This exhibit was curated by Eva Lau, with assistance from Amber Keegan.

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Harry and Violet ByersHarry Byers was born to Andrew Byers and Caroline Grand on July 31, 1896 in Brodhagen, Ontario. At the outbreak of the First World War, Harry lived in Kansas, Missouri, and was enlisted into the US Army on June 2, 1917. He served as a mechanic in both the American and Canadian Armies until May 4, 1918, when he was honourably discharged due to arthritis in his left hip.

After the war, Harry worked as an instructor at the Sweeney Automobile and Electrical School, before marrying Violet Boyers on October 21, 1929 in Burlington, Iowa. He was then employed by the Grain Trust to travel to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) between 1930-1931 to instruct Soviets on the operation of large machinery, as a part of the First Russian Five Year Plan. His wife, Violet, accompanied him, and the Byers lived and worked in various Russian cities, including Grozny, Moscow, and Nikolsk (now Ussuriysk), among others.

The pair experienced many hardships in the Soviet Union, which they record in a shared journal. The language barrier proved very challenging and Violet was often overcome with illness. Moreover, the lack of food and extreme cold often left them struggling to survive. Following the end of Harry's contract, the couple returned to the United States in 1931, and lived in Iowa until 1938 before returning to Canada to settle in the Waterloo Region.

Harry Byers instructing mechanics

Harry instructing students on machine operation.


1. The First Five Year Plan, 1928-1932

2. Chinese Civil War, 1927-1950

3. Life in the USSR, 1930-1931

4. Back in North America (1931-)

5. Differing Experiences

Special Collections & Archives houses several items relating to the life of Harry Byers as part of the Harry Byers fonds. Material include biographical documents, ephemera, correspondence, photographs, and his journal in the USSR.