Challenges and Rewards of Archival Work: Schwartz Agencies files

Henry Schwartz, 1959  Courtesy the Galt Museum & Archives: 197529101203

Henry Schwartz, 1959

Courtesy the Galt Museum & Archives: 197529101203

Henry Schwartz was a Hungarian immigrant who got his start in business as a land agent for the railway. In 1927 he co-founded a company called the Colonist’s Service Association. (By the end of the depression Henry was the sole owner and it was re-named Schwartz Agencies.) This was an agency that helped people looking to move to Canada get transportation and proper documentation. This involved making sure there was a place to live and work waiting for them. Henry would act as an agent, often corresponding with government officials in English for clients that only wrote in Hungarian.

Around World War II Schwartz Agencies mostly brought over Central Europeans destined for the Sugar Beet fields. From 1939 to 1946 non-military travel was suspended between Europe and Canada so no immigration occurred during this time. Even after travel resumed, the post-war situation in Europe made getting the proper documents difficult. I found one letter from the Canadian government granting admission to Schwartz’s client, but the official doubted the Hungarian government would allow anyone to leave. There were similar applications regarding people in the Soviet Zones of Germany and Austria after World War II, all of which made me a little sad. However, it was also in these files that I came across an application submitted by my uncle’s father requesting that his wife and children join him in Canada from Hungary. When I saw my uncle’s name on the application, written in his father’s handwriting, it was definitely a history win.

Thanks to grants from the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta and the Archives Society of Alberta I was able to spend my summer working full-time on preparing large donations like this one for public use. It can take a lot of time and effort to process archival records. First I had to go through everything and see what kinds of material I was dealing with and what shape in was in.

As it turned out there was a lot of it (if you stacked the papers the pile would be ten metres high) and some of it was in pretty bad shape.

Not surprising considering some of it was nearing 85 years old and had spent about a decade in a barn.

After coming up with a strategy for organizing the material, I set aside the boxes that contained mould so that their contents could be cleaned later. Then I transferred the clean papers into proper archival folders and boxes, preparing them for long-term storage. I spent a lot of time unfolding pages, separating out acidic paper like newsprint, and removing rusty pins. Finally, I had to clean the mouldy documents.

This involved setting up a vacuum and carefully brushing the paper with a soft paintbrush while sucking up the mould.

This took a couple of days and I’m pretty sure I looked like something from a science fiction movie while doing it since I had on green gloves and a HEPA mask. The very last thing I did was write up a description and history of the fonds (archival collection) which you can find on the archives online database under the title Schwartz Agency fonds.

This project was full of the most amazing things—far too many to get into now. Some of my favourites are pre-WWII passports from central Europe, brochure and manual for an indoor charcoal barbeque, the entire set of blueprints for the College Mall Theatre, and the set of resumes where the female applicants listed their height, weight, hair and eye colour. Researchers will find the immigration files invaluable when searching for information on family members (especially those from central Europe) that immigrated to Southern Alberta from the late 1920s to the 1960s. There is also material that can help you research your house if it was built in the 1960s by one of several builders associated with the Schwartz family.

By Jennifer Vanderfluit

Jennifer Vanderfluit is a History and Museum Studies graduate from the University of Lethbridge and long-time volunteer at the Galt. In summer of 2012, Jennifer was contracted to arrange and describe Schwartz Agencies fonds and other collections for the Galt Museum & Archives.