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
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
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
the Civil War began and U.S. distilleries were closed as non-essential
industry and the border was closed to Canadian Whisky imports.
Americans had acquired a taste for our whisky, however, and what
followed would be only a preview of things to come.
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  … every day Walker’s
distillery was busy loading jugs and casks and barrels into American
boats heading for American shores.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
– Winners and Losers
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
... 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
from “The Rumrunners, a prohibition scrapbook”
by C.H. (Marty) Gervais,
published 1980, Firefly Books Ltd., Scarborough, Ontario
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
here to read the next article in the prohibition 1 issue
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