members of the Bretz family likely saw their first motion picture by this time, just 10 years since the first movies came to town. One of the more popular movies of 1906 was called 'The San Francisco Earthquake', about the terrible event of April 18th of that year.

A landmark of the area in which the Bretz family lived was the Don jail. Although probably not a welcome neighbor, it predated the township and was built at a time when only farms existed on that side of the valley in 1862. The Don was also the site of a number of hangings over the years. After 1908 these were done inside, but previously condemned men had been hanged on an outdoor scaffold in the jail yard. This occasionally drew crowds hoping to witness the event.

Despite this unpleasantness, the closeness of the Beach area with its clean air and change of atmosphere made it 'the place' to go to for summer enjoyment for many East Torontonians.

On December 22nd, 1906 Abram Bretz was presented with a gold ring by his fellows at the London Life Insurance company.

In 1908 and 1909 Frank Bretz was working as a clerk with Virtue & Company, a British publisher of fine illustrated books.

After the Wright brothers first flew a heavier-than-air craft in 1903, the excitement of their achievement had spread quickly across the world and their were now many innovators. Every year, or seemingly every month, there were new achievements in the field of aeronautics. Although the newspapers were brimming with stories, most people still had not actually seen a flying craft. The first airplane to fly into Toronto that might have been witnessed by the members of the Bretz family was in 1909. That was when an amphibious plane landed in Toronto harbour from the United States. Certainly they would witness one within the next few years.

Frank and Lillie's second child, Madeline Gertrude, was born to them on January 19, 1907. Frank was 28. Madeline was born three years after the death of the couple's first child. Perhaps that loss was so painful it took them a while to try again. This photo shows Madeline with her Great Grandmother Elizabeth Hobson and two aunts, Carrie and Susie around 1910. A son, Allan Eversley was born in 1908, but died as an infant.

The London Life Insurance company which Abram worked for expanded into 304 Manning Chambers next to city hall on account of increased business. Several notices were posted in the Toronto Star at this time. They note that Abram was in charge of the industrial insurance branch.

Sometime around 1907-1908, cousin George Henry Bretz (1880-) and his new family moved to Toronto from thier home in Shelburne. George was the son of Henry Bretz, Abram's brother. In his youth George was an accomplished lacrosse player, playing with a local London, Ontario team before he moved to Manitoba in 1902 to join the Shamrock Lacrosse Club. He played for them when they won the 1903 Manitoba Provincial Championship, and accompanied them to the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, where they earned a Gold medal in the sport. At the time lacrosse was a demonstartion sport, but this event was actually the first official Gold medal that Canada had ever won at an Olympics. A record of the team can be found in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. Later, according to a mistaken obituary published by the Winnipeg Free Press, George was said to have been killed in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. He wasn't. George was a tailor for at least part of his later carreer.

East Toronto township finally joined with Toronto on December 15, 1908. Although there were many advantages to annexation to Toronto – paved streets, more reliable water, electric light, and good sewage systems, they would only come slowly. The area remained surrounded by fields and market gardens until as late as the 1920s, as the city crept nearer along the street railways lines on Gerrard Street, Danforth Avenue and Kingston Road. The roads around the Bretz family homes would remain unpaved as late as 1912-1915.

The photo to the right was taken about 1908 and shows Frank with his mother Alice, and her mother Elizabeth holding Frank's newborn baby Madeline. Frank was 30 year old. Elizabeth is looking quite feeble compared to her photo from just a few years earlier in 1901.

An interesting observation from these family photographs is that Frank seems to have inherited his dark, full head of hair from the Hobson family, while his brother Sydney retained the lighter hair of his father (as well as perhaps baldness).

This is a page from the 1909 Toronto City Directory and shows the extant of the Bretz family living in the city at that time. The 1910s period represents the most Bretz households concentrated in Toronto.

Frank and Lillie's first son, Howard Claude was born April 29, 1911. Frank was 33.


