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Chapter 3: Deep Roots

On February 15th, 1851, James Squires, labourer, son of William Squires, blacksmith, married Ann Nash, spinster, daughter of James Nash in the parish of Edmonton in Middlesex, a county on the northern boundary of the city of London, England. A daughter, Annie, was born the following year and two years after that, the young family made the momentous move to Canada and settled outside the fast-growing metropolis of Toronto which then had a population of 40,000.

A century and a half later, their great-granddaughter Margaret Squires Williams would start digging back into her family’s history. She found this entry in an 1895 volume of biographical notes about the residents of York County – the area to the east and north of Toronto.

“James B. Squires was born in Devonshire, England in 1821 and in 1855 emigrated to York County, where he had carried on market-gardening ever since. In 1857 he purchased the place where he now resides, on Logan’s Lane. In 1851 he married Miss Ann Nash of London, England, by whom he has four children.”

Keith Squires, James’ great-grandson, represents the fourth generation of the family to have worked in the horticultural trade. James (who died May 4, 1891, 35 years before Keith was born) had a greengrocer’s shop on Queen Street East, at a time when greengrocers grew their own produce. His farm was on what is now Jones Avenue, running north of Queen up to the Danforth. With no bridges across the Don River, the area was a self-contained community, populated largely by English immigrants (with a burgeoning Irish population fleeing the great famine).

“Great-grandfather had a brother,” Margaret wrote in a summary of her research, “and this story is told of Ann (his wife) going to the door of the house on Logan’s Lane and finding a bushy-haired man standing there. She took one look at him and said ‘You must be James’ brother – now I know where Annie gets her red hair.’ I presume he was an older brother that had emigrated earlier – perhaps James didn’t even know him except for the knowledge he had a brother since only the wealthy received education and only the educated could read and write.”

James and Ann had three daughters and then a son, William Henry Squires, born July 28, 1863. If emigration to Canada raised James from the rank of labourer to that of landowner and merchant, William would consolidate the family’s position as members of the middle class.

An early photograph shows him with his wife Alice Jane Paddon, most likely around the time they were married in 1884 at St. James Cathedral in Toronto. Alice was born in 1863 in Kingston, in the county of Surrey (a borough that was absorbed into Greater London in the 1960s). Her family’s roots, however, were in the West Country. Her father, cabinet-maker Thomas Coleman Paddon, was born in Dawlish, Devon and her mother, Mary Jane French, was born in Bovey Tracey, also in Devon. It seems probable that, like the Squires, the Paddons made their way to Canada while Alice was still a child.

In any case, the young couple appears composed as they look into the camera. She’s a little chubby, her face framed by a bonnet, clasping a small purse while an unfurled parasol leans against the ample folds of her long skirt. He’s jauntily good-looking in a bowler hat, holding a riding crop and apparently lounging against a fence beside his seated wife. The bucolic setting is the backdrop in the photographer’s studio.

A later photograph of a family group looks to be around 1908. There are seven surviving children – two had died in infancy. Elsie, the oldest, who would have been 22, is holding Hazel, the youngest, less than a year old. The years have not been kind to Alice. Seated to the far right, she looks sour. The heaviness that was barely apparent in 1884 has caught up with her. She’s soberly dressed in a dark outfit with a light-coloured ruffle around the neck.

In contrast, William, who, like Alice, would have been in his mid-40s, is somewhat of a dandy, a moustachioed figure with dark hair smoothly combed back. He’s wearing a well-fitted herringbone-striped suit with a loudly patterned tie and fixes the camera with a quizzical eye. One senses a man who enjoyed life and was alert to any advantage he could come by.

That’s the way Keith remembers him in his prime. “Grandfather William had one of the very first Model T touring vehicles that he used to drive up and down to the St. Lawrence Market. He was really modern,” he says, echoes of childish admiration in his voice. Keith also remembers learning to drive on a Model-T. “There were three pedals – one clutch and the other two were gears.”

