Once upon a time… the story of Nash Shirt Limited of Saint-Leonard D’Aston

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Nash Shirt Ltd., St.Leonard D’Aston, Circa 1950

 

The shirt section of the Saint-Leonard D’Aston factory of Nash Shirt Ltd,, circa 1950

 

It was somewhat ironic that I was invited to represent my father at a gathering in St. Leonard D’Aston because of a horse that died almost 90 years ago!
Well, this is how the story goes: My uncle Boris Katz, a Russian immigrant, was a peddler in the 1920s. He made his way through the towns and villages around Montreal selling clothing and housewares. One of his stops was the little village of Saint-Leonard d’Aston, about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, near Drummondville and Trois-Rivieres. On one particular visit in 1928, Uncle Boris’ horse died and he stayed over for a few days. So taken was he with the town and its villagers that he decided to set up shop. He opened “La Maison Bouris”, a general store on Rue Principale.
Many years later Uncle Boris grew frustrated that his shirt order was late for Christmas and he wanted to offer better service to his customers. So he decided to open a small factory to sew his own shirts and pants. He called upon his nephew, George Nashen, who had just returned from overseas service in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Having trained in general accounting, Uncle Boris thought that my dad George would be the perfect partner. In 1948 they established Nash Shirt Limited on the upper floor of the Allyson Building located on Rue de la Station, just across from the tiny train station on the Montreal-Quebec CN Rail line. Uncle Boris spent the week in Saint-Leonard while my father set up the head office, showroom and smaller warehouse on Saint-Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal. My dad spent one day a week at the factory.
They eventually bought the building, followed by the bowling alley next door and built a third adjoining building, along with the old train station and two houses. Through the years they employed several hundred people from across the town and neighbouring towns as well, about 230 employees at their peak. Local housewives without the ability to hold down a full-time job owing to their large families and responsibilities at home were given work as independent contractors. They would purchase their own sewing machines and worked as seamstresses right in their kitchens and basements.
Marcel Alie was one of the loyal and dedicated employees spending the full 35 years at Nash Shirt. He lived in the house immediately across the street from the factory (photo below, the house hasn’t changed much since it was built around 1913) at the corner of de la Station and rue Fleury. He would open up very early in the morning firing up the boilers to power and heat the buildings, and he would be the last to leave late in the evening shutting down all the machinery. He also drove the company truck making local deliveries, picking up supplies and delivering bundles of denim to the women waiting to sew at home.

My last visit: Glenn J. Nashen with Marcel Alie, Dec. 14, 2012, St. Leonard d’Aston. Marcel passed away a short time later.

The Alie family, dedicated employees:  L-R: Mme. Joyal-Alie (Marcel’s sister) worked at the factory as did her daughter Monique Joyal (1972-80 in the jeans and shirt sections), and her friend Monique Prince (from 1972-83). Also pictured is her daughter Sylvie. Their father owned the Garage Joyal across the street where he respectfully hung a photo of Uncle Boris.

The town was doing quite well in the years of Nash Shirt with hardly a family that wasn’t in some way touched by its economic reach. And the town’s work in fashion reached from coast to coast: Indeed, it was said that St. Leonard “outfitted Canada”. Monsieur Boris and Monsieur Georges, as they were affectionately known, maintained a wonderful working relationship with their employees throughout the years.
At one point they decided to build a number of affordable homes for their employees very close to the factory. The new neighbourhood was named Rue de la Cie (Company Road). Rue Cie became Russie and eventually La Petite Russie, (Little Russia) as an endearing tribute to Uncle Boris’ origins.
Uncle Boris was so well respected that upon his death in 1970 nearly all the employees boarded buses for the trip to Montreal to attend his funeral. Some had never left the region prior to that bus ride.
The business continued to grow and prosper.  Fresh out of Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, my brother Stan joined the company and spent his weekdays at the factory working on improving production techniques. Eventually my brother Barry joined too, starting up a new line of clothing under the ‘Carnaval’ label and working out of the Montreal office. As a teenage student, I spent several weeks during the summers working out in Saint-Leonard d’Aston, riding alongside my coach Marcel Alie, who drove the route to all the seamstresses and to pick up supplies. Marcel taught me how to speak French with a countryside guttural twang, quite different from what I was learning in school in the big city. Oh the wonderful memories.

