Bata Shoe, Forgotten In Port Hope

There once was a Bata Shoe factory in Port Hope.  Who knew!?  The world famous Bata Shoe Company operated a factory located at 103 John Street, Port Hope Ontario.  It is known to have operated there for fifteen years employing as many as fifty employees from 1940-1955.  Thomas J. Bata, as a child in Czechoslovakia remembered his mother reading him tales about Canada, especially books by Jack London that painted “a glamorous, exciting place to be.”  On arrival here he would be faced with a huge risk, ridicule and the unknown “but for me, this was a great big plunge of faith, going to a strange country I had read about as a boy.”  The only recorded history to be found of the Port Hope factory is a single picture of the workers posed in front of the factory and their names.  After talking to several neighbors of the former plant, only one knew of the Bata factory, the others were quite surprised to learn of its existence in their neighborhood.  The Building is still there, and is used commercially.   Readers: we would be grateful to any former employees or their relatives who may have any information about this forgotten factory in Port Hope to update its history.  Need to know who once worked there?  We have an employee list available.  Meanwhile, enjoy the Batawa Ontario story.

In 1839, accompanied by about 100 hundred Czechoslovakian families, Thomas Bata emigrated to Canada.  He was the only son of Tomas Bata who had built a very large, international shoe enterprise in Czechoslovakia and died when an airplane he was in took off in a thick fog and crashed into a farmers field.  When in March 1939, Germany was on the verge of invading his country, he fled to Canada.  As war was declared in September 1939, all Czechoslovakians living in Canada became enemy aliens because they were citizens of a country occupied  by Germany. They all had to register, be fingerprinted, and report regularly to the RCMP.  An interesting story:  On August 31, 1939 just four days before war was declared on Germany, the German freighter the S.S. Koenigsberg arrived in Canada carrying all the equipment needed to set up a factory to begin production of Bata shoes.  The ship, also containing more than 200 crates with employee’s possessions, arrived in Montreal on September 12, 1939.  However, under orders from Berlin, the German captain tried to slip away during the night back down the St. Lawrence River.  An alert Bata employee alerted Mr. Bata who then telephoned Senator William Fraser, who contacted the RCMP.  The ship was intercepted and escorted back to Montreal where its cargo was unloaded for shipment to Ontario.

In September, 1939 war against Germany had been declared by the Canadian Government.  The ‘enemy aliens’ being citizens of a country occupied by Germany, every adult male in Batawa voluntarily enlisted in the reserve platoon of the Hasting and Prince Edward Regiment.  Mr. Bata was made an honorary Captain of the regiment, and offered the entire services of the Batawa plant, producing over forty eight specialized items vital to the Canadian war effort.

Thomas Bata decided to leave his home just before the German Army moved in.  Arriving in Canada, and with the permission of the Canadian Government, started operation in Frankford Ontario at a former Canadian Paper Mill while his new factory was built.  With the purchase of the old paper mill and with the help of over one hundred  Czechoslovakian families who had followed him to Canada, he started to manufacture shoes here.  To aid the Armed Forces of Canada, his personnel and equipment concentrated production of anti-aircraft equipment and machines used to inspect ammunition and the making of high quality machine parts such as gyroscopes. The Czechs who arrived in Frankford during July and August of 1939 lived with families of the small village for nearly a year.  When times were hard, the Czechs would sometimes gather after work and sit on the banks of the Trent River and sing folk songs, love songs, marching songs, ballads and drinking songs well into the night to remember their homeland.  Crowds of people in the community would gather around to listen and sometimes they would join in the singing.

Thomas J. Bata and Dr. Karl Herz went looking for about 1,500 acres of land between Toronto and Montreal and settled on a tract of pasture land along the Trent River north of Trenton.  The new town site, was purchased from local farmers eager to sell their stony pastures.  Thomas Bata built the community with the intention of creating “a small, miniature Zlin, Czechoslovakia.  Zlin was a city in Eastern Marovia in the Czechoslovakia Republic.  The development of the modern city was closely connected to the Bata Shoe Company and its social scheme, after World War 1 the city was renamed for sometime (1949-1990) as Gottwalder.

In 1940, the Batawa name was selected for the new town.  A suggestion from a salesman from the Eaton shoe department suggested “why not combine the Bata name with the last syllable of Ottawa?  Batawa has a nice native sound.”  The company started to build their new factory and housing in the small town now known as Batawa.  At the time there were two schools, two churches and a sports facility here.  Later a Post Office and a bank were added.  Most of the original residents of the village were of Czechoslovakian origin and retained many of their traditions in the new town.

In the early years of this planned community, regular meetings of all members of the new community gathered to discuss everything connected with it’s life, company business, the country, and the latest war information.  All new to the community were required to learn the English language to enable them to pass on their own working skills to the local workers, who had trouble learning the new skills and new work habits.  Night classes were organized with the help of Frankford school teachers.  One young teacher had no idea of the challenge facing her when twenty English speaking students entered her Grade 1-2 classroom followed by as many Czech children between age 5 to13.  The Canadian kids greeting was “good morning” and the Czech children was “dobue rano pani ucitelko” which means in English “good morning Miss teacher.”

The Czech children soon spoke English very well.  Mr. Bata had a flat rule, the language of the work place was English.  Health improvements were concentrated on physical fitness and the Bata Shoe Company had a total medical plan for its employees.  A lending library in the factory was created with some books brought in from Czechoslovakia.  A mimeographed one page daily newspaper, the ‘Batawa Bulletin’ was created in English and Czech for the benefit of the new community with announcements for birthdays, retirements, weddings etc.  A ten minute a day home broadcast was initiated for daily new for community members.  The Batawa Shoe Company provided housing at a reasonable cost to its workers.  The company controlled all aspects of the town. There was a Bata grocery store, a recreation hall, Bata clubs, Bata sport teams, and a Bata shoe store.

The plant that once employed 2,500 workers, producing five million pairs of shoes annually, found it cheaper to make shoes elsewhere.  A company official says the Bata plant lost over thirty-million dollars in the last decade.  The plant closed in the year 2000, putting 200 people out of work and leaving the Bata plant silent for the first time in almost sixty years.  The good  news is that the privately owned BDC was incorporated in 2005 when Thomas Bata’s widow Sonja purchased the 1,500-acre property.  The factory has been re-born as the Bata Lofts with some 47 residential units in various sizes and configurations.

Previous Bata factory under renovation in 2017

Most suites include  balconies and there is a rooftop patio offering great views of the Trent Canal, the Batawa Ski Hill and the Quinte West countryside.

Regards,   Ranger

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