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Walker’s Whistle: Memories Blowing in the Wind

By Shelley Divinich Haggert

Born in Walkerville in 1912, Bill Spears has fond memories of his childhood. Though his family ‘left town,’ moving to Riverside in 1922, Bill never really left Walkerville. Working at Hiram Walkers Ltd. for nearly 40 years may have had something to do with it.

"Life revolved around Walker’s whistle," recalls Bill. "When the whistle blew in the morning, you knew it was time to start the day. At noon, the whistle told you how long you had before it was time to go back to school. No one needed to call their children in for supper; the whistle did it for them. And at nine at night, you’d better be home when that whistle blew."

Bill attended St. Mary’s Anglican Church as a child. He recalls the cards given to Sunday school children each week, with Bible verses to memorize. Once a youngster had memorized 50 weeks’ worth of cards, they were rewarded with a ticket to Boblo Island, location of a popular amusement park; most children were successful.

Bill attended King Edward School. At the time there would have been five or six classrooms. He fondly recalls Miss Love, his kindergarten teacher, placing his schoolwork at the front of the room for all the parents to see on Parent’s Night.

The birth of Bill’s younger sister made him a star amongst his peers. When the time came, Bill was sent to Mrs. Smale’s boarding house to call for the doctor on the telephone. Bill placed the call himself; the first time he’d ever used a telephone. His classmates were more impressed with the tale of the phone call than they were with the new baby.

Bill and his buddies would hang around Walkerville Lumber after school, waiting for the foreman to notice them. Eventually, the foreman would give them each a pile of sticks, which they happily turned into kite frames, adding paper donated by the butcher, and glue made by Bill’s mother. By pooling their pocket change, they could purchase a roll of string, and enjoy their efforts for hours.

According to Bill, the fence around Willistead was erected after Mrs. Chandler Walker discovered people engaging in "inappropriate activity" on the grounds. The gates were locked every night at nine, and proved to be irresistible to adventurous climbers. Scottish Masons were imported to build the fence by the Walkers in 1914.

When his family moved to the wilds of Riverside, Bill and his siblings hated it. Compared to Walkerville, and their house on Monmouth Road, con-ditions were primitive.
No electricity, no toilet, no bathtub, all things they had taken for granted in Walkerville.

Bill served in World War II, right here in Windsor. He surmises that because he joined up in Riverside, a bureaucrat somewhere probably assumed Riverside was a great distance from Windsor.

Although he applied to go to sea, it never came through, and Bill contributed to the war effort by transporting troops between Windsor and Montreal or Halifax.

After the war, Bill, a boat-builder by trade, applied for a vat-building job at Hiram Walker Ltd. He convinced the boss to hire him by arguing that if he could keep water out of a boat, he could probably keep whiskey in a barrel. Bill was hired for the temporary job, and retired from Walker’s forty years later as a general foreman.

Bill saw many changes in his four decades at Walker’s. He worked on several construction and renovation efforts. During one of these, Bill discovered a set of Christmas cards once commissioned by Hiram himself, featuring scenes of Walkerville. The cards now hang proudly in Bill’s home, carefully mounted and framed.

Technology moved into Walker’s. Barrels were once raised by hand, using pulleys and block-and-tackle, as electric engines created dangerous sparks.

Today, everything is automated. Where 150 men once worked in the racks with Bill, there were six when he retired in the early 1980’s.

The face of Walker’s employees changed too. Initially, most employees were of English, Irish or Scottish descent. Today, the workforce is much more culturally diverse.

Bill Spears still lives in Riverside in a house he and his wife built after the war, which is filled with examples of his woodworking – a hobby he picked up after retirement.

What does he miss the most from his days at Hiram Walker? "The drive along the river," asserts Bill, "gazing at the water and all those boats."



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