George and Phyllis Nashen (centre), Stan Nashen (left) with workers from Nash Shirt, Saint-Leonard d’Aston, 1970s

My father is now 94 years old and reminisces with great fondness of his years in Saint-Leonard d’Aston.  During all those years from 1948 until the closing of the factory in 1983, he had his trusted assistant Marcelle Hebert by his side.  He has wonderful memories of many of the special townspeople who worked in the factory producing shirts and jeans sold in mom and pop stores from coast to coast. They made uniform shirts worn by police officers, denim first worn by workmen and later by a younger generation of fashion conscientious teens and young adults. The labels included ‘Georgie’s Boys’, ‘Oui Jeans’, ‘Que Jeans’, and a host of private labels from every major men’s sportswear store, department store and jean shop across Canada.  The workers at Nash Shirt Limited in Saint-Leonard d’Aston truly outfitted all of Canada over a 35 year period.
My parents, M. Georges et Mme. Phyllis, my brothers and our entire family salute the residents of the town and its neighbours and those involved in keeping the memory of this wonderful place alive. May this community and its wonderful people thrive for many years to come. Long live St. Leonard d’Aston.

N

Marcelle Hebert, now in her young 90s, at the launch of the documentary

 

The reason for the gathering was the launch of a 20 minute documentary film, “Ma vie à la Nash”, produced by Nicole Campeau with images by Isabelle du Blois.

Nicole Campeau said she wanted to give a voice to those who worked at Nash Shirt, especially the dressmakers. “For me it is a duty to remember,” explains Mme. Campeau. The film touches on the working conditions and about the company and its owners. A seamstress, Cecile Mailly, recalls in the film that it was Boris Katz who put Saint-Léonard d’Aston on the map of the world.

Armand Leblanc was a tailor (cutter) at Nash Shirt for 22 years

Four former employees of Nash Shirt recounted earlier times in the town and at the manufacturing plant. The building which is now named Chez Boris has been purchased by Denis Guevin, who is doing major renovations and turning the facility into a community gathering point for culture, recreation, business and community services. The latest wing was dedicated a few weeks ago and named in honour of the seamstresses who worked there. Memorabilia and clothing produced there decorate the walls. The electrical outlets in the ceiling that powered the sewing machines have been turned into fixtures, each one representing a seamstress who once worked in that exact spot.

1970s brand from Nash Shirt

Oui shirt label. Nash Shirt Ltd. 1970s.

Another brand of jeans and shirts produced in the 70s and 80s at Nash Shirt

 CKBN Radio reported that several former employees of Nash Shirt of Saint-Léonard d’ Aston, various guests and personalities were at the launching of the documentary “My life at Nash”. The short film featured testimonies of three dressmakers and a tailor who worked at the factory and spoke about Boris Katz who championed economic life in Saint-Léonard d’Aston, between 1949 and 1983. The 20 minute film will be presented at various places in and around Saint-Léonard d’Aston. Eventually it will be posted online.

Felix Campeau-Guevin teaches Jorkeyball to Jeremy Nashen in Saint Leonard d’Aston

The building also houses Canada’s first “Jorkyball” courts. The sport is fairly well known in Europe and already 22 teams have been formed here. The Saint-Leonard d’Aston site will host a world championship next July. Guevin and Campeau’s son Felix is the chief organizer of the sport and boasts proudly of the unique facilities that attract young sports enthusiasts from across the region.

The cord and light of each fixture reminds us of the women who once worked at the sewing stations powered by the very same outlets

l était une fois… la Nash Shirt: Le Courier du Sud, Nov. 30, 2017

La Nash Shirt devient Chez Boris, Le Courier du Sud, Nov. 8, 2016

The Nashens at a company Christmas Party in St. Wenceslas, 1973 (L-R: Barry, Stan, George, Glenn, Phyllis, Jeff).

 

Phyllis Nashen with women of St. Leonard d’Aston, July 1975

 

George Nashen speaking to the Priest of St. Leonard d’Aston, July 1975

 

Hockey Legend Jean Beliveau with Phyllis, George and Stanley Nashen (left) and Freda, Boris and Hershey Katz in 1957. Le Gros Jean, originally from Trois-Rivieres, was working in promotions for Molson Brewery and was passing through town when the priest invited him to the opening of the new shirt factory just built at Nash Shirt Ltd.

 

1971 tribute to Boris Katz_Courier du Sud

Ma visite à Saint-Léonard d’Aston | 29 novembre 2017

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Fans mourn classy Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau

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Cheryl Nashen in her den with Jean Béliveau hockey memorabilia. Nashen invited Béliveau to her wedding years ago and also to her daughter's first birthday party. He couldn't make either, but sent hand-written notes, which she kept. (Peter McCabe / Montreal Gazette)

Cheryl Nashen in her den with Jean Béliveau hockey memorabilia. Nashen invited Béliveau to her wedding years ago and also to her daughter’s first birthday party. He couldn’t make either, but sent hand-written notes, which she kept. (Peter McCabe / Montreal Gazette)

There is an outpouring of incredible stories about the late, great Jean Béliveau. many of these memories live right in our neighbourhood, even in our own families. Read the article below about one such meaningful connection as told my my sister-in-law, Cheryl Carpman Nashen.

http://montrealgazette.com/sports/hockey/nhl/montreal-canadiens/fans-mourn-classy-canadiens-legend-jean-beliveau

CBC National