In 1911, Abram Bretz, now 60, moved his family into a newly built house at 17 Fairview Blvd, in Riverdale, where he would remain until his death. His son Sydney and daughter Ethel were with him. Toronto city assessment records show that Abram was the first owner of the home, and that it was initially given a tax value of $3050 ($750 for the land, and $2300 for the building) (about $150,000+ today). At the time most of the other lots on Fairview Blvd were vacant, making #17 one of the first buildings on the street. The lots appear to have been owned originally be Love Brothers Ltd. Abram was known to spend time walking in nearby Riverdale Park.

Abram's family was recorded by the 1911 census as (mispelled Britz);

1911 Census, Toronto East, Ward I
            Abram Bretz 60 - Insurance
            Alice Bretz 59
            Ethel A Bretz 27
            Sydney Bretz 23

His son Frank's young family was only a few blocks away on Gerrard street;

1911 Census, Toronto East, Ward I
            Frank Bretz 33 - Book keeper
            Lily Bretz 32
            Madeline Bretz 4
            Howard Bretz 1mo

Lillian's sister Josephine was renting a room just down the street at 765 Gerrard at this time.

Sadness came to the family in November 1911, when Abram's wife Alice died at age 59 from endocarditis and heart disease. She only got to see two of five grandchildren survive infancy before she died. Her own mother, Elizabeth Pillar Hobson, died a month later on December 3rd, 1911 in Brandford of pneumonia. Both Alice and her mother wre buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. It is also unknown how long Alice lived in the new family home on Fairview, but it seems likely she did for at least a few months.

This photo shows the intersection of Danforth and Broadview looking east in 1912. Abram's new home is just two blocks down the street to the right.

Between 1911 and 1913 Abram's son Frank was working as a clerk with Canada Manufacturing, Importing and Distribution.

Frank and Lillian's youngest son Norman Hobson was born May 5th, 1913. Frank was 35.

Sydney Bretz married Josephine Wood on May 18th, 1914. She was sister to Lillian Wood, and their union started the family tale of two brothers marrying two sisters. Clearly Sydney and Josephine would have known each other through their older siblings, but it is unclear what the circumstances of their courtship were. Sydney had known Josephine for over a decade, from when they were both still teenagers. The large Bretz and Wood family bibles would pass on to Sydney at their wedding. Syd and Jo would have two children, William around 1916, and Elizabeth Josephine "Betty" in 1920. The family was living at 1037 Logan by 1916, not far from Grandpa Abram, and they would live there until at least the mid 1930s.

On July 28th, 1914 World War I erupted, and Canada, as a British colony state, was drawn into it. None of the Bretz family fought, as the generations were offset such that there was no one of recruitable age during that time. But they still felt it's effects. Some members of the Bretz family felt pressured regarding their German heritage and changed their surname to something more Anglo sounding, such as Bret or Bretts.

From the history section of the website:

In the First World War, most of Toronto's military aged men - some 70,000 - flocked to the colours between 1914 and 1918 to fight the Germans and their allies while small numbers of women pursued the limited opportunities open to them in the military. Of these, 13,000 Toronto soldiers and some nursing sisters never returned, and a very large percentage of those who did carried physical and emotional wounds that would cripple them for the rest of their lives. In the city itself, the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition became a military camp, the campus at the University of Toronto became a training facility for officers, and various farm fields outside the built-up areas became aerodromes to prepare men for service in the Royal Flying Corps (which became the Royal Air Force in 1918). Industrialization leapt forward, especially after 1916 as factories struggled to supply the military with the munitions and supplies needed to fight the enemy. The scarcity of male workers caused by enlistments forced employers to hire women on an unprecedented scale, which changed many people's perceptions of gendered roles and social structures.

Material shortages put stress on the population. For instance, the winter of 1917-18 was unusually cold, but because of a lack of coal, the government instituted 'heatless Mondays,' which increased people's suffering after spending the other six days of the week shivering with inadequate fuel. The coal shortage forced schools and even wartime industries to shut down temporarily, while pairs of institutions, ranging from offices to churches, moved their workers or congregations into single buildings to save fuel. War brought inflation, increasing the cost of living 50 per cent between 1915 and 1919, leading many hard-pressed people to demand that the federal government control prices.

This photo shows Howard as a young boy in 1914 in Toronto. The family would have still been living on Gerrard street, and it looks possible that is where this photo was taken. Howard's older sister Madeline would have been in Grade 2 that year.

