off the grid: ghost city 1172 dundas street west

This installment of my "Ghost City" column for The Grid was originally published on May 2, 2013.

Dempster's Staff of Life Bakery is visible in the background of this streetcar track construction shot taken along Dundas Street on July 19, 1917. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 681.
During the last decades of the 19th century, the Toronto bread market was a battleground. Bakers faced resistance from housewives used to making their own loaves and tough battles for customers with an increasing supply of commercial competitors. When teenager George Weston entered the business in the early 1880s, the future food mogul joined nearly 60 other city bakers and nearly 60 more confectioneries.

Another long-lasting bread name who entered the field at this time was James Dempster. Born in Scotland in 1855, Dempster’s family migrated to Toronto and established a bakery at the northeast corner of Argyle Street and Dovercourt Road, later the site of rival firm Ideal Bread. During the early 1890s, James struck out on his own to open Dempster’s Staff of Life bakery, which settled into its permanent home on the north side of Dundas Street west of Ossington Avenue after the turn of the century. Though it remained in the same location for the next half-century, its address changed several times due to expansions and the eastern extension of Dundas Street past Ossington during World War I.

Advertisement, Toronto Star, March 23, 1915.
Like other period bakers, Dempster stressed the purity of his products and baking processes, urging customers in a 1915 ad “don’t spoil the meal with inferior bread.” Several years later, the bakery reminded patrons that “when you wed yourself to a particular loaf of bread, do not choose it because of its beauty, but because of its quality and flavour.”

Dempster’s notions of purity extended to his personal life. He was a dedicated member of Wesley Methodist Church, which stood a few doors east of the bakery at the present site of St. Christopher House. During the church’s golden jubilee in 1925, Dempster flexed his musical talent through a vocal solo during a special gathering for young churchgoers. His enjoyment of wheat did not extend to its liquid form, as he was an energetic temperance advocate.

Advertisement, Toronto Star, June 23, 1921.
When he died in January 1929, the Star declared Dempster “one of the best respected men in the bread trade.” The business carried on in the family for a time, observing numerous restrictions dampening creativity among city bakeries during World War II. Among those applied in April 1942: a daily limit of 15 varieties of bread and four types of rolls, no Sunday deliveries apart from emergencies, and no “twisting, cutting, cross-panning or otherwise ornamenting dough before baking.”

The Dempster factory remained on Dundas until 1959, when it moved to Fraser Avenue in present-day Liberty Village. The site was divvied up, with the main portion renamed the Resulta Building. Tenants over the next few decades ranged from adding-machine firms to meat-cutting training institutes.

The 1172 Dundas St. W. address debuted in the 1983 city directory, which listed an optometrist as its tenant. After housing a Portuguese social club, the building returned to its edible origins when Nova Era Bakery moved in during the early 1990s. While a sign on the side of the building promises fresh bread baked around the clock, the inscription above Nova Era’s front entrance still proudly announces “Dempster’s Staff of Life.”

Additional material from Bread Men by Charles Davies (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1987), the April 1, 1942 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 15, 1915, June 23, 1921, and January 7, 1929 editions of the Toronto Star.


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