DE GRASSI’S DON VAL­LEY DIS­AS­TER

As a re­ward for serv­ing in the Napoleonic wars, the man who gave his name to De Grassi St. could have had a big chunk of free wa­ter­front land in Toronto, but chose to set­tle north of the city,

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - AN­GUS SKENE

Filippo De Grassi was not a jolly miller and given a bet­ter break, he would have never had to be.

His child­hood was a child­hood of war: Napoleon’s wars. About 200 years ago, his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances shot him like a can­non ball out of his Ital­ian birth­place and ric­o­cheted him around France, Spain, Eng­land and the Caribbean be­fore he fi­nally ended up on a sandy hill­side be­side the Don River.

De Grassi could have had14 hectares of wa­ter­front in the then young city of Toronto — vet­er­ans of the Napoleonic wars were given free land in the colonies — but in­stead he chose 40 hectares where Don Mills Rd. now crosses over the Don Val­ley Park­way. There, he hoped to have an es­tate — af­ter all, gen­tle­men had an es­tate.

But it wasn’t such a good idea. Down­town prop­erty would have likely made him a mil­lion­aire, while the Don Val­ley at that time was re­mote and prone to flood­ing. In his 40s, with a half-blind wife and a mess of chil­dren, he quickly ran through his sav­ings felling trees, fram­ing a house and erect­ing a mill. His first choice was the wrong choice, and it was all down­hill from there.

De­grassi Hill is a lit­tle stretch of Don Mills Rd. de­scend­ing south from Flem­ing­don Park into the val­ley. An old bridge sits be­side the spot where De­grassi’s house stood un­til the early 1970s.

This is the story of the orig­i­nal De­grassi Kid, a story of fate, war and ter­ri­ble de­ci­sions. De Grassi, who ar­rived in what was known as York in 1833, is of­ten cited as the first Ital­ian in the city. But there was a lot of Aus­trian and English wa­ter in that wine — and that, too, is part of the story.

He was born Filippo An­to­nio De Grassi in Rome. Mama was a harp-play­ing Aus­trian im­mi­grant while Papa was the dis­pos­sessed son of a Si­cil­ian legal fam­ily. Grassi likely meant fat or big in Ital­ian.

He was born in in­ter­est­ing times — per­haps too in­ter­est­ing. It was 1793, and far away, on the shores of Lake On­tario, the Bri­tish had just founded Toronto to help se­cure their re­main­ing North Amer­i­can pos­ses­sions from the newly minted repub­lic to the south. The Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion had been fought — and won — over the idea that no­body needed kings.

Across the ocean, the peo­ple of an­other of Bri­tain’s enemies agreed: the French over­threw their king and, sev­eral years later, as a con­quer­ing Napoleon forced French ideas onto neigh­bour­ing lands, De Grassi’s fa­ther be­came a true be­liever and joined the cause.

The repub­li­cans were go­ing to rid Europe of mon­archs — but the mon­archs fought back. Bod­ies hang­ing from trees, priests shot point-blank: be­fore age 6, young Filippo had seen things he later de­scribed as “ter­ri­ble for a child to see.” He knew only three years of peace in child­hood and, even then, he was study­ing war at one of Napoleon’s new mil­i­tary col­leges.

There, on one oc­ca­sion, Bon­a­parte him­self pat­ted him on the head and praised his work. But the young Ro­man didn’t make it into Napoleon’s Grande Ar­mée — he was posted in­stead to a sideshow in the moun­tains of north­ern Spain, a com­plex guer­rilla war against Span­ish, Por­tuguese and Bri­tish forces.

Was he cap­tured? Did he desert? The record’s not clear but in1812, af­ter a few months im­pris­oned in the hull of an old Span­ish man-o’-war, he found him­self in Portsmouth on the south­ern coast of Eng­land, home to the great Bri­tish naval base. He was 19.

On the plus side, he was alive and he was in love. On the down side, he was broke. The English wouldn’t let him re­turn to Europe — but they would let him sign up as a Bri­tish sol­dier if he would agree to one of the worst post­ings in the Em­pire. Thus, De Grassi signed up for duty in the Caribbean.

With this sud­den shift in em­ploy­ment, he quickly changed his pol­i­tics and swore al­le­giance to the Bri­tish king. He just as deftly changed his reli­gion (sort of ) and mar­ried his girl­friend — twice. There were two sep­a­rate wed­dings, a few days and kilo­me­tres apart. The first was Angli­can — for public con­sump­tion. The sec­ond was Catholic un­der the alias “Fil­lipum Grass” — for the faith of his an­ces­tors. If he wanted to get ahead, he had to be Angli­can, the of­fi­cial reli­gion of the Bri­tish state. Within in a few years, he was also a Freema­son — the sec­ond of the two clubs he felt he must join.

The first thing his new wife, Char­lotte, did when they ar­rived in An­tigua was visit her sis­ter — or her sis­ter’s grave, at least. Yel­low fever killed 20 of ev­ery 100 sol­diers in the Caribbean and Char­lotte’s sis­ter — likely out there with her sol­dier hus­band — was one of the vic­tims.

Char­lotte, preg­nant with her first child, would her­self feel the fever burning her eyes, turn­ing them the spooky ‘Yel­low Jack’ colour feared by the colonists. She sur­vived, but with dam­aged sight. Their first son was born on An­tigua. Apart from this ini­tial scare, De Grassi later re­called their three years in the Caribbean as en­chant­ing.

By 1816, Europe’s mon­archs had made their point: they were stay­ing. Napoleon was ex­iled to his own lit­tle is­land in the South At­lantic. Huge armies were de­mobbed — De Grassi now among the many idled sol­diers — and, in a prac­tice as old as the Ro­man Em­pire, for­mer sol­diers were given half-pay pen­sions and free land in the colonies to start a new life. (No­body wanted hoards of un­em­ployed men who could han­dle weapons wan­der­ing the streets of Europe.)