Chapter 4: Life Begins

“I don’t know where Grandma and Grandpa lived when they were first married,” Margaret writes. “My dad (their second child and oldest son, William Coleman Squires) was born (in March, 1888) in a little house on Gerrard Street between Boulton Avenue and Broadview. The family moved to St. Clair early on because the two children who died in infancy – Douglas Burrough and Annie French – were buried in the old cemetery at St. Clair and Pharmacy Avenues. Then in 1952, that cemetery was taken up for other purposes and remains were re-interred in Pine Hills Cemetery.

“Grandma Squires was at our house (the store on Gerrard Street East) when she died. She had a coronary and was gone quickly. It was December, 1929, and Gwen and I were sent out to play. ‘Grandma has gone to heaven.’ But we decided she couldn’t have climbed the tall ladder in our yard, leaning up against a Loblaw store next to us as she was too fat and the ladder wouldn’t hold. I was five and Gwen six.”

Grandfather William outlived his wife by 24 years, dying in 1953 at the ripe old age of 91. Keith, who’s now 80, likes to say he comes from forebears who lived long lives which, he adds, is a good thing because he’s still got a lot to do.

While the house on Gerrard Street East was little more than a mile from the old farm at Jones Avenue, the family’s new location, at St. Clair and Pharmacy, was quite a bit farther north, some five kilometres away. What was the western boundary of their farm is now called Squires Avenue.

The move was the beginning of the Squires family’s generational trek westward through the Greater Toronto Area, always a step ahead of development in search of that compromise between cheaper land and proximity to the fast-growing Toronto market that was the foundation of their business. 

Grandfather William’s second son was Arthur Douglas Squires, born in 1892. In the 1908 photograph, he’s a gangly youth of 16, caught at an awkward age. He married Harriet Henry Goldring in 1914 and they had three children, of whom Stanley Keith, known to us as Keith, was the youngest, born April 18, 1928.

“My mother was called Henry,” Keith explains, “because all of my mother’s family were named that way. It was so they could get an inheritance. But that never occurred.” One of the Henrys was George Stewart Henry, premier of Ontario in 1930-34.

Arthur Douglas was crippled by arthritis from the age of 18. He went out west in 1914 to help with the harvest as all the men from there had gone to war. Harriet went with him – it was soon after their marriage. She was given a .22-calibre rifle and put to sit out in the field all day, picking off gophers. “They were a serious menace,” Keith says. “They made holes in the field and the horse would step in the hole and break his leg and have to be shot.” Keith still has the weapon she used. He brings out the Winchester single shot rifle - Granny’s gun.

In 1928, Arthur started growing Gladiolus on half a dozen vacant lots behind his home at 163 Woodville Avenue in East York. It was a sideline. Arthur’s day job was as a motorman for the Toronto Transit Commission. By 1938, 10-year-old Keith was going door to door pulling a wagon with a couple of pails of water filled with Gladiolus. “Half dozens, I think they were. I’d have one bunch in my left hand was 35 cents and the bunch in my right hand was 25 cents and quite often I’d sell the 35-cent bunch, it would appeal to whoever was buying it.”

Keith sets me right when I refer to Gladiolus in the plural as Gladioli. “Although that may be perfectly correct, that spelling is not used by Gladiolus growers,” Keith says. “”The singular and plural are both spelled Gladiolus. This was agreed to by a meeting of the Gladiolus Society.”

Keith’s after-school entrepreneurship made a significant contribution to the family economy – about $5 a day, which was more than his father was making at the TTC. It seems strange that Arthur’s switch from vegetables to flowers happened during the Depression, when one might think that a bunch of Gladiolus would be an expenditure that a household would forego.

Keith remembers it differently. “Here you’ve got a kid standing in front of you with a bunch of flowers for a quarter. Well, if they were living in a house, they had a job, and if they had a job, they had a quarter. Of course you’re talking to the lady of the house - the idea that the women were out working was totally impossible in those days – and she was delighted to see this kid at the door with this bunch of flowers that the old man hadn’t given her since they were married.”

