In times of war, or high conflict, fear and suspicion about people who are “different” become two of the leading emotions. That was certainly the case more than 100 years ago with a local businessman, Victor B. Freytag.
Victor Freytag was born in April 1877 in Galicia, a region that now straddles the borders between Poland and Ukraine. A bright student, he had a talent for working with leathers. Hence, he was able to go to school at the prestigious Imperial Institute for Leather in Vienna, Austria.
After graduation, Freytag worked in a number of tanneries and leather businesses across the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. However, as an ambitious young man, he eventually decided to seek new opportunities in the United States.
He got a job in a tannery in Des Moines, Iowa. While there, he tinkered with some inventions. He was ultimately able to patent the Freytag folding lampshade in 1907. Unfortunately, while Freytag thought his invention was both practical and inexpensive, it did not make him any real money.
In 1910, Freytag headed north to Canada where he hoped to become the co-owner in a tannery or leather business. In late 1910, he became the manager and part-owner of the new Freytag Tannery, which was built on the north side of the Red Deer River.
The plant was rather modest in size – only 400 square metres (4000 sq. ft.). However, it was considered quite modern for its time. Freytag also showed sensitivity to environmental concerns. He promised to minimize any bad odours. He further promised to carefully treat the tannery’s wastewaters before they were discharged into the river.
The Freytag Tannery did reasonably well until a sharp recession in 1913 created enormous financial problems for the company. The business went into voluntary receivership in February 1914. Victor Freytag got a new job with the Calgary Tannery.
Then, in August 1914, the First World War broke out. Although Freytag considered himself to be a Pole of German ethnic descent, he was still officially classed as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, like Germany, was now at war with Great Britain and Canada.
In August 1915, Rev Robert Pearson, who was the former minister at Gaetz Memorial Methodist Church in Red Deer and had a new position with the Y.M.C.A. in Calgary, told the authorities that he had overheard Freytag uttering “seditious words” that were likely to cause “disaffection and discontent” about the War in the community.
The police immediately charged Freytag with sedition. Freytag vigorously protested his innocence. Pearson did not want to see Freytag treated too harshly and refused to cooperate with the prosecution. Hence, the magistrate only sentenced Freytag to report daily to the local “alien registrar”. Nevertheless, Freytag was later interned as an enemy alien for the reminder of the War.
After the War, Victor Freytag returned to Poland. He got a job with the Polish Ministry of Industry and Commerce. He also became a strong supporter of the new government’s determination to stand up to any re-emergence of German and/or Russian imperialism.
However, as yet another war broke out in Central Europe, Freytag became an officer in the Polish artillery. He distinguished himself during the Polish-Soviet War. In particular, he was honoured for his courage during the Battle of Warsaw in the summer of 1920 when the Poles decisively defeated the Russian Bolshevik armies.
Between the two World Wars, Victor Freytag got an important new job with Standard Oil in Poland. Also, despite what had happened in Canada, he kept in touch with his old friends back in Red Deer.
Unfortunately, there is no local record of what happened to Victor Freytag after Poland was invaded by both the Germans and the Russians at the start of the Second World War in September 1939.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.