What began as just a quick trip to the Kitchener Public Library turned into an incredible five year, independent research project. When my wife and I purchased our 1930s home, we discovered that 16 different families had lived in the house between 1932 and 1997. You may wonder what was wrong with the place?
It turns out nothing was actually wrong. For most of the previous owners it had been a starter home, while for others, it was their “forever home”. Through my research I uncovered many great stories and some amazing photos of the former owners.
This blog focuses on Harry and Anne Levene, a married couple who lived in the house in the 1940s and 1950s. The Levene’s story was told to me by their niece, Lee Yates of Chicago and nephew, Jack Segal of Toronto. Portions of what you’re about to read originally appeared in the 2008 edition of the Waterloo Historical Society Annual; Volume 96 and in a book I self-published.
The Second World War provided necessary work for thousands of Canadians who had been without jobs during the Depression. Larger manufacturing companies in Kitchener secured government contracts to build the materials needed for the war effort. With these jobs available as a direct result of the war, the unemployed in Kitchener were able to exchange their relief cheques for pay cheques. By 1942, business was booming at Kitchener’s major manufacturing companies such as B.F. Goodrich, Kaufman Rubber and Dominion Rubber. Smaller firms also changed: Onward Manufacturing was able to turn its focus from making Eureka vacuum cleaners to war-related products. Even Simeon Street’s Harry Levene profited from the war at his small tool-and-die company.
Heads or tails
Harry’s father, Sam Levene, found himself in Canada in 1913 because of the flip of a coin. For Sam and wife Rachel of 76 Bedford Street, Mile end Old Town in London, England (1) the coin toss determined whether the family would move to Australia or Canada: Canada won. Sam travelled across the Atlantic in early 1913. With their two daughters and two sons, including young Harry who was 11 at the time, Rachel would journey on the Scotia in August of that year to join her husband and start a new life.
Sam, who was born in Russia in the late 1860’s, had worked as a blacksmith in England after moving there in the late 19th century. He turned to tool-and-die making and machine tool building from 1888 until he immigrated to Canada 25 years later. The family lived in Montreal for ten years before moving to Kitchener where Sam supported his family by “cutting” and “dinking” dies at Dominion Rubber on Breithaupt Street.
Young Harry eventually worked alongside his father in the cutting die division of Dominion Rubber. It was a choice that would determine Harry’s future.
Ontario Die Company
A business opportunity had brought the family to Kitchener-Waterloo where, in the mid-1920s Sam Levene formed his own company with the help of Dominion Rubber president Harry Wolfard of Montreal. Wolfard suggested to Sam that he move to Waterloo to supply dies to the Merchants’ Rubber factory which was a division of Dominion Rubber. (2) Sam started the Ontario Die Company in a rented building at 88 King Street South in Waterloo. The Vernon Directory of 1927-28 advertises the small company as “The Die Makers. Manufacturers of Dies for Cutting Leather Paper, Cloth, Rubber, Etc.” (3)
Tragedy struck the firm and the family in 1930 with the untimely death of Sam Levene. He left no will and no instructions were given to his children as to how the family inheritance, especially the young tool-and-die company, should be divided. This led to a bitter family dispute between Harry and his older brother Jack who came back to Kitchener after living in Philadelphia for many years.
The argument between the two brothers for control of the family business found its way to the courts. In the end, Harry, who had worked with his father, was forced out of Ontario Die Company. Jack, who had planned to move back to the United States, stayed in Kitchener to run his late father’s company. The death of the brothers’ mother Rachel in 1932 only added to the family’s stress.
The Levene Die Company is formed
Harry reacted to his brother’s intrusion by forming the Levene Die Company in 1932 at an industrial location at 528 Victoria Street North, Kitchener near Lancaster Street. The company began by manufacturing chisels and scissors and by cutting dies for the shoe and glove industry. Business was slow in the opening few years. Eugene Felhaber, who had started working with Harry in 1949, found proof. ” While cleaning out the [first] office on Victoria I found an old pay stub for Harry totalling $20.00 for one week’s work and $25.00 for his employee Gus Gruber.” (4)
Victoria Street North, almost opposite Filbert Street, was Ledco’s first home and saw the firm through the hectic Second World War years. Harry Levene is seen at the right in this wartime factory photograph which captures a variety of belt driven machinery. (Courtesy: Jack Segal.)
