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The Windsor/Walkerville Connection

by Art Jahns, Archivist, Hiram Walker & Sons

Because of a strengthening U.S. temperance movement in the 1850s, American distiller Hiram Walker came to Canada and established operations just outside Windsor. By the turn of the century, his Canadian Club whisky and his model town Walkerville were world-famous.

In the early 1800s, the consumption per capita of alcoholic beverages was at levels that would shock us today. It was a time before colas and other soft drinks, before fruit juices, even coffee and tea were often hard to obtain in frontier areas. Without refrigeration, even milk was at a premium.

Whisky filled the bill and became the main beverage of pioneers. It was made locally in the mills and cost only 25 cents a gallon to produce. “Coffee breaks” for labourers were actually “whisky breaks.” Most people of the period also believed in the medicinal value of whisky. The negative side of excessive whisky consumption was downplayed, but with the passing of time, the problems became more and more evident.

Temperance movements had been in existence during this time, but now they gained in momentum, preaching the evils of drink. These leagues for the most part did not promote the complete elimination of alcoholic drinks but rather conservative and intelligent consumption.

In Canada and especially the United States, saloons became a social mecca without equal. In an effort to draw more patrons, saloons created the “free lunch.” Free only after the patron had laid down his money for drinks. The best free lunches were in Chicago.

From an 1890s survey, the following amount was consumed per day in a Chicago saloon: “150 to 200 pounds of meat, 2 bushels of potatoes, 50 loaves if bread, 35 pounds of beans, 45 dozen eggs, and 10 dozen ears of corn plus a variety of vegetables.” We can only imagine the amount of alcoholic drink that was served to cover the cost of food and provide a profit for the saloon-keeper.

A woman at the head of a San Francisco temperance league declared that when her sons began their business life, they found themselves practically compelled to resort to the saloons for their midday lunches. No doubt the free food was an enticement, and they would have paid for a few glasses of whiskey to wash it down.

All of this activity brought with it heavier whisky consumption and more social problems. Public drunkenness was all too common. Unfortunately this was, in many cases, the least offensive result of too much drink. Federal governments passed few laws to stem the problem and the temperance movements evolved to become the main “dry” force.

One temperance law that did have some impact was the “Maine Law” of 1854. This law managed to close some saloons and retail liquor outlets. The problem was that the law was enforced at the local level and some police were easily bribed. In spite of the shortcomings of the law, it had moderate success and several U.S. states adopted it, including Michigan.

Distillers and liquor merchants became genuinely concerned, including Hiram Walker of Detroit. In 1856 Hiram decided to come to Canada and set up operations outside Windsor in what was to become Walkerville. Temperance leagues were also in Canada but they seemed to have less of a presence than their counterparts in the U.S.

This move was to have profound consequences for Hiram Walker. A mere three years after he began The Windsor Distillery and Flouring Mill (later Hiram Walker’s & Sons) prohibition hit hard in the United States. This proved to be a windfall for Walker.

Then the Civil War began and U.S. distilleries were closed as non-essential industry and the border was closed to Canadian Whisky imports.

The Americans had acquired a taste for our whisky, however, and what followed would be only a preview of things to come.

According to Francis Chauvin in “The Life and Times of Hiram Walker,” written in 1927, “The demand for alcoholic beverages was so great that smuggling of Canadian made whiskies became as profitable an occupation as it is now [1927] … every day Walker’s distillery was busy loading jugs and casks and barrels into American boats heading for American shores.”

The Civil War had not changed drinking habits and the temperance leagues continued to grow in number and strength. In Canada the temperance movement also continued to grow. By 1898 the government was pressured to have a national plebiscite on the issue of prohibition. Although 52% of the vote was in favour, a very low voter turn out and issues with Quebec and British Colombia resulted in the government’s refrain from action.

During prohibition, Walkerville’s Hiram Walker & Sons continued to bottle large quantities of whisky.

The issues of “wet” versus “dry” remained unchanged for another twenty years. Then a war fought half way around the world forced change. In 1914 World War I began – the war that was to end by Christmas dragged on for years.

From a prohibition standpoint things moved quickly. In 1917 the United States entered the war and again their distilleries were closed and importation of whiskey was outlawed. American drinkers had anticipated this might happen and U.S. sales of Canadian Club had doubled in 1917.