De Grassi didn’t bite at first. Back in Eng­land, he spent 15 years not far from Portsmouth col­lect­ing his half-pay pen­sion and ply­ing his only civil­ian skill — the skill of many a dis­placed per­son: teach­ing lan­guages. He taught Ital­ian, French, Span­ish and Ger­man to the scions of lo­cal aris­to­crats. He was well-bred, made good con­nec­tions and hoped for a col­lege post, but when that never came, he took the ad­vice of his pa­trons and went to the colonies.

He ex­pected the Up­per Canada of 1833 to be a lot like Eng­land. He was wrong. But he came clutch­ing a hand­ful of let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion from for­mer em­ploy­ers, bent on pen­e­trat­ing the closed so­ci­ety that ran the place, the so-called Fam­ily Com­pact.

The Fam­ily Com­pact was a loose col­lec- tion of men that ran much of Up­per Canada in its early years. They were Angli­cans and many were Freema­sons. They con­trolled much of the gov­ern­ment, which gave them ac­cess to the best land and to in­for­ma­tion, con­tracts and jobs.

De Grassi seems to have got in with the Boul­ton Fam­ily, whose old house, the Grange, still stands as part of the Art Gallery of On­tario. The Grange was once the cen­tre­piece of a 40-hectare es­tate: fields and gar­dens that stretched all the way from Queen to Bloor Sts. It was prob­a­bly the in­spi­ra­tion for what Filippo hoped he could cre­ate in the Don Val­ley.

How­ever, he seems to have been his own worst en­emy: overex­tend­ing his credit and never in­gra­ti­at­ing him­self enough with lo­cal wor­thies. He was also no miller, farmer or busi­ness­man. Within a few years, sim­ply to feed his fam­ily, he was forced again into mil­i­tary life. Closing in on 50, he served in the colo­nial mili­tia, some­times in re­mote out­posts through the win­ter while his fam­ily strug­gled in the val­ley. Worst of all, by join­ing the mili­tia, he for­feited his half-pay army pen­sion for­ever.

His fam­ily’s trou­bles never seemed to end. They leased the mill — the ten­ant didn’t pay. They built a house — it burned to the ground. The neigh­bours came to douse the flames but ended up res­cu­ing (and drink­ing) all his wine.

By 1844, Char­lotte was dead and buried not far from the mill. Within a few years, milling grain in the val­ley had come to a halt, as devel­op­ment up­stream re­duced the wa­ter flow. The price of wheat col­lapsed. Even the pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful miller Joseph Thorne, who had the vil­lage of Thorn­hill up­stream, killed him­self.

Filippo and Char­lotte had named their es­tate Car­ris­brooke Mills, af­ter the English town in which they had been mar­ried years ear­lier. He mort­gaged Car­ris­brooke so many times to so many peo­ple that it seems to have ended up in court. By the mid-1850s, it wasn’t even his prop­erty any­more. By then, De Grassi was 60.

The re­main­ing decades saw him wan­der­ing and pe­ti­tion­ing the Bri­tish and French gov­ern­ments for a pen­sion. He taught some lan­guage classes at the new Uni­ver­sity of Toronto and he lived for a while in Detroit, where he ad­mired again the en­ergy of a repub­li­can state. He would out­live many of his chil­dren, grow­ing older among the sur­viv­ing ones in Oril­lia and Lind­say. He seemed com­fort­able call­ing him­self a Ro­man Catholic.

The Fam­ily Com­pact waned, as newer ar­rivals de­manded a more open so­ci­ety. The Boul­tons chopped up the Grange and one mem­ber of the fam­ily, James, a lawyer, sub­di­vided an east-end par­cel in the path of the in­com­ing Grand Trunk Rail­way. He named Boul­ton St. for him­self, Saulter for his part­ner and De Grassi for the old fam­ily friends.

By then, that could have meant ei­ther Filippo or his el­dest son Alfio, the child born in An­tigua all those years be­fore.

Alfio seems to have been more English than the English. An Angli­can Freema­son and founder of the anti-Catholic Or­ange Or­der, he left the Don Val­ley just af­ter his mother died and made his way into the city. He comes across as a kind of mid­dle­man seek­ing sweet gov­ern­ment jobs or sales po­si­tions. He was a rail­way in­spec­tor, fire cap­tain and Cu­nard steamship agent. Some­how or an­other, Alfio made enough money to ex­hume his mother’s re­mains 10 years af­ter her death and trans­port them one early Novem­ber day from the tragic Car­ris­brooke Mills to St. James Ceme­tery in the city.

There, he had an un­der­ground brick vault built. In time, he joined his mother and chil­dren, wife and fa­ther over­look­ing the Rosedale Val­ley Ravine: there are 14 De Gras­sis in there. A cen­tury ago, the vault was sealed, never to be opened again, and no stone marks the lo­ca­tion.

Also dug into the same hill­side are most of the old Fam­ily Com­pact names, man­ag­ing to se­cure prime real es­tate even in death.

Many De Gras­sis lived and many pros­pered on this con­ti­nent, but Filippo died with noth­ing. But, then, so did Napoleon.

AN­GUS SKENE PHO­TOS

When he ar­rived in Toronto, Filippo De Grassi be­friended the Boul­ton Fam­ily, whose house, the Grange, still stands. It was the cen­tre­piece of a 40-hectare es­tate, prob­a­bly the in­spi­ra­tion for what De Grassi hoped he could cre­ate in the dis­tant Don Val­ley.

De Grassi’s home stood un­til about 1970 near the old Don Mills Rd. bridge.

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