Amiable Giant of Prohibition
From “The Rumrunners, a prohibition scrapbook”
by C. H. (Marty) Gervais, published 1980
condensed by Laryssa Landale
Cooper was one of the few giants from
the prohibition era to die rich. From humble beginnings as an office
boy and “news butcher,” Cooper became one of the wealthiest
and most powerful liquor barons in Canada.
bright, amused eyes and the crooked bow tie epitomized the congenial
and unpredictable nature of James Cooper. His photographs in the
newspapers seemed to reflect a peculiar blend of playful enthusiasm
and reckless daring.
was a man of adventure, an enterprising hustling tireless worker,
who would sit amid a stack of newspapers and financial reports in
his chauffeur-driven car on his way to the office, absorbed in reading
about the latest inventions and money developments.
was a good life – people catering to his every whim. His name
commanded attention and respect. He was the ostentatious millionaire
who built the luxurious and enviable Cooper Court, a rambling, grand
mansion that earned him a position in the town founded by liquor
baron Hiram Walker.
James Cooper remembered his roots. His quick ascent to wealth had
not blurred the vivid memory of what it had been like to struggle
and to be poor. Cooper benevolently dispensed his riches, channelling
great amounts of money into orphanages, schools, recreational schemes
and farming ventures. He was considered a likeable philanthropist.
so many in Walkerville, Cooper’s fortune was tied to the consumer’s
taste for alcohol. But in a sense, James Cooper was never considered
a bootlegger. He never rowed boats laden with crates of whisky,
and he never stole silently from Windsor carrying illicit shipments
of liquor to Detroit’s blind pigs.
was more conservative and far more clever. He sought and found loopholes
in the law, whereby he could sell and deliver liquor to Ontario
residents on a completely legal basis.
Ontario had voted for prohibition in October 1919, residents were
still permitted to purchase liquor for “home use.” Saloons,
bars and traditional liquor outlets were boarded up, but booze for
private consumption could still be imported. Ontario’s distilleries
and breweries were not allowed to sell stock to Ontario residents
on a direct basis. As a result, Quebec’s distilleries became
the main suppliers of “Demon Rum” – until James
Cooper’s arrived on the scene.
discovered there was nothing in the law to prevent Ontario distilleries
from filling any orders not originating within the province. He
set up shop across the river in Detroit and took orders by phone
from customers in Windsor. He worked both on a commission basis
for Hiram Walker and Sons and as a director for Dominion Distillery
close associate of Cooper’s told the Border Cities Star (February
16, 1931), “He simply walked into his Detroit office in the
morning, picked up the Ontario orders and cheques on his desk, and
came back across the river to leave them at Walker’s distillery.
The firm would then make deliveries in Ontario or elsewhere, on
the strength of those orders. This was quite legal.” And it
was an arrangement that lasted for two years. It was Cooper’s
brand of importation, since the distillery in Windsor merely acted
as a warehouse, while the liquor was really being sold from Detroit.
Ontario laws changed to prohibit importation, Cooper engaged in
the lucrative “export” business. Appointed by the Walker
distillery as its agent, in a very real sense Cooper became “the
were made on paper and conducted behind a desk, but liquor was still
the commodity – and it was being funnelled into blind pigs
and bootlegging joints in Detroit.
Because of Cooper’s refined manners and his bearing, he appeared
less corrupt than others who openly bribed provincial officers in
isolated railway sidings at night. Cooper managed to escape those
shady dealings and kept his reputation intact. He cleverly created
for himself an aura in the community as a charming financier with
an altruistic nature.
son of William Cooper, a locomotive engineer, James Cooper was born
in London, Ontario in 1874. After high school, he was employed as
a routine office clerk, first with H. Leonard and Sons in London,
and then for the Grand Trunk Railroad.
After a couple of years, a dispirited Cooper quit the Grand Trunk
to work for the Pere Marquette Railway. He landed a job as a “news
butcher,” selling candies, cigarettes, fruits and newspapers
on trains running between London and Rochester, New York. On one
of these runs, Cooper met his first wife. A few years later she
died, leaving him a “tidy” estate.
Returning in 1910 to the Windsor-Detroit area, he operated several
saloons, speculated in real estate and soon was recognized as a
1918, one of his schemes not only attracted wide attention but helped
revolutionize farming in Essex County. Cooper bought a 105-acre
farm near Belle River and set about to tile the acreage so that
spring planting could commence ten to fifteen days earlier than
normal. Draining with clay tiles was a new concept in this community.
Cross-ditches were the only means of drainage. Tiling seeming like
an expensive and risky proposition, but it proved to be the long
awaited innovation needed in Essex County’s farming community.
tiling experiment caught on, and soon neighbouring farmers wanted
to tile their own farms, yet few could afford it. The adventurous
Cooper declared he would sell tiles at cost to farmers. Cooper hired
a crew to commence construction of a tiling factory on his own farm.
In no time at all, the new business was manufacturing more than
10,000 tiles and 20,000 bricks daily.