War provides an economic platform
The Second World War provided a new economic platform for Kitchener industries. A study at the time by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce suggested an industrial revolution of sorts occurred as more people were working and making money. Between 1939 and 1943 the labor force of Kitchener and Waterloo increased by almost 60 per cent. Salaries and wages in the manufacturing sector rose 60 per cent. (6) Although business was a bit slower at the Levene Die Company, Harry’s employees stuck with him and saw the business eventually improve.
If Magazine covers are any indication of success within an industry, Harry’s front cover on Leather Worker Magazine in September 1944, indicates his firm was making its mark.
During the Second World War, Harry Levene was honoured by the leather and tanning industry for continuing to supply critical tools, cutting instruments and dies. This cover photo and story from the September 1944 issue of Leather Worker hung proudly in the Ledco office lobby until closing day in 2008. Although not identified in the article, Ledco blacksmith Gus Gruber is shown with Harry.
This article appeared inside the magazine.
Ledco boasted of its products’ excellence in this advertisement from the September 1944 Leather Worker Magazine. During the Second World War, thousands of smaller industrial firms, such as Ledco, boosted production not only for the war effort itself but to keep other domestic firms operating. Ledco’s relationship with the shoemaking industry is a strong example.
Peace between the Levene brothers
During Canada’s war years, there was peace between the Levene brothers. While Canadian soldiers battled the physical effects of the Second World War, Harry and Jack Levene put aside their personal differences and started talking again. They even managed to get together socially on a number of occasions.
At home with the Levenes
For Harry, a benefit from the war effort was his ability to buy a house – the three-storey, three bedroom home at 250 Simeon Street – from James and Kathleen Bartlett for $4,500. They moved in on the 28th of April, 1942. Anne’s mother Bertha, who had once tried to separate the two, also moved in.
With Bertha Segal living in the house it was strictly kosher. The family kept a separate set of dishes and cutlery for meat and a separate set for dairy. They would not be mixed, or washed and dried together. Even separate dish cloths were required as well as dish pans in which they were washed. In anticipation of the eight days of Passover, the house was thoroughly cleaned, all food not permitted for Passover was given to the poor and sets of dishes and cutlery used for Passover were retrieved from the basement. For Passover, only kosher foods were eaten and for the rest of the year only kosher food was allowed in the house and the separation of meat and milk at meal time strictly observed. Harry and Anne respected the kosher rules at home but not if they ate out.
Some members of the Segal family usually came to Simeon Street for the high holidays. Passover is considered a high holiday and the dining room was the setting for the April celebration. At Passover the story of the Jews exiting Egypt is retold by the head of each Jewish household. Jack Segal remembered:
“It’s the tradition of the youngest in the family to ask the question: ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ After the story there is a traditional meal, then the singing of songs.
Uncle Harry sat at the head of the table which was by the window. My aunt, my parents and other relatives usually Albert, his wife Anne, son Gary, my sister Ruth and myself sat round the table and recited the story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt towards the promised land.
My Grandmother sat in the corner of the dining room, reciting the story to herself at her own pace in Hebrew.”
(Shirley) Lee Yates
Shirley Yates ( nee Warfield) daughter of Nellie of Chicago spent her summers as a teen in Kitchener with Uncle Harry, Aunt Anne and Grandma Bertha. Her family’s first stop on the trip was visiting relatives in Detroit, then onto St. Thomas and Stratford in Ontario. Aunt Goldie’s cottage at Crystal Beach resort on Lake Erie was another stop. Aunt Anne Levene also rented there. The rest of the summer was spent in Kitchener where she dated boys, and spent time with friends and her family.
“My room was the small one at the top of the stairs that connected to the attic,” she says. ” Aunt Anne and Uncle Harry slept in the master bedroom at the front of the house. Grandma slept in the bedroom [at the back ]that is attached to the sun-room.”
For Sol Yates of Chicago, 250 Simeon Street is a home of acceptance. Sol remembers he had to receive the blessing of a group he jokingly called the ‘Kitchener board of approval’ before he could marry Shirley. This ‘board’ included Grandma Bertha, Aunt Anne and Uncle Harry. Shirley warned Sol if her Grandmother and Aunt and Uncle didn’t approve, they weren’t getting married. It worked out in Sol’s favour.
Grandma Bertha gave her endorsement after he helped her in the kitchen. Grandma was apparently impressed that Sol handed the ‘carrots and onions to her at the right time.’ Harry and Anne also gave their okay. The couple was married on June 26th 1949, one year to the day after attending Shirley’s high school prom.
Eugene Felhaber began working for Harry Levene on August 13, 1949. It was a memorable date for Felhaber whose son turned three weeks old that day. It was also the day before his wedding anniversary; and 40 years later, to the day, he retired.
