By Susanna McLeod
Special to Ontario Construction Report
Emigrating alone in 1905 from Pescara, Italy, teenager Vincenzo “James” Franceschini arrived in Toronto. Working manual labour jobs, he later launched his own construction firm. The contractor’s early prosperity was followed by dismal failure. Franceschini galloped to the top again with Dufferin Construction and a booming horse breeding farm. However, his wealth did not prevent officials from arresting him during World War Two.
Settling into a supportive Italian community, Franceschini “started out in construction by digging basements by hand, earning enough money to hire staff and purchase horses, wagons and a steam shovel,” wrote The Bay Observer, May 28, 2021. Taking neighbourhood advice, the immigrant changed his first name to the more Anglicized James. Several family members came to Canada to support their rising star.
Healthy finances allowed Franceschini to continue his equine passion and bought his first horse. Early construction contracts were surprisingly large for such a young business owner. “One of his first projects was building a number of houses on Dufferin Street, many of which still exist today,” stated James McCreath’s “Blog.”
In 1912, Franceschini founded Dufferin Construction Company. The next year, the 23-year-old became a Canadian citizen and married Annie Lydia Pinkham. (The Franceschinis became parents to their only child, Myrtle Louise, in 1921.) Diversifying, Franceschini’s firm established road and highway construction services needed for the growing province. In only a few years, Dufferin Construction made its owner a millionaire, but a rough patch lay ahead.
“Franceschini soon lost his wealth as a result of a bad contract and the general decline in construction as a result of World War 1,” said McCreath. “His steam shovel, horses and other equipment were repossessed.” The contractor took it in stride; he started from little and could thrive again. Working several jobs, Franceschini scraped enough money together to buy back his horses and equipment. He was back in business.
The first highway contract offered by the Province of Ontario was awarded Dufferin Construction, to grade the Rouge Hill section of Kingston Road in 1917. Proving their abilities, Franceschini and his team were awarded more projects throughout the province. Roads and highways made travel easier for a rapidly-increasing number of vehicle owners, including “portions of the TransCanada Highway near Kenora,” McCreath noted. (The Ford Model T was regarded as the most popular car then, with an average speed of 32 kph.)
The prosperous businessman could afford an estate to match his success. In 1925, Franceschini purchased a large home with lush, landscaped gardens on an expansive waterfront site for $68,000. Located in the Town of Mimico (now part of Toronto), Franceschini named the luxurious property Myrtle Villa, in honour of his beloved daughter. The family often held receptions and glamourous events that were covered by newspaper society pages.
Developing an industry empire, the entrepreneur opened subsidiaries to supply Dufferin Construction. Gravel, asphalt, and fuel were enhanced by a trucking division to deliver the provisions. “By the late 1930s, Franceschini was Canada’s largest road contractor, producer of gravel and ready-made concrete,” noted The Bay Observer.
Establishing Dufferin Shipbuilding, Franceschini received a contract at the beginning of WW2 to construct minesweeper ships for the Navy. More military contracts were awarded for runways and building foundations at Port Maitland for the pilot training school.
When Italy entered the war on the side of the enemy in June 1940, Franceschini faced alarming problems. Although a law-abiding Canadian, Franceschini and other Italians were considered enemies of the state. He was arrested. Hustled to Petawawa with about 700 other Italian Canadians, Franceschini was imprisoned at the internment camp for a year.
The company was operating well in family hands, and Franceschini took his confinement with grace. The contractor “busied himself doing what he knew best, acting as a foreman on a road gang,” described The Bay Observer. Others were less patient, pressing for Franceschini’s release.
Time ticked by as investigations were performed. Meanwhile, the contractor was diagnosed with cancer. A year in, Franceschini was released, cleared of all charges. Surviving the cancer, Franceschini returned to home, business… and horses.
Importing horses from England and United States, Franceschini’s “Hackney show stock from the Dufferin Stock Farm was very much sought after in the 1950’s and 1960’s,” said Jeff McCormick in Canadian Hackney Society’s Hackney Hall of Fame. Franceschini bred and exhibited the beautiful, gentle Hackney horses from 1920 until the early 1960s.
Dufferin Construction flourished even while the founder was away. Government awarded contracts to the firm totalling several million dollars. One job in 1942 took the highway workers to the northwest and the arduous Alaska Highway project.
On release from internment, the businessman purchased property in the Laurentians.
Vincenzo “James” Franceschini died there on Sept. 16, 1960. After his passing, Dufferin Construction Company was sold to outside buyers. The firm remains an Ontario construction industry success.
© 2022 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.