Spirit Quest

Tom Bata was a fellow Czech who escaped the Nazis
and put his shoe making tools to make arms for Canada

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns Skoutajan

As you read this (June 14) I am attending a reunion called "The Batawa Homecoming." It is one of those shocking events when you are made dramatically conscious of the passage of time and the fact that you too have been carried downstream by this temporal current. There will of course be passionate embracing of old friends and cautious eyeing  of others - " is that ‘so and so’?" And of course everyone will remember me, "Hanns, you haven't changed one whit!"

However, this Homecoming is somewhat different. Sonja Bata, the person who developed the Batawa Shoe Museum in Toronto, and the wife of Tom Bata, the world shoe king, is using the occasion to unveil her plans for this small community north of Trenton on the banks of the beautiful Trent River.

Batawa was established in 1940 when Tom Bata, then in his mid twenties, brought 150 of his key men and their families from Czechoslovakia to Canada to set up a factory for the manufacture of footwear.

Their arrival was actually an escape from Hitler who had taken over that country. Indeed, one of the ships of a German registry transporting machinery already in the St. Lawrence River was ordered by the Nazis to return but an RCMP patrol boat forced the freighter to complete its delivery which would soon become involved in the Canadian war industry. 

The genius of the Bata empire was its self sufficiency. Bata owned a world-wide chain of shoe stores, rubber plantations abroad and a capacity to manufacture shoe making equipment. Soon after the outbreak of World War II these lathes, milling machines, drills and grinders were manufacturing aircraft parts, shell casings and gun mounts for the Canadian war effort. Shoe production took on a secondary role. 

After arriving at their destination in the Trent Valley the company located  its operations in an abandoned paper mill in Frankford, Ontario. With the help of the Canadian government a large five-story factory, at that time the largest building between Oshawa and Ottawa, was erected in a cow pasture just south of the hamlet of Frankford. 

It became imperative that housing for the families be constructed. On arrival in their new homeland the Czech employees and their families were housed wherever possible in the Frankford area. A village of wartime houses was erected near the factory. A church was built as well as a recreation hall and a small shopping mall that contained a grocery story, a drug store, post office and of course a shoe store.  Buses from Trenton and Stirling transported workers to and from the plant.

By 1943 the factory boasted more than 1000 employees and brought new life to what had been a depressed area. 

Batawa also became a sports centre with the company sponsoring hockey and baseball teams that competed against much larger cities in the lakeshore area. Indeed, athletics was an important element in the life of Czechs and the Batawa Sokol Athletic Association became well known. A ski hill was developed that is still in operation and tennis courts were also built.. We children were transported to the Frankford school by bus that was probably the first school bus program in Canada.  Later on a Catholic and an elementary school were constructed. 

There was no individual private property in Batawa, as was the case in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, the original home of the Bata Shoe empire. Everything, lock, stock and barrel was owned by the company.

Batawa became a model community and attracted a great deal of attention. This unique village became my home in the summer of 1942.

As I look back to those times I realize what a great place it was in which  to grow up. 

Once the war was over Batawa reverted to shoe production. A new plant was built that housed the machine shop. New people came from the displaced persons camps from war torn Europe who changed the ethnic complexity of this small community once again. 

Nine years ago the "Bata Kids," people like myself who grew up in Batawa,  held our first reunion. It was an unforgettable event. Imagine, however, the shock when shortly after returning to our various homes across the country, we learned that Bata was closing its operations at Batawa. The place was up for sale. Canadian shoe manufacturing could not compete with the Third World. For some time Batawa’s future was shrouded in uncertainly. The wartime houses had been replaced by modern privately owned homes but their residents no longer worked at Bata.

As we return this year to our beloved Batawa we are excited to hear that Sonja Bata was venturing into a new enterprise. The plans for this will be revealed at our Homecoming.

Of course the "New Batawa" will be totally different  from what we remember. We trust, however, that something of the spirit which all of us felt very keenly will be present. That spirit is a' movin'.

Watch this space for news about the new manifestation of the Batawa Spirit.
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