Felhaber started the tooling division at the Levene Die Company’s plant at 161 Ottawa Street South two years after the company had moved from Victoria Street. He had recently been laid off from Sehl Engineering across the street at 136 Ottawa Street South. (8) On the recommendation of a foreman at Sehl, Harry Levene called Felhaber and made him the firm’s 21st employee.
The scissors division of the company was cut to make way for the upgraded and more lucrative tooling division initiated by Eugene Felhaber. He needed to hire toolmakers for this new department and didn’t have to go far. According to Felhaber, his previous employer had the best toolmakers in town. Workers at the company looking for higher wages had tried to start a union at the Sehl shop – all were fired. Many ended up at the Levene Die Company including a friend of Felhaber’s, Orville Cressman. He was hired on the understanding there would be just a few weeks of work for him: he stayed with the company for 37 years, working in the automotive division. Gradually all the best Sehl engineering toolmakers continued to be the best but now under the Levene Die Company banner.
Two significant events occurred in Harry Levene’s life in the 1950s and both would be registered in Canadian medical and military history. Harry suffered from a heart condition called mitral stenosis, a disorder which narrows or partially blocks the mitral valve. That is the valve that separates the upper and lower chambers on the left side of the heart. Mitral stenosis normally occurs in adults who have had rheumatic fever. An article in the medical magazine Doctor Review indicated that the bacteria affected young children who had contracted strep throat. At one time, children either died or suffered long-lasting heart ailments because of the damage done to the heart by bacteria. At age 52, Harry met Doctor Wilfred Bigelow at Toronto General Hospital and underwent open heart surgery. Several significant things occurred during this operation involving Levene and Bigelow
In 1950, Wilfred Bigelow was the first to use the method of lowering the body’s temperature to the point where it was safe for a patient to undergo open heart surgery. The first time this procedure was used was in 1953, the same year Harry Levene had his operation. “They packed this body in ice to lower his temperature,” Jack Segal explained. “For the operation the surgeons also had to design a scalpel that would fit a baby finger which would allow them to get into the heart valve and clean it out.” (9)
Harry Levene was thought to be too old for the operation, but despite his age it was a success. The scalpel created for this heart surgery is today in a museum display case at Toronto General Hospital.
Harry was off work for a couple of months after his operation, but he continued to give orders from home to make his company successful. This perseverance paid off in the mid-1950’s when he connected with A.V. Roe Canada which had several divisions including Avro Aircraft.
The Avro Arrow contract
Back in the late 1940’s Harry had introduced himself to the right people at Avro Canada’s Malton location and had managed to get a subcontract to make parts for CF-100 fighter jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Eugene Felhaber remembers that Levene got the contracts himself. ” I went with him to get to know the people and to find out what was needed.”
For the CF-100s, the Levene Company made the tooling machines that drilled the wing and the gauges known as I.C. gauges (inter-changeability gauges) for checking the parts. ” One of the things they needed was a huge drill that ran on a track for drilling the hole on the wing.” Felhaber recalls. “They had a wing on either side and a machine running down a track with an articulated arm which could drill any position.”
The Levene Company itself didn’t have such equipment but Felhaber says they told Avro they could do the job. Levene ended up subcontracting a lot of the work and assembling the required units at the Malton hangar. The new work meant new money and the purchase of new machinery for the now thriving Levene Die Company.
“When Harry started making money he was open to spending it on new machines of the shop,” Felhaber noted. ” I would tell him what we needed it for, and he just said ‘get it.’ We bought a lot of machinery which we needed for aircraft parts. I don’t think we lost any money on that contract.”
The Levene Die Company had changed significantly from its early days on Victoria Street in the 1930’s when it had barely survived on dies and scissors with only four workers. In 1958, while it was thriving as a proper tool-and-die business, Levene Die Company changed its name to Ledco Ltd.
Success of the work done on the CF-100 led to work on the next generation of fighter aircraft – the CF-105 Avro Arrow. Even while busy with the aircraft work the company diversified into the promising automotive sector. Large automotive stamping dies were made for General Spring Products Ltd in Kitchener; Butler Metal in Cambridge; A.G. Simpson in Toronto; Standard Products in Windsor; A.G. Sehls in Ridgetown; and Industrial Metal in Brampton. Eugene Felhaber noted they made parts and tools for Chrysler as well:
“At that point I was looking after the tool and automotive , Orville Cressman was looking after the stamping division and Paul Murray was looking after the cutting die department. We didn’t allow the CF-100 contract to become a dominating part of the business”. (10)
They knew the good times could not last forever and they were right. On Friday February 20, 1959 Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow. Via telegram, Avro notified Ledco and a number of other Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario companies to stop work on the project. Five local factories were heavily affected with Keicher Engineering Limited taking the hardest hit. The February 21, 1959 edition of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record reported that the loss of the contract shut down Keicher Engineering with the layoff of all staff. Other firms were affected including Waterloo Manufacturing Company, B and W Heat Treating, W.R. Elliot Ltd and B.F. Goodrich.
