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The Quaker Oats Tragedy: Remembering the Italian Victims of the 1916 Explosion

           On Monday, December 11th, 1916, the Quaker Oats factory in Peterborough, Ontario exploded, resulting in the deaths of 24 men, including three Italian victims. The highly flammable grain and dust particles lingering in the air resulted in the ignition of a fire ultimately leading to the explosion of the plant (Breda and Toppan 679). The objective of this project is to unfold the events that took place on December 11th, 1916 and pay homage to the brave Italian victims who lost their lives due to the fire.

           The plant opened in the late 1890s, located just off the coast of the Otonabee River, as “The American Cereal Company.”  It took a great amount of time for this company to make a name for itself; however, it was eventually purchased by Quaker Oats in order to produce cereal and food for livestock. World War I, which broke out in 1914, created an increase in the company’s production of food for Allied soldiers on the front line (Martin 37). The factory was alternating three shifts of employees to meet the high demands in order to feed all the soldiers, turning the factory into a 24-hour operation with overworked employees. The endless shifts led to health and safety measures to be disregarded by management, which included poor ventilation systems and improper sterilization techniques (Martin 37). This, in turn, led the grinders to catch fire and ultimately led to the plant’s East end exploding. 

           The three Italian men who died in the fire, Filippo Capone, Domenico Martino, and Vincenzo Fornaro, all emigrated from Italy to Peterborough in search of a better life. Vincenzo Fornaro was from Francavilla al Mare and born to Andrea Fornaro and Maria Febbo in 1885. Fornaro was part of the Italian Navy before he travelled with his wife Emilia on the “Santa Anna” to Canada on October 22, 1913, after hearing the success his sister and her husband were having in Peterborough (Rogers 2020). Vincenzo was in the boiler room when the factory exploded and was pronounced dead by Doctor McNulty in St. Joseph’s Hospital later that day from infected burns, leaving behind his two children Andrew and Mary and his wife Emilia (Rogers 2020). Fornaro’s descendants still live in Peterborough and the Yukon, including Kimberly Anne Rogers, his great-granddaughter, who has provided information on Fornaro’s lineage and history.

           Filippo Capone was born to Leonardo Capone and Maria Antonia LeDonne in the small town of Roseto Valfortore and came to Canada on the “Italia” ship, traveling from Naples, in search of work after hearing of his brother-in-law’s employment in the Trent Canal (Martin 37). Filippo did not die from the explosion itself; however, he passed away the day later when he succumbed to his injuries. Domenico Martino has vague and sparse documentation about his upbringing and immigration; however, it is noted that the money he earned in the Quaker Oats Factory was used as payment to transport his body back home after his untimely death (Martin 38). 

           A monument of the 24 fallen Quaker Oats Factory men is located in Millennium Park in Peterborough (Breda and Toppan 680). These plaques and monuments were commissioned by Pepsico, the new owner of Quaker Oats, in order to honour and remember those who died in 1916. The names of the three Italian victims have also been placed on the Italian Fallen Workers Monument, organized by Marino Toppan and Paola Breda, which was unveiled on April 28th, 2016, at the Columbus Center in Toronto (Breda and Toppan 679). These monuments aid in the remembrance and historical knowledge of their brave ancestors that passed away at the expense of the 1916 Quaker Oats Tragedy and Canada.

                                                           Natasha Fares 

                                                           University College at the University of Toronto, 2020

Works Cited 

Breda, Paola, and Marino Toppan. Land of Triumph and Tragedy: Voices of the Italian Fallen Workers: a Century of Italian Immigration to            Canada: Immigrants Who Made It and Those Who Perished Trying. Verità, 2019.

Martin, Gina. “The Heritage Gazette of the Trent Valley .” Volume 11, Number 3., Nov. 2006, pp 37. Ref: ISSN 1206-4394.

Rogers, Kimberly. Personal Archives of Kimberly Anne Rogers. Great Granddaughter to Vincenzo Fornaro. March 2020.