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,
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.
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.