Remembering Flora McCrea Eaton

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

Lady Eaton celebrates her 80th birthday. Photo courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

One hundred years ago, in 1923, the famed (yet nearly bankrupt) financier Sir Henry Pellatt was forced to give up his beloved Casa Loma, in midtown Toronto. Among Pellatt’s wealthy neighbours were Sir John Craig Eaton – heir to the T. Eaton & Co. department store empire – and his wife, the Omemee-born Flora McCrea Eaton. Things had been rough for this family of late, as well; Sir John passed away from influenza in 1922, leaving behind his wife of 21 years and five biological children.

Lady Eaton, as she had been called since her husband was knighted in 1915, went on to become one of the country’s best-known philanthropists. But who was Lady Eaton, a local girl after whom an elementary school in Omemee and a college at Trent University are named? Why should her story inspire us, over half a century after her death in 1970?

Sarah Evelyn Florence “Flora” McCrea was born on Nov. 26, 1879 (some sources place her birth in 1880), at the family home in Omemee. Flora’s father, John McCrea, was a skilled woodworker, as was her brother, John M. McCrea. The youngest of eight children, young Flora spent a happy childhood in Omemee. Later in life, she recalled the baked ham, black currant juice, and homemade butter that were regularly enjoyed around the family’s supper table – as well as the excursions that young people took by steamboat to Fenelon Falls in the 1880s and 1890s. Writing in Memory’s Wall, her autobiography, Lady Eaton recalled with relish “the unselfishness of the older people who spared no effort to make the outings so completely delightful for all the children.”

This spirit of generosity would inform Lady Eaton’s outlook on life throughout her adulthood. In 1901, she married John Craig Eaton, whom she always called “Jack.” They had met while John was convalescing at the Rotherham House private hospital, in Toronto, where she was working as a nurse. The Eatons were a celebrity couple, and within less than a decade Omemee would see the first of three magnificent gifts financed by its favourite daughter and her husband. Up first, in 1907, was a pipe organ for the Methodist Church. A new parsonage, dedicated in memory of Flora’s father, came along in 1910, followed a year later by Coronation Hall. Built to commemorate the coronation of King George V, it was opened amid the sound of music on Dec. 19, 1911, and the Watchman Warder reported that “Mrs. J.C. Eaton sang a pretty little slumber song, which was encored.”

Lady Eaton on horseback. Photo courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Not quite five years later, in the spring of 1916, the Eatons were back in Victoria County to present colours (ceremonial battle flags) to the 109th Battalion, for which Lady Eaton was serving as patroness. She made several return trips to her old stomping grounds over the ensuing decades – sometimes to her own embarrassment. In the summer of 1939, Lady Eaton drove up to Omemee for a day, completely forgetting about a luncheon engagement she had already committed to in Toronto.

Flora McCrea Eaton was certainly not one to rest on her laurels. “My life has been a busy one,” she wrote in Memory’s Wall. “Occasionally I have had deep flashes of conviction that bringing up six children must always be a full-time job for any woman. At the same time I have been aware that the person must not be totally submerged in the mother; a woman should have opportunities to extend her knowledge of the world and events, and to widen her interests and develop her talents.”

Among Lady Eaton’s interests were the well-being of seniors – a passion that was reignited after admiring the accessible design of seniors’ housing in Holland, on a trip to Europe after the Second World War. “If the Netherlands, with its comparatively tiny land area can take action of this kind,” she wrote in 1956, “surely we in Canada could find the space, the money and the heart to take special thought for our needy elder citizens.”

In everything she did, Lady Eaton valued teamwork above all. Being part of a team, she said, “is not only stimulating – it can broaden contacts and deepen respect for our fellow men and women.” She sought to instill these values of teamwork and philanthropy in her grandchildren, whom she adored and who still hold special memories of her. “I was the first grandchild that she had, and I could do no wrong,” recalls John Craig Eaton II, who now summers on Sturgeon Lake, north of Lindsay. “I always thought of her as being very kind, but strict. She was just very good to us.”

Together with his brother, Fredrik, John spent summers at Eaton Hall, the 72-room mansion their grandmother maintained in King City, north of Toronto. Among Lady Eaton’s herd of first-class Holsteins, John says, was one cow that could give up to 40 gallons of milk a day. Lady Eaton’s prowess on horseback at Eaton Hall was well-known, too. “In her 60s, she would still be going over the jumps,” John recalls of his indefatigable grandmother.

Asked to summarize his grandmother’s life in a sentence, John Craig Eaton II is quick to answer: “She loved music, she loved her church, she loved her family, and she loved her country.”

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