Book Review #2: Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story

Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story
By John A. McKenty
Epic Press, 2011

For many generations of Canadians, the letters “CCM” conjure up strong memories, either through the bicycles and sporting equipment made by the company, or through the employment of friends and family.

John McKenty’s book tells the history of CCM, from its complicated origins during the late-nineteenth century bicycle craze, through its forays into automobile manufacturing and hockey equipment, until its ultimate demise in the 1983. At times, CCM was an innovator and an industry leader; in other years, it was a struggling competitor, plagued with labour disputes and a poor reputation. As someone with little personal knowledge of CCM, I found this book to be an engaging profile of the company’s fortunes (and misfortunes), as well as an intriguing look at some of the changes in Canada through the twentieth century. CCM also has a strong Toronto connection, with its manufacturing operations based for many years in the northern end of the Junction, and later on in Weston.

This book features many images, the most interesting of which tend to be the old CCM advertisements. Like McKenty, I have found advertisements to be an excellent means of illustrating a narrative, as one does not have to navigate the copyright issues that can prevent the republication of photographs or newspaper articles. The advertisements are not, however, mere illustrations; in themselves they are valuable parts of Canadiana, and present a side of the company’s story which can be easier for everyday readers to relate to than, say, corporate structure or sales statistics.

That said, this book is not an advertisement for the company. While there is certainly a whiff of nostalgia about parts of it, McKenty is intent on presenting CCM with a sense of balance. I have read histories of other companies which read like protracted, indulgent advertisements, dwelling on the glory years and refusing to say a bad thing about the company or its associated personalities. Sometimes, a company history is written by a nostalgic ex-employee who fills a jumble of casual and irrelevant anecdotes with company jargon and slang, with the end result making little sense to anyone who didn’t work there and know the people being written about. McKenty’s narrative, however,  is well-balanced and presents a complicated subject in an engaging and accessible way. Rather than focus on one specific aspect of the company, he gets into the owners, the employees, the products, and the customers, indicating how each influenced the other. The result is an interesting book which looks at several different facets of Canadian history including labour relations, marketing, and popular culture, demonstrating how varied aspects of Canada’s past came together in CCM.

What I found particularly interesting is McKenty’s willingness to point out some of CCM’s villainy. I do not know enough of the facts to know if he is pulling any punches, but there are times in Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story when CCM seems to be severely mismanaged, or when it seems to treat its employees quite shabbily. When the company is managed well, CCM seems to be symbolic of local and national pride; when the quality of products is poor, the company seems like an embarrassment.  And when the company is neglected and the employees made to feel the burden, CCM comes across as an enemy.

The book is self-published through Epic Press, which may account for a few of the typographical errors and a handful of awkwardly written passages, although none of these are so major that they really detract from the narrative. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call these elements “charming,” but they do remind the reader that this book is, like so many books on the history of Toronto, effectively the product of a single, dedicated researcher.  And, unlike so many other self-published Toronto history books, there is a sizeable section of endnotes where one can find McKenty’s source material.

While the title and subject matter may suggest an attempt to appeal to those with an interest in business or industrial history, the accessible language and varied subject matter make Canada Cycle & Motor: The CCM Story an interesting look at Canadian popular culture, and indeed a look at a side of Toronto life that doesn’t always get written about. My favourite features are the plentiful advertisements, along with some of the descriptions of cycling culture. This includes not only the late nineteenth century cycling boom, but also a look at some of the racing heroes of the 1930s. If you’re curious about this aspect of the book, I would very much suggest starting with McKenty’s CCM website, in particular the archives section, which includes a look at type of stories which appear in the book.  He hasn’t given everything away on the website, and of course the book’s real strength is tying all these anecdotes into a complex narrative.

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Summer of ’36

Ad for Burroughes Furniture Co., Ltd., advising you to buy a couch so you can "sleep in the cool downstairs." Toronto Star, July 10, 1936, page 5.

If you missed it, I did a series of articles for Heritage Toronto a few weeks ago on a few interconnected subjects relating to Toronto in the summer of 1936.

The first looks at Toronto’s experience during the major North American heat wave of that summer.  In the early summer, some aspects of city life seem to have shut down while various laws were relaxed; at least 225 people died from the heat.

While looking in old newspapers for articles connected to the heat wave, I found several articles concerned with what men were and were not allowed to wear on Toronto beaches, thus spawning an article on the city’s bathing suit regulations.

This being 1936, all this transpired during the great depression.  My third article looks at some of the unemployment problems in what was then York Township (essentially what later became the City of York in the 1960s and then acquired by Toronto in the 1998 amalgamation).  During the height of the heat wave, tensions boiled in Toronto’s suburban regions over how governments should distribute financial relief to the needy.  While this article deals with York Township, similar unrest was happening in Etobicoke in 1936, which I wrote about on this very blog.  With these protests flaring at the height of the heat wave, it is tempting to think that the excessive temperatures caused frustration to boil over, as it seemingly does in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

Headline from the Globe, July 10, 1936.

While I enjoy researching and writing on a variety of topics, I like doing these clusters of related historical articles.  Often, while researching a specific subject, I encounter interesting tangents and side issues which I am tempted to cram into my copy.  When I try to share all of these delightful details, my articles grow too long, and I  find myself forced to omit some of the bits which I think are the most intriguing.

