When Private Henry Agassiz signed up to serve in The Great War in 1916, his proud portrait joined those of more than 2,200 of his fellow enlistees from T. Eaton Company’s Toronto store on the flagship’s walls.
Sadly, the next time Agassiz’s name was inscribed was on the Eaton’s Memorial Plaque as one of 315 company men killed overseas.
Still, his story — like those of each and every one of the everyday working men and women who signed to serve in the First World War — is an integral part of Canada’s history, said Nancy Reynolds, curator of Mackenzie House museum.
“It’s often hard to tell the stories of individuals unless they’re famous or they’ve done something, but that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said of Do You Know My Story? — an outreach project being undertaken in partnership between the City of Toronto’s Museums & Heritage Services and the Archives of Ontario.
The goal of the project is to tell the personal stories of those T. Eaton Co. Limited employees like Agassiz who, perhaps enticed by company owner John Craig Eaton’s offer to pay wages to his employee enlistees on top of their military pay, signed up to fight overseas.
“We want to tell the stories of ordinary people: how they came to Canada, why they came to Canada, how they ended up at Eaton’s, what happened to them and their families during and after the war,” Reynolds said. She noted that, in total, Eaton paid out $2.2 million in wages to his 3,327 Eaton’s employees from across Canada who enlisted.
“It’s those ordinary stories that are so often left untold.”
The starting point for the project was compiling the old portraits — more than 2,000 of which survived to be displayed in Eaton’s Goes to War, an online exhibit created by the Archives of Ontario in 2014.
The next step is outreach, said Bruce Beaton, who’s leading the Do You Know My Story? project.
“This is a history that lives in the families of these men,” said Beaton, a historical interpreter at Mackenzie House, calling on the relatives of First World War veterans from Eaton’s to come forward with information.
“One of the questions I always ask the families is, what does this person mean to you in your life? And they always have some answer — be it how they sacrificed, or their duty to commit to public service, or perhaps something more personal. Whatever it is, this means something to people; the lives of these people still have meaning within their families — and that’s what I’m trying to access.”
So far, however, Beaton said he’s been able to collect life stories to match just 18 of the more than 2,000 Eaton’s portraits — Private Agassiz’s among them.
Agassiz’s family history is one Beaton has been able to piece together via a combination of family accounts, his military records, and an expenditure ledger from City of Toronto Archives.
A Nova Scotia native, Agassiz was a 37-year-old husband and father of four — with another baby on the way — when he enlisted on April 3, 1916. Earning just $15 a month as a trimmer at Eaton’s at the time, Agassiz was older than most other enlistees at the time, and was perhaps enticed to do so by Eaton’s full-wage offer to married enlistees in order to provide for his growing family.
His tragic death in France at the Battle of the Somme less than six months after his enlistment, however, left his wife Eugenie, son Alfred, and daughters Vaudine, Muriel, and Dorothy in such extreme poverty that newborn son Claude died because they were unable to feed him, according his granddaughter.
At 14, Agassiz’s only surviving son Alfred was forced to drop out of high school to support the family.
The Agassiz family story is a valuable piece of Canada’s history, Reynolds said, because it demonstrates the sacrifices made by so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.
“His is an important story of World War I, because that was the first time that you saw such a large domestic army,” she said.
“These were not all (career) soldiers, so when they got home, there was that feeling for the first time that the government owed them something; that it owed the families of those killed. And that marked a real change in the way people looked at government and what its responsibilities were.”
Beaton is still seeking further story contributions to the Do You Know My Story? project, which will be on exhibit at Mackenzie House starting on Sept. 29.
The names and photos of First World War veterans from Eaton’s can be found at http://bit.ly/2jwvPyE
To submit a story, go to www.toronto.ca/mackenziehouse