When Abram's grandchildren were still quite young during the first world war, he would take them on the ferry to Centre Island in Toronto for picnics. Madeline remembered these trips fondly.

Frank got a job with the New York based Grolier Society as a bookkeeper around 1914. He would work with the company the rest of his career, gradually working his way into more senior positions. Perhaps his experience a few years earlier with Virtue & Company helped him get this job. The Society was the publishing arm of the Grolier Club, a type of book publisher/enthusiast group for bibliophiles (book lovers). It maintained a research library specializing in books, bibliography and bibliophily, printing (especially the history of printing and examples of fine printing), binding, illustration and bookselling. The Club's stated objective was "the literary study of the arts pertaining to the production of books, including the occasional publication of books designed to illustrate, promote and encourage these arts; and the acquisition, furnishing and maintenance of a suitable club building for the safekeeping of its property, wherein meetings, lectures and exhibitions shall take place from time to time....". It still exists to this day. One type of book Frank's part of the company sold extensively was encyclopedias.

The Temperance movement finally succeeded in banning alcohol and Prohibition blanketed the province of Ontario from 1916-1927. After it ended, alcohol slowly became available beyond the retail outlets of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and in 1947 'cocktail lounges' opened in Toronto (although West Toronto did not become 'wet' again until 1999). Prohibition would have greatly pleased Lillian given her involvement with the Women's Temperance League.

In 1916 Frank, now 38, was given the opportunity to open a new office for his employer in Winnipeg, and so the family would choose to leave Toronto. This would have been a huge event for the family. Firstly for Frank and Lillie with three young children to be moving across country to a city they didn't know, and secondly for the extended families, as the Bretzes and the Woods had always lived within a few blocks of one another for many, many years. Surely it was a very stressful time. Frank went out to Winnipeg first and lived in rented a room while he established the new office. His family then arrived later the next year in 1917. For more about Frank Bretz and his Winnipeg descendants see here.

In the fall and winter of 1918 the Spanish Flu pandemic spread across the world. Globally it killed at least 22 million more than died in WWI - and perhaps as many as 100 million. People took to wearing masks and staying indoors. Even the harsh winter temperatures could not stop the spread of the Flu. The virus was different in that it affected young adults, who are generally hardy enough to fight off such infections. 30,000-50,000 died in Canada (the equivalent of 1 in every 180 people). Frank's cousin Walter's son, Douglas Bretz of Toronto, was killed by the flu at just 10 years of age. The streets of the time would have been eerie, as there were as few as possible outside, and everyone who was wore a facemask. In some communities, it was a criminal offence to shake hands. Gatherings of more than six people were banned. 

World War I saw an increase in acts of discrimination against Canadians of German descent out of fear and mistrust. Although we cannot know what exactly prompted him, in 1919 George Bretz decided to change his family name to Brett.

Orangeville Banner dated 07-Aug-1919 Page 1, Column 4
George Bretz, of Toronto, formerly of Shelburne, has changed the spelling of his name to Brett. His great-grandfather Bretz was a Dutch U. E. Loyalist, who, coming to Canada in 1810, received a grant of land from the British government in the County of Waterloo. However, one cannot be explaining this to everybody and he has taken this step to avoid prejudice.

Abram's younger brother Aaron died in 1920, working as a timekeeper in Sudbury. His other brother Henry older passed that year as well in Shelburne, Ontario.

The 1921 Census of Canada noted that Sydney Bretz and his family were living at 1037 Logan.

In March, 1922 Abram received a 25th year pin from the Imperial Lodge for all of his years of membership. He was 72. He also might have finally retired from London Life Insurance around this time, but as late as 1921, the Toronto city directory still listed him as affiliated with the company.

During the 1920s a neighborhood of intense poverty blighted the city east of the Don River along Queen Street. This was only a few blocks south of where the Bretz family had previously lived just a decade earlier. It certainly shows how quickly neighborhoods can fall into decline.

Abram's older brother Jacob died in 1926, leaving him the only surviving sibling of his family. All of Abram Bretz's brothers and sisters die many years before him, including his only younger brother, Aaron. Two of his brothers actually pass away within days of each other in 1920.