Doing these clusters of articles permits me to provide additional context for the readers, juxtaposing events with parallel issues in Toronto’s history, and providing a more nuanced account of the city’s past.

In a previous cycle of articles for Heritage Toronto, I described an incident with a “gypsy” group in North Toronto, both from the perspective of the people in the camp as well as from the perspective of the camp’s bears.

In creating these clusters of related articles, my hope is to present Toronto’s complicated history in a spirit similar to that of the classic PBS miniseries Connections, hosted by James Burke.  Burke tells the history of science from a strong perspective of inter-connectedness.  He generally starts at one specific invention or discovery, and then follows that thread through history, touching on many events, people, and discoveries along the way, all the while reminding viewers this is just one of an infinite number of paths available to explore.

Toronto’s history, like all history, is similarly complex.  While it is a historian’s duty to provide necessary context, there are many choices that a historian faces as to what to include.  By grouping some of these related articles together, I feel I am reminding readers that no person, building, or event is isolated, and that all of Toronto’s history is linked by time, place, people, and/or thematic subject matter.

My hope is to work on a few similar clusters in the new year.  They tend to involve considerably more research than a “one-off” article, but I feel that the end result is worth it.

Occupy Etobicoke

In light of Occupy Toronto, I thought it worthwhile to highlight an earlier protest from Toronto’s history, when public demonstrations were considerably more desperate and dramatic.  In the course of recent research on an unrelated topic, I found several newspaper articles describing the overnight occupation of Sir Adam Beck School during the summer of 1936, an incident since commemorated by a plaque.

Etobicoke, like many parts of Ontario, had limited funds available to provide adequate relief for the unemployed during the depression, and during the spring of 1936 the township had been forced to impose severe cuts.  These cuts included the termination of all relief for single men, as well as a lower level of compensation for those still included on the relief rolls.  As a result, many of those who had been given government “make-work” jobs to earn their relief went on strike and demanded a restoration to the previous levels.

Excerpt from page 2 of The Evening Telegram, July 9, 1936.

After weeks of striking, and at the height of a major heat wave in July of 1936, it was decided that more drastic action was needed.  This article in The Evening Telegram (click on it to enlarge) suggests that Sir Adam Beck School, in Alderwood near Horner Avenue and Brown’s Line, was being used as a centre for the distribution of relief vouchers, which in turn could be redeemed for food and clothing.  On July 8, several hundred unemployed entered the school and informed relief officer C.C. Grubb that he was not allowed to leave.  According to the article, “spokesmen told the officials that they meant no harm but were taking this measure to bring to the attention of the authorities the necessity for immediate action in restoring the relief cuts.”  Grubb was soon joined by Etobicoke Reeve William A. Armstrong (the position of reeve being the equivalent of a mayor in what was then Etobicoke Township), and together the two men were held prisoner overnight in the school.

Grubb and Armstrong were kept in the boiler room of Sir Adam Beck School overnight until the demands of the unemployed were met, which, by next morning, they were.  Some of the protestors slept in the gymnasium or in hallways in an effort to keep cool.  A Toronto Star article from July 9 adds that into the night, “the sweltering unemployed sang songs, played cards and discussed the situation until early in the morning when many of them slept out on mattresses and mats to get what sleep they could.”  One of the protestors was reported to have needed medical attention after suffering a heart attack.

Conditions in the boiler room were described as “filthy.”  Grubb was quoted in the July 24 Toronto Star as saying “bread and lettuce was passed to us at 5 o’clock.  We played several hands of euchre.  Then the guards allowed the room to fill with workers and the air became stifling.  The water pipes, through condensation, dripped water.”  Grubb also claimed that protestors taunted him with both a hangman’s noose and a tar pot.

Newspaper accounts suggest that Etobicoke did not actually have the money to restore relief levels, having already gone over their relief budget.  Grubb and Armstrong seem to have been pawns, used by the protestors to impress upon the province the need for a greater relief budget in Etobicoke; upon capitulating to the crowd’s demands, the township had immediately transferred the problem of relief funding to Ontario.

Two days earlier, a similarly-sized occupation of a relief office in York Township yielded a similar result.  Premier Mitchell Hepburn ordered the arrests of the leaders of both occupations, vowing to “quash mob rule,” quoted in the July 10 Globe as saying “no longer are municipal and Provincial officials to submit to humiliation, as in the past few weeks” and “we have evidence that this is purely Communist propaganda.”

While certainly one of the more severe labour incidents in Etobicoke, this incident was actually one in a series of relief protests in Ontario in the 1930s, being neither the first nor the last.  As such, there is no neat way to wrap up this incident, as the province and its municipalities continued to struggle with the distribution of adequate relief throughout the depression.

Interestingly, the incidents in York and Etobicoke and July of 1936 were mentioned in an RCMP security bulletin, which can be read here [pdf]:  http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/RCMP/article/download/9497/9552

Thank you to Denise Harris of the Etobicoke Historical Society, who provided me with additional material on this topic.

Additional information from the Toronto Star for July 9, July 10, July 13, July 14 and July 24, 1936.