Growing up as a member of the Firth Motorcycles family gave Sylvia Firth Mitchell more than a love of bikes and a sense of adventure – it also equipped her to open two successful antique and gift shops of her own.
With a keen eye for beautiful and unique objects, Sylvia owned and operated Past & Presents in Inglewood and, later, in downtown Elora. Some of the best-loved shops in their respective areas, the Past & Presents stores were a destination for both local and out-of-town visitors, says daughter Cynthia Mitchell. “Often, it was the first place that they would visit in the area.”
Born at Toronto Grace Hospital, Sylvia Firth was the middle child of Harry Firth and his wife, Hephzibah (Effsie) Parkinson, who had immigrated from Yorkshire, England.
Sylvia’s young life was nearly cut short by a disaster at sea. The Firths frequently made trips to Europe to visit family and friends, and in 1939, the preschooler travelled for the first time, with her mother and sister June aboard the passenger liner SS Athenia. The Second World War broke out as the ship, leaving Glasgow for Montreal, was crossing the Atlantic. In a change of plans, Effsie and the children disembarked in Liverpool. A day later, on Sept. 3, 1939, the Athenia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing 117 passengers and crew members.
Sylvia was raised in a loving home where family came first. She and her sisters, Norma and June, enjoyed spending summers at their cottage at Frenchman’s Bay, exploring Taylor Creek Park, skating in Little Switzerland and sliding down the Scarborough Bluffs to swim in Lake Ontario.
Their father, Harry, ran Firth Motorcycles at 1857 Danforth Ave. for 55 years, selling bikes and parts to everyone from enthusiasts to professional racers to the Toronto Police Service. Dubbed “Mr. Motorcycle” by those in his industry, he also designed and produced the Firth Buddy Seat, an early form of a passenger seat.
Since Firth Motorcycles was a family business, all hands were on deck to fulfil mail orders and to work in the store and at the Toronto Sportsmen’s Show, says Sylvia’s son Trevor Mitchell. Sundays were spent attending races and hill climbs that Harry, a founding member of the Canadian Motorcycle Association, had begun.
“Back then, it was rare for women, particularly young women, to ride motorcycles,” says son Brent Mitchell, “but Sylvia, an avid motorcyclist from her early teens, would love to ride her Excelsior on the trails on the family’s property, and on smaller roads nearby.”
Through the family business, Brent says, Sylvia learned skills to run her future shop: “the importance of hard work, creativity, building strong relationships with both customers and suppliers and the ability to adapt and take chances.”
Sylvia attended Scarborough Village School #9, Ontario Ladies’ College in Whitby (now Trafalgar Castle School) and graduated from Toronto Teachers’ College in 1956.
In 1954, Sylvia saw Don Mitchell on the subway and then at a dance at Leaside High School. Their first date – on the night Hurricane Hazel swept through Toronto – was destined to be a memorable one. Sylvia and Don, a chartered accountant, married in 1957 and had three children – Cynthia, Brent and Trevor – whom they raised in Scarborough and, later, in a large Victorian home in Orangeville. It was there that Sylvia discovered her natural talent for restoration and a love of antiques.
“Sylvia would roll up her sleeves, strip painted woodwork and wallpaper, pull up carpet and repair and paint walls,” says Trevor. “She was very good with her hands.” She soon parlayed her interest into a business, refurbishing old steamer trunks and selling them at the Harbourfront Antique Market in the early ’80s.
Her dream of having an antique and home and garden shop came true with the opening of Past & Presents in Inglewood. In 1993, Sylvia purchased an old building in Elora, which became its new location.
She sourced treasures through auctions and estate sales, refinished abandoned pieces of furniture and awoke at dawn to be first in line at yard sales. “Sylvia and her friends would go to Florida for a few winter months,” Brent says, “and she would return with a van full of neat things for her shop.”
Sylvia looked for old, rare and good quality items. “She could recognize things that would look amazing with a simple sanding and painting or a new frame, or items that were unique and could be repurposed into something new,” says Trevor. “Sometimes she would get things that simply caught her eye and spoke to her in an artistic way.”
With her retirement in 2013, she closed the shop, sold the building and moved to a home overlooking Belwood Lake, where she spent time with family and friends. Her travels took her across Europe, often with her granddaughter Olivia. She loved her day trips to Georgian Bay to watch Trevor scuba dive and going flying with Brent.
Beauty made its way into other areas of her life. As a 20-year member of the Fergus Lioness Club, she did volunteer work; and she contributed to the Elora Business Improvement Area’s beautification project, decorating the town with planters, flowers and stone benches, and waking early to water the potted flowers. For this, the Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce presented her with an award of excellence in 2003.
Sylvia had an eye for finding treasures in unexpected places. Once, an auctioneer asked if anyone wanted an old cupboard that had been used as a chicken coop. “It was full of feathers and things that chickens do,” Cynthia says. “Mom bought it for a dollar. Everyone, including the auctioneer, laughed as she carried it away. She smiled, took it home, refinished it and used it for display in her beautiful store. She could have sold it many times.”
That embodied the spirit of Sylvia’s creativity and kindness. “Whether it was her children, friends or an abandoned piece of furniture that she would lovingly restore,” says Cynthia, “she saw potential in everyone and everything.”
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