On Dec. 28, 1928 the first 'talkie', or a motion picture with sound, came to Toronto. It was called 'The Terror' and was a haunted-house whodunit shown at the Tivoli Theater.

From the history section of the website:

On October 1929, stock markets around the globe 'crashed,' bringing on the Great Depression that scarred life in the city, surrounding areas, and the world beyond for the next decade. Like people elsewhere, Torontonians lost their savings, and even their homes, when businesses laid off workers (raising the unemployment rate in the city to 30 per cent by 1933) and cut the wages of those who retained their jobs (with the result that salaries fell by an average of 40 per cent). The city and the neighboring jurisdictions found it nearly impossible to cope with the growing demands to help the 25 per cent of the population on relief at the same time that municipal revenues fell precipitously. In fact, the suburban governments around Toronto, except Swansea and Forest Hill, collapsed into bankruptcy under the strain before the provincial and federal governments responded to the crises by assuming significant roles in providing relief.

During the Depression, a makeshift community 600 unemployed and homeless men, mainly First World War veterans, formed in the Don Valley. Their shacks, built of tin, sheet metal, cardboard, and pieces of wood, provided little warmth in the winter. As a result many sought shelter in and beside the kilns of the Don Valley Brick Works. Local residents often helped these people, bringing them clothing, bedding, and food.

This camp in the Don valley was just a kilometre away from the Bretz family's neighborhood. They would have seen the smoke of the Brick Works from their homes.

Lillie's mother Hannah moved to Winnipeg around 1933 to be with the family and where they could care for her. She passed away on June 18th, 1936 and was buried at the Elmwood Cemetery.

Betty Bretz was a very beautiful young woman who appeared in the Toronto papers several times, participating in plays and school engagements with her high school, the Danforth Technical College. She was enrolled in classes there between 1935-1937, ages 15 to 17.

Throughout the 1930s the effects of the Great Depression gradually lessened as the economy got back on its feet. It is not known how badly affected (if at all) the Bretz families of Toronto were. Abram was retired and likely lived very modestly with his daughter Ethel. His son Sydney, however, had two growing teenagers and so would have had more demands placed upon his income.

Frank and Lillian moved back to Toronto from Winnipeg in 1938. Frank was offered a more senior position with the Grolier Society, possibly related to the fact the the Grolier Society was incorporated in 1936 and was undergoing a shakeup. Frank was 60 at the time. Norman, who was 25, moved with them and got a jobs as a shoe salesman at the Hudson Bay company and Sears. It is not clear where the family was living at this time.

This photo shows Frank driving an Austin in the mid 1930s.

Lillian died of Bright's disease (kidney disease) on September 27th, 1938. She was 60. It is unknown if Lillian was showing signs of the illness when they moved. There is mention that Lillian (and possibly Frank) were living at the Wood family home (Liilian's sister Mary?) on Sherwood Ave.

After his wife died, Frank and Norman probably moved into the house at 17 Fairview with his father Abram and sister Ethel.

World War II broke out in September, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland in a quest for the conquest of Europe.  It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million military personnel mobilized. The major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by significant events involving the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it was the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities.

Canada became one of the allies' pre-eminent suppliers of war materiel. Much of the nation's output came from new factories in and around Toronto that had been built expressly for the war, the most famous being Victory Aircraft in Malton, which produced Lancaster Bombers for the air forces of the British Commonwealth. As had occurred in the previous war, residents in Toronto from enemy countries fell under a cloud of suspicion, or even were interned, such as occurred among the Italians, whose homeland allied with Adolf Hitler against the Allies.

Norman Bretz immediately tried to enlist but was turned away as the air force wasn't accepting new volunteers at that time.

In January 1940 Abram was interviewed by an old pupil of his for a local Waterloo area paper, the Woodstock Review. In the article he recounted his early days as a teacher. He was 90 years old and seemed in relatively good health, but began having small strokes which took the use of Abram's right hand.

