James Franceschini, The man and his Passions.

Posted June 26 2015 in People


In May 2012, The Italian Chamber of Commerce paid tribute to James Franceschini’s pioneering contributions in breaking new ground and creating opportunities for other Italian-Canadians to succeed in construction and other businesses in Canada.

James Franceschini arrived in Toronto penniless in 1905 as a 15 year old boy. Through hard work he overcame many challenges to build Dufferin Construction, Canada’s largest road construction company, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012.

Family, business, and horses were the three great passions that fuelled James Franceschini drive for success.

Born in the Pescara region of Abruzzi on March 16 1890, Vincenzo Franceschini had minimal formal education. He was taught the ways of the world and business from his stern father, Giuseppe, a kitchen wares vendor operating first around Pescara then later in the Aquila region.

As a boy he must have paid rapt attention to his father’s way of doing business because it was at Giuseppe’s side that he learned that art of supply and demand, negotiating, bartering, being cheated and lied to, and when all else failed, fist-fighting.

His love of the beautiful, powerful draft horses that made their nomadic life possible became evident from the very beginning. This relationship would be the forerunner to one of the most successful horse breeding business ever seen in the modern world.

In May of 1905 when Vincenzo was fifteen years old, his father allowed the head strong young man immigrate to Canada. In time, after his mother, Lucia, died in Italy, the family followed James to Canada. Brother Renaldo, and sisters, Maria, Francesca and Regina remained in Canada and raised families here, but Giuseppe and his youngest daughter Beatrice returned to Italy.

Once settled in the small Italian immigrant community of early 20th century Toronto, Vincenzo set out to work as a labourer, employed in foundries, making sidewalks, and digging excavations. He was told by people in the know that to prosper in very English Toronto, it would help to have a more Anglicized given name. Shortly thereafter, Vincenzo Franceschini became ‘James’ Franceschini. A year or so later when Renaldo joined his brother, he took the name ‘Leonard.’

It wasn’t long before James started up his own  contracting company. He saved his money, bought equipment and along with some Italian friends, set up an excavation business. Buying his first horse set him apart from all his competitors, and within a few years he brought the first steam shovel into Canada. One of his first projects was building a number of houses on Dufferin Street, many of which still exist today.

In 1912, he founded Dufferin Construction. In 1913, he married Annie Lydia Pinkham, a lovely young lady of Irish-Scottish decent and became a Canadian citizen.

By 1914 at age 24, James had become a millionaire, but good fortune was fleeting, and 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. His steam shovel, horses and other equipment were repossessed.

James Franceschini was resilient and determined, and would not be kept down. By taking on a series of jobs with Westinghouse and Kodak he saved enough money to regain his steam shovel, horses and other construction equipment. The young entrepreneur then embarked on a series of small contracts with the City of Toronto, which included clearing snow and repairing roads. During this period from 1915 to 1916 he worked excavating the foundation for Sam McLaughlin’s General Motors Canada assembly plant and McLaughlin’s Parkwood Mansion in Oshawa.

In 1917, Dufferin Construction won the first ever Provincial highway construction tender to grade the Rouge Hill portion of Kingston Road (Highway 2).

In the 1920’s and 1930’s James Franceschini worked for three different Ontario governments, the United Farmers of Ontario, the Conservatives and the Liberals, building roads across Ontario including the Dundas Highway (Highway 5); the Toronto – Hamilton Highway (Highway 2) and portions of the TransCanada Highway near Kenora.

In 1921 Annie and James became proud parents with the birth of their only child, daughter Myrtle.  A few years later the family moved into a lake front estate in Mimico that they christened Myrtle Villa.

James’ passion for the show horses also brought him recognition as the top North American hackney horse breeder. In 1928 Time Magazine reported on his victory at the coveted Madison Square Gardens competition.

James and Annie  were devoted to charitable work, and in 1930 they hosted the Shiners’ North American Convention in Toronto, with a reception at Myrtle Villa.

In the 1930’s, James expanded his operations into Quebec and the Maritimes and in WW2, Dufferin Construction contributed to the building of the historic Alaska Highway in 1942.

In 1939, he helped Canada and Britain build warships for their war with Germany through Dufferin Shipbuilding Company. He also built foundations and runways for the the fighter pilot training school in Port Maitland, Ontario.

One of the great challenges of his James’ life was being interned at Camp Petawawa after Italy declared war on the British Empire in June, 1940. He was released in June 1941, suffering from cancer, another battle he fought and won.

James may have been upset by his treatment at the hands of the RCMP and Canada’s war government, but he never lost faith in the Canadian people. Many spoke up on his behalf, including Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn, Sam McLaughlin, prominent lawyer Dalton McCarthy and industrialist, Sir James Dunn.

On appeal, Justice James Hyndman found James Franceschini innocent of all the RCMP charges. Eventually in June, 1943, the Globe and Mail reported that then Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent, a future Prime Minister of Canada, had acknowledged in a letter to James’ lawyers that the Canadian government made a mistake in interning James Franceschini.

Looking back at his year in Camp Petawawa, James described it as “the year I spent in college.”

Family played a great part in all of James’ business endeavors, as Annie was secretary-treasurer in the early days of Dufferin Construction. Brother Leonard was always his right hand man, inseparable until the day James died in September, 1960. Later, Leonard’s two sons, James J.L. Franceschini, and Leonard Franceschini, became trusted lieutenants and figured heavily in every aspect of what by that time was a true family business and Canada’s largest road construction company. After James’ death, Dufferin Construction was sold to outside interests, but the next generation, James and Leonard, carried on the family name.

In 1961, a year after James Franceschini died, Pierre Berton, the great Canadian writer, wrote a story in the Toronto Star about an Italian-Canadian family living on Dufferin Street in the home where James Franceschini lived before he became a millionaire road builder. Berton hoped that the family would be as successful as James Franceschini.

Dufferin Horses

Vincenzo Franceschini arrived in Canada in 1905 at the age of fifteen from Pescara Italy all alone and unable to speak his adopted country’s language.

Like so many European young men of that era who were the eldest sons, he was sent to the new world to build a foundation for his family’s future.

That foundation came with much hardship and heartbreak, But Vincenzo, who changed his christian name to ‘James’ shortly after his arrival, had the fortitude to not only build a life, but prosper beyond all expectation.

Over the years he became one of North America’s premier road builders, and his original company, Dufferin Construction, is still operating today, over one hundred years later.

When Vincenzo was growing up in Italy, his first love was for his father’s large draft horses that pulled the wagon containing retail goods of porcelain to local fairs. It was his job to tend to and care for these amazing creatures and it was here that a life-long bond formed between man and beast.

In Canada, the purchase of his first horse set him apart from his rivals and competitors striving to get a foothold in the local building industry.

Little did James know then that one day he would become one of the most accomplished and respected show horse breeders in the world.

This film, ‘Dufferin Horses,’ was produced at James’ magnificent estate at Mt. Tremblant, Quebec in 1953.

On display is some of the finest equine stock of the era, showing off their precise gaits stunning style on their own, as well as in pairs and four-in hand unison.

A complete tour of Dufferin Haven is included in the film, which is informatively narrated and musically scored.

While time has faded some of the images, the viewer will certainly experience a magical trip back to yesteryear in a breathtaking setting.