Belle River experiment led to other ventures- Cooper had caught
the entrepreneur’s bug. Cooper’s investments in agriculture
were forward-thinking, and they had a major impact upon southwestern
virtually revolutionized the egg and poultry industry in Essex County,
organized orchard and grape production, introduced tobacco farming,
boosted the dairy and cattle industry, initiated the widespread
practice of deep ploughing and mechanized farming, created muskrat
farms, increased sugar beet yields, and established enormous sheep
ranches. He also built the Belle River Seed and Grain Company.
energy was boundless and was matched only by his incredible generosity.
Farm boys were handpicked by Cooper and sent, all expenses paid,
to the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph to learn about the
most advanced and innovative methods in farming.
the centre of this whirlwind of rural activity stood Cooper. His
influence, power and money was symbolized by his first Cooper Court
– a two-story structure in Belle River, constructed in 1920
at a cost of $40,000.
From The Rumrunners, C.H. Gervais
four years later, when profits from the whisky-trade rolled in,
the baron commenced work on a second Cooper Court at Walkerville.
mansion, completed in 1925, outshone the and virtually outclassed
all of Walkerville, surpassing even the grand Willistead Manor built
by Chandler Walker, a son of Hiram Walker.
magnificent $200,000 forty-room Cooper Court occupied an entire
city block. A colossal organ piped music to every room in the mansion
and played music rolls like a player piano but with complete fidelity
of natural tone, cost Cooper more than $50,000.
In the court of the Cooper King:
James Cooper built two mansions, one in Belle River (above), and
the spectacular manor in Walkerville (below), which was kitty corner
to Low’s mansion.
wing featured a conservatory and a terrazzo-tiled swimming pool.
The large pool included an all-glass enclosure with a domed roof.
Dozens of potted plants adorned the ledges of the pool and hung
from the glass roof. Dressing rooms were provided at either side.
top floor was taken up almost entirely by a large ballroom, and
featured a billiard room. This was also used as a schoolroom for
the Cooper children when the family first moved there. James Cooper
had arranged for a nun to call every day and direct the education
of his son and two daughters. The children also studied French and
the other end of the ballroom, Cooper installed a cedar lined room
to store winter clothing and furs, and next to this, an exercise
room was equipped with massage tables.
life in Walkerville wasn’t all fun and games.
Cooper, whose influence and money extended to distilleries and major
shipping and export companies, became the target of the Federal
Government’s scrutiny into wrongdoing and unpaid duties.
the 1926 Stevens Customs committee hearings, Cooper dramatically
unveiled his operation of liquor exports. He said Dominion Distillery
Products, of which he had been a director, purchased liquor from
Hiram Walker and Sons and sold it to their customers. Cooper also
acted as a “go-between” for both companies, and as a
result would tack on his own profits. Those profits amounted to
one dollar per case for Dominion Distillery Products and one dollar
questioning, Cooper calmly admitted that he sold liquor to “a
whisky jobber” by the name of Scherer in Detroit. He said
he didn’t know the whereabouts of the rum runner, but confessed
that if he needed to make a deal with Scherer, he could be contacted
through the Statler Hotel in Detroit. Cooper emphasized that duty
on those shipments to Scherer, and others like him, had already
been paid to the Canadian Government, emphasizing, too, that liquor
he bought from Hiram Walker and Sons, had never been “short
circuited” to Windsor locations, thereby failing to clear
the end of the roaring twenties, Cooper left Walkerville and took
up residence in Switzerland. A series of illnesses, including high
blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, left him incapacitated.
weeks before his “death” in 1931, Cooper returned by
train to southwestern Ontario on a business trip, but disembarked
at London, Ontario because he had been overcome by sickness.
hastened back to New York and bought passage aboard the S.S. Deutschland
to Europe. On this Atlantic journey, the flamboyant Walkerville
millionaire fell overboard and drowned.
of the mishap reached Windsor February 10, 1931 when Helen Cooper,
his wife, sent a cablegram from Vevey, Switzerland that “Daddy
fell overboard yesterday. Body not recovered.”
his illness, some concluded that Cooper actually fled the Border
Cities because federal authorities were chasing him and a Michigan
bootlegging gangs had “put out a hit on him”- a death
he actually cut short his southwestern Ontario visit because he
learned that he might be the target of vindictive gang leaders from
Detroit who felt they had been cheated during the bootlegging days
of the twenties?
Cooper died he left an estate of $490,000 in cash to his wife and
their three children. That amount did not include the magnificent
Walkerville mansion, which years before had been transferred into
his wife’s name.
also left behind the Belle River Cooper Court and more than 500
acres of farmland at Belle River, St. Joachim, Tilbury, and Anne’s
Island near Wallaceburg.
financial empire was diverse, built on ingenuity, clever insights
into the existing laws and loopholes of government regulations –
and it had been built on booze. Cooper went from obscurity to the
pinnacle of Walkerville’s high society. But unlike many from
that era who had made big money from whisky, Cooper resisted the
temptation to invest in the stock market, and as a result was one
of the few to emerge unscathed from the October 1929 stock market
meltdown. His business manager claimed Cooper “never lost
the time of his death, Pougnet [his secretary and