Grandpa Abram Bretz died shortly afterward in March, 1940. He was buried with his wife Alice at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. His Will records that he had assets totaling $6,800 (about $200,000 today) at the time of his death, mostly comprised of his home at 17 Fairview. He left the house to his daughter Ethel, likely as she was unmarried and had few other assets of her own. To his sons he left each of them a $1,000 (about $30,000 today) from insurance policies. He then asked his remaining liquid assets to be divided equally between his three children, which might have been $700 each (about $20,000 today). An interesting note is that for some reason Abram owned a small vacant lot near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan which he listed as valueless.

Norman Bretz joined the R.A.F. in 1940. He took his instruction at Kitchener and received his wings at Uplands on October 7th, 1940. He was amongst the first 10 graduating Canadian pilots to arrive in Britain on December 15th, 1940, where he was assigned to the No.112 Fighter Group. Norman would go on to have a very distinguished flying career, rising to the rank of Wing Commander and receiving  the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work at the Battle of Dieppe. For more about Norman's military career see here.

Norman had a girlfriend before leaving Canada in 1940. Norman wrote to his sister Madeline that it was his intention not to marry until the end of hostilities (which was not unusual for fighter pilots). His girlfriend decided not to wait and married someone else. This was shattering to Norm.

Bill Bretz joined the air force in ???

Bill Bretz married Irene Milsom on Oct 24, 1941. They went on to raise three girls in Toronto.

During the war years Frank, Howard and Norman all had extensive correspondence with Madeline, which she preserved. They all reside now with her son, family historian Harry McFee.

Howard Bretz of Winnipeg was sent for officer training at the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario in 1943. During that time he visited with his father and other relatives in Toronto. The photo to the left shows Howard with Irene, Betty, Aunt Ethel and Aunt Jo. For more about Howard's military career see here.

Betty Bretz married Jack Friend on July 24, 1943 in Toronto. Betty and Jack went on to have two boys.

In 1943 Norman came home to Toronto on leave for about a month from the fighting in England. He would have stayed with his family on Fairview. Norman was in quite a few papers in Toronto and was generally considered one of the city's war heroes. He was the R.C.A.F. representative for the 4th War Bond Drive and later had his picture taken with the Minister of Air, Hon. Charlie Power. The photo to the right shows Norm with Betty, Frank, Aunt Ethel, Uncle Syd, and Aunt Jo.

Strange as it may seem, when Norman was returning to Canada after his tour in May, 1944, his brother Howard was only just being transferred to the Welsh Regiment, the Monmouthshires, and these brothers arrived in Halifax at the same time. Although they didn't get to see each other, they did have the opportunity to talk to one another on the telephone. Howard then sailed for Britain to join his new regiment for the Normandy Invasion.

Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and in Toronto and all cities in Allied countries, people streamed out of workplaces and schools to start the party. May 8, 1945 was declared the official day of celebration, with the City of Toronto organizing concerts, parades, religious services, and fireworks in the parks. The Bretz family would have joined in these celebrations, thankful for the fact that all of their soldier sons would be returning home alive and well.

Bill Bretz (Norm's cousin) mentioned that in 1945 he was in downtown Toronto with Norm, both in uniform, and he was amazed by the startled look of other Air Force personnel when they saw his rank and decoration. An immediate salute followed such encounters.

Norman was stationed at a number of bases upon his return serving as their Chief Flying Instructor before being promoted to the Base Commander of Lachine, Quebec. He married Elizabeth Bie in August, 1945 while stationed at Lachine. He and Elizabeth then spent a year at R.C.A.F. Whitehorse, Yukon Territory where he was in command when the U.S.A.F. had their "Handing Over" ceremonies to turn the Air Force Base over the Canadian Government. Norman retired from the military in mid 1946.

After his discharge from the R.C.A.F., Norman and Elizabeth moved to Aurora, Ontario, just north of Toronto. They bought a very large three story, turret style home from Mrs. Allen, the mother of the late Wing Commander Lloyd Chadburn (Norman's friend). She also helped to arrange the financing for the house. Norman didn't get a regular civilian job but rather hired a housekeeper, and started a small bed and breakfast, renting rooms by the month to workers with Ontario Hydro who worked up north. He joined and became chairman of the Aurora Recreational Commission for a number of years.