He laughs, thinking back, at the psychology of it. “Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.”

Keith’s Uncle William, who had a business selling radios, which were among the swankiest things you could buy at the time, suffered an unfortunate accident. “He was over on the Toronto islands shooting clay pigeons one day and shot his leg off So then he quit running that store and went back to what he knew he could do and that was market gardening.”

But the whole family - Keith’s grandfather and uncles – switched from veggies to glads after they saw Arthur’s success. Their main competitor was a man named Butt, who was the treasurer of an insurance company. “He could finance the whole thing and not desperately worry about sales, he had a lot of new varieties and interesting colours that we didn’t have because we couldn’t afford it.”

Business was good enough that in 1938, Arthur purchased a five-acre farm on First Line in Dixie, quarter of a mile above Middle Road, soon to be the Queen Elizabeth Way. The QEW, completed in 1939, was Canada’s first four-lane highway. It was one of the legacies of George Henry, that same premier whose family’s disposition of its fortune had proved to be such a disappointment to Keith’s maternal relatives.

At the time, First Line ran north of the QEW, and Cawthra Road ran south. Keith recalls that Major-General Harry Cawthra-Elliot held a Crown grant of 100 acres of solid bush surrounding his house, east of Cawthra and on the south of Middle Road. Because Keith lived at the southern end of the First Line, he went to the Upper Middle Road Public School, and not to Dixie Public School, farther east on Dixie Road.

Keith would walk more than a mile along the QEW every day to get to school, crossing the highway by an undergound tunnel, built to ensure that the children living on the north side could get to school in safety (the kids got into trouble if they were found to have crossed the highway without using the tunnel). The school was located at Upper Middle Road and Highway 10, a junction that eventually became Canada’s first cloverleaf. When Keith reached high-school age he rode his bicycle along the QEW every day, to get to the Port Credit High School five miles away. “It was a huge high school,” Keith recalls. “They had 500 students.”

Dixie was one of a nine villages that were joined together in 1968 to form the town of Mississauga. 

Keith had to shoulder weightier responsibilities when the family moved. “You came home from school, you got to work.” They had to buy a horse and Keith would haul water and get the feed for the animal, which was black and called Prince.

One of Prince’s jobs was to “scuffle the rows,” Keith says, using a word that must have crossed the pond with his Devonian great grandparents. “He kept the weeds under control.” Cultivated? “Yes, but we didn’t call it that then. He went up and down between the rows. He knew what he was doing, this is a horse that knew you didn’t put your foot on a row of plants. They all missed the horse when they had to go to the tractor.”

That was in the forties. Poor Prince. It cost a hundred dollars to buy the hay to feed him over the winter. The tractor could just be parked.  

Arthur was driving from Dixie across Toronto to his job at the Danforth streetcar barns. On the way, he’d drop off Gladiolus at a couple of the Danforth flower shops. As his arthritis worsened, Arthur was assigned to training streetcar drivers. “But as fast as he trained them, they joined the Armed Forces and left, then he had to train another. “He had to stand up beside the new driver all day and that caused the trouble,” Keith says. “Try it yourself for one workday and see how long you’d last! This eventually caught up with him and he had to quit. They gave him a retirement pension - $18 a month.” 

The Gladiolus business took off during the war years. “All of a sudden people had a job, they were buying flowers like you wouldn’t believe because they could afford a luxury.” The able-bodied men of the family had gone overseas. Keith’s brother-in-law Bob, married to his older sister Alice, was the first to go, with the 48th Highlanders. Then his brother Doug joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. By 1944, the farm was in the hands of Arthur, crippled by arthritis, and the 15-year-old younger son. “Either I ran it or everything went down the drain.” Keith turned 16, got himself a driver’s licence and hit the road in his father’s Model A. He crossed Toronto from west to east, north to south, building a business that would supply 40 flower shops by the early fifties.

Chapter 4: Life Begins