Orville Cressman of Ledco told the Record, “…this came as a kick in the pants for us, just when we were getting acquainted with aircraft industry work.” The paper noted that up to 20 men could be laid off at Ledco. Crewman added”…we shall try to absorb some of them; the company has quite a few thousand dollars worth of uncompleted orders.” Avro itself laid off 9,000; while at Orenda Engines Limited 5,000 were left jobless. Six hundred supplier firms including Ledco lost their once lucrative contracts.
Newspapers reported that Prime Minister Diefenbaker decided to scrap the Avro Arrow project in favour of American Bomarc missiles.
In February 1959, Harry and Anne Levene moved to 125 John Boulevard in Waterloo. They sold their home on Simeon Street to Joseph and Anna Schrier for $12,500. Joseph worked as a cook at Pennsylvania Kitchen restaurant on King Street in downtown Kitchener. Shirley Yates remembers the Levenes were looking for a home to fit Harry’s health, “…the stairs [at Simeon Street] were too much for him.” Felhaber says that Anne and Harry moved to John Boulevard because, at that point “…business was doing well and they felt they could move into a much better place.”
Harry Levene would enjoy his new home only briefly. He died January 22, 1962. Eugene Felhaber remembers, “…you could see it coming for some time. Anne of course was devastated. I visited with her at the [new] home. She was badly shaken up. They had a very compatible relationship, she worshipped him and he worshipped her.” The funeral notice appeared in the January 23, 1962 Kitchener-Waterloo Record:
“The funeral of Harry Levene, 125 John Blvd, Waterloo, president of Ledco Ltd, was conducted today at Beth Jacob Centre by Rabbi Phillip Rosensweig. Burial was in the Beth Jacob Cemetery. Mr. Levene, 60 died Monday at K-W hospital after a brief illness.
He was born in England, a son of the late, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Levene and had lived in the Twin Cities for the past 38 years. He was a past president of B’nai B’rith.
Surviving are his wife, the former Anne Segal, Waterloo ; a brother of Jack of Waterloo, and his sisters, Mrs. A. J. (Ada) Litwin of Toronto and Mrs. Abraham (Esther) Kronis of Kitchener.” (11)
His headstone reads “In loving memory of Harry Levene beloved husband.”
Anne and Harry has first met at a birthday party in 1924 when Anne was 14 and Harry was 24. Anne’s mother Bertha, had tried to keep the couple apart. Bertha went so far as to move her family to Detroit but to no avail, as Anne and Harry stayed in contact through letters. They eventually married in 1928; the couple had no children.
Anne lived in the home for only one year after Harry’s death. She sold the house and moved to Toronto to an apartment located on Bathurst Street. She was still running Ledco at the time and continued to do so with the help of her nephew Jack Segal until 1979 when the company was sold. Ledco would close its doors in January of 2008 after 76 years in business.
Despite the success of his tool-and-die company, Harry Levene is remembered by his nephew, Jack Segal not for his business savvy as much as for his kindness and especially his intellect. Levene ended his formal education in grade eight but kept up his education by reading every book the Kitchener Public Library had in its collection in the 1940s and 1950s. The librarians would contact him when a new publication arrived. Harry was a speed reader with a photographic memory who devoured two to three books a night. This feat kept his nephew Jack Segal and niece Shirley Yates in awe. “He would turn the pages of the book so rapidly I never thought he was reading,” Shirley remembers. ” I tested him on a book I had read and he knew it.” (12)
Jack Segal often had turned to his uncle for help in high school “…with discussions about a book I was reading that he had read 30 or 40 years before. Not only would he tell me the plot but he would tell me the names of the characters. He knew more about it than I did.” Levene, who Jack Segal says was accepted into Oxford University’s Rhodes Scholar program but did not follow through, (13) did the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink and was more than happy to have an intellectual conversation with anyone about any topic.
Related blogs and podcasts:
- Episode 2:Women in War
- Episode 6: Memoir writing with Lucy Kraemer
- Episode 13:The Oral History Collection