In 1946 Norman was also presented with a "Hero's Scroll" by the Mayor of Toronto, Robert Saunders, indicating that his name had been placed on the 'Honour Roll of Heroes' of the City of Toronto for all time as an example to others of the dedication and courage displayed by Canadians in a time of conflict or war.

Aunt Ethel died in early 1946 in Toronto, leaving Grandpa Frank alone in the Fairview house. In her Will she bequeathed everything to her two brothers, Frank and Sydney. Her personal assets valued $300 (about $4,700 today).

Sometime before 1949 Victor and Elizabeth Friend (Betty Bretz, Frank's neice) came to live in the house with Frank for a few years. The young couple's two children both appear to have been born here.

Frank broke his leg ~1947 and was quite slow to get around for a while after that. He was by then working as a cashier according to the city assessment records. He made only a few trips out to Winnipeg between 1945-1950. Without anyone to look after him in Toronto, his family asked him to move to Winnipeg around 1952, where he lived in a retirement home on Roslyn street. It is at this point the old Bretz family home at 17 Fairview was sold. Assessment records indicate the home was worth at least $5500. The proceeds would have been split between Frank and Sydney.

The Fairview home was apparently sold to the Diocese of Toronto (the Anglican Church), and minister Maurice Flint was living in the home with his wife in 1953. Minister Flint was, among other things, a chaplain in the Royal Air Force during WWII. It is not known if there is a connection to Norman Bretz.

Starting in 1953 Bill Bretz was mentioned in a number of newspaper articles regarding the proposed construction of a CNR rail yard near his community in Scarborough. He was the chariman of the Hilltop Community association and was often quoted as the fight drew out for a number of years. They eventually lost. He also became supportive of the Liberal party and hosted events for Frank Enfield, MP of York-Scarborough 1953-1957.

Frank Bretz died on August 14th 1955 at age 77 in Winnipeg. His Will indicates that he had assets totaling $19,105 (about $200,000 today) at the time of his death. These included mainly stocks and securities, but about a quarter of the total was cash. He specified that everything was to be divided equally between his three children, or about $6,300 each (about $65,000 today). On the tenth anniversary of his death, Frank's body was taken from Winnipeg to be interred at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto with his wife Lillian.

In January of 1956, Elizabeth Bie (Bretz) overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol at her home and died. It is not known whether this was an accident or a possible suicide, but she did legitimately have troubles sleeping. Her death devastated her husband Norm, who felt partly responsible for his wife's actions, and in his grief he was soon drinking heavily. He made at least one trip out to Winnipeg to visit his siblings, but within the year Norman himself was also dead. When he died, he left the use of the house in Aurora to the housekeeper for as long as she would want it. Their deaths were a family tragedy, and the circumstances of their passing was spoken of in hushed tones for many years.

Sydney Bretz died in Toronto in 1961 at age 73. At the time he and his wife were living at 42 Thorncliffe Park Dr. Aunt Jo would pass away a number of years later in 1979.

Howard Bretz moved his family to the city of Burlington, Ontario in 1963 (about an hour south of Toronto) as part of a work transfer from Vancouver, BC. They only remained there a year before he was offered his pick of any district in Canada, and so returned to his home in Winnipeg.

After Sydney died, the remaining Bretz family of Toronto into the latter 20th century would be that of his son, Bill Bretz, until his own death from a stroke in 1988. He and his wife had three daughters and so would not carry on the family name directly. Bill was also an avid family history researcher and his daughters have also carried on that tradition.

Kathryn Bretz married Cosimo Crupi. The Crupi family had a successful road construction company.

Betty Bretz (Friend) lived for 86 years and died in 2006 in Burlington, Ontario. It is not known what became of her children.

Recently several descendants of the Western Bretzes have returned to their roots in the southern Ontario and Toronto areas. In 2007, Andrew Bretz and his wife settled in the Guelph area, and in 2011 Christopher Bretz moved to Toronto.



Aaron's Family

Aaron Bretz (1853-1920) was born at the family homestead near Fisher Mills, Ontario, on April 14th, 1853. He was the youngest sibling of his family, with eldest brother Gerhard being nearly 24 years older than him. Given his father's advanced age the farming of the homestead was now likely handled by one of Aaron's older brothers (possibly John), and it is less likely he as rural an upbringing as they had.