Tunnel Vision

Thanks to the Civil War, a Cdn dollar was worth a whopping $2.50 U.S. (Those were the days!) Being a visionary, Hiram Walker purchased as many U.S. dollars as he could.

At the same time, demand for alcohol was so great that his distillery was busy loading whisky into boats headed for thirsty Americans. By the time the war ended and the U.S. dollar returned to par, Walker was a rich man.

Walker's success made competitors jealous; from a place called "Swill Point" in Detroit, a concocted story emerged that in order to avoid customs, he had constructed a whisky pipeline under the river from his distillery in Walkerville to his Detroit property at 35 Atwater St. Variations of this legend persist to this day.

Walker did use pipelines to move mash from his distillery to his livestock barns at Tecumseh & Walker. In the above photo, from The Windsor Star, Norbert Poggio inspects at a section of wooden mash pipe unearthed on Monmouth Road during watermain construction in 1994.

This was another windfall for Hiram Walker but the financial gain was to be short lived. In 1918 the Canadian government closed all distilleries and breweries as a non-essential industry for the war effort. By the end of the year all distilleries, breweries, and wineries in both countries had closed. Complete prohibition had been achieved as a direct result of WWI.

It was after the war that all the problems with prohibition really began. Canada, a much smaller country population-wise, was more vulnerable to the affect that prohibtion had on the liquor industries, which provided local employment and substantial revenue for the government. As a result, Canadian distillers were allowed to reopen shortly after the end of the war.

The United States took a different approach: distilleries, breweries and wineries remained closed. The U.S. government had struggles with this issue for years and now decided to take a stand in favour of the “drys.” The Volstead Act passed in 1920 to enforce this stance.

Since the American public still wanted to drink they turned to the Canadians distillers, now in legal operation, for their supply. When the U.S. authorities cracked down on the Detroit/Windsor border in the late 1920s most of the smuggling efforts moved to the East Coast.

The shiploads of contraband liquor that left the coast proved much more lucrative than the jalopy-and-rowboats methods of the Detroit River smuggling business. This change in logistics pushed the industry to new heights.

A royal commission was set up in the mid-20s to investigate the issue of bootlegging. The commission went to every city in Canada, coast to coast, ordering people to testify about their activities or involvement in this phenomenon. No sentences were handed out; it was merely a fact-finding mission.

Hiram Walker’s descendents, who still owned and ran the distillery at the time, admitted to the production of alcohol. However, they did not own the docks and thus were not responsible for any illegal activities that occurred there. The Walker family’s involvement was deemed above board and there were no repercussions.

Interestingly, there is very little concrete information available about Hiram Walker’s & Sons involvement in prohibition, either during the 19th or the 20th century. This is likely due to the fact that the Walker family wished to downplay the role they played.

It is also believed that prohibition was the reason why the Walker sons and grandsons sold the company in 1927 and moved to the United States.

Prohibition – Winners and Losers

“Prohibition failed. At least, it fell short for the temperance societies, churches and fanatic evangelists who authored the legislation. But for the owners of blind pigs, the bootleggers, the rumrunners and gangsters, the roadhouse proprietors, the police, the magistrates, the spotters, the boaters and armies of others, it was a roaring success. It meant work. Employment. Easy money. Cash in the pocket. Good times. Shiny new cars. New suits.

... Little did enemies of moonshine and saloons realize that upon creating prohibition and putting liquor out of the reach of the general population, they had in effect created a monster.

For instead of society turning reflectively upon itself to ponder the common good, it reacted by plunging headlong into one of the wildest, most violent and colourful of times – The Roaring Twenties.”

from “The Rumrunners, a prohibition scrapbook” by C.H. (Marty) Gervais,
published 1980, Firefly Books Ltd., Scarborough, Ontario

Rumrunner Jim Cooper
an amiable philanthropist, Coopoer worked his way up from news vendor to millionaire selling booze in huge quantities. He built a mansion the size of half a city block in Olde Walkerville that was even more opulent than Willistead Manor. Cooper reportedly gave away his money as fast as he made it. He disappeared in 1931, supposedly having fallen overboard from a German ocean liner. Look for an in-depth profile of Cooper in the April issue of The Times.

from “The Rumrunners, a prohibition scrapbook” by C.H.(Marty) Gervais

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