Aaron's father moved the family to near Plattsville in the late summer of 1865. The new farm was on the 13th line of Blenhiem about a half mile west of town.

In 1876 Aaron was a witness for his older brother Abram's wedding in Bright, Ontario. The register lists his residence as Blandford.

In 1877 Aaron was a witness for his older brother Jacob's wedding in Georgetown, Ontario.

In 1879, Aaron's father passed away. He was buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Church cemetery. Aaron was 26.

The census of 1881 shows Aaron still living on the Plattsville farm with his mother and brother John. His brother Henry and his young family was also living with them, but recorded as a seperate family.

Aaron married Rhoda Elworthy on October 24th, 1883 at Perth, Ontario. Rhoda's family was originally from England.

They had their only child Edna Franey in 1887.

There is a record of Aaron and his young family living in Ayr, south of Waterloo in the 1891 Canadian census. He was engaged as a miller at Goldie's.

For the rest of Aaron's family during this time, many did not stray far from the rural life. His brother Henry was living in Washington around this time with his young family, and with his mother Nancy (all possibly living on the old Bretz homestead near Plattsville). Henry had a shop were he sold stationary and fancy goods. His brother Samuel was in Lambton near the town of Forest, as was his sister Polly and her family. His brother John was living Blandford, working as a housekeeper. His eldest brother Gerhard spent the 1880s in East Wawanosh near Huron Ontario, but emigrated to Oklahoma around 1890.

In 1894, Aaron's mother Nancy passed away. She is buried at the Blenheim Mennonite Church cemetery. Aaron was 41.

Aaron probably moved his family to Toronto in 1895, as in 1896 he is listed as a grocer at 631 Dundas. Two of Aaron's older brothers lived in town and had become somewhat successful in their careers. Aaron probably was looking for the same opportunities for his family.

Records show that in the early 1900s Aaron Bretz was working as an agent for the London Life Insurance Company in Toronto. Aaron probably got his job through Abram around 1899 as shown by changes in listings in Toronto city directories. The brothers were working at 24 King Street east. Aaron, Rhoda and their daughter lived on Sackville Street just east of downtown.

On April 19th, 1904, the Great Toronto Fire burned through a large section of downtown buildings. The glow could be seen for kilometers in all directions and was surely viewed by Aaron's family, who were not far away. The fire destroyed 104 buildings, but fortunately killed no one. Five thousand people were put out of work, however (7% of the working population).

By 1906 Aaron was promoted to Assistant Superintendent at London Life. He worked for the company until at least 1909, after which he might have retired or moved. Sometime between 1909 and 1920 Aaron and Rhoda left Toronto for Sudbury, Ontario.

From around 1906 to at least 1914 Aaron's daughter Edna (during her twenties) was employed as a telephone operator for the Canadian Fairbanks Company.

For some reason after 1909 young and single (age 22) Edna was living apart from her parents. Perhaps she stayed in Toronto after they moved away. In March 1911 there is a notice in the Toronto Star of Edna and her friends hosting a large party at the Balmy Beach Clubhouse in the Beaches. 125 people attended, including Mr & Mrs George Bretz.

Edna married Ancel King in 1916 in Toronto and they moved to Ohio, where they were living at least between 1916-1920 at various places. Ancel is also shown to have recieved a draft notice in 1917 while living in Akron, Ohio. He was working for Goodyear at that time.

The 1925 New York census records them in Onondaga, New York where Ancel worked as a salesman. It does not appear that the couple had any children.

In his final years, Aaron was employed in Sudbury as a timekeeper, but also ended up in White River. He died there on February 22nd, 1920, coincidentally hours before his brother Henry Bretz of Shelburne. Aaron was 67 and Herny was 74. The Toronto Star of February 24th, 1920 carried an obituary noting the brother's twin deaths.

Aaron was buried in St James cemetery in Toronto. His nephews George Bretz, Sydney Bretz, Harry Bretz, and Percy Bretz, as well as Ancel King were all pall-bearers.




Shown here are some of the locations of the early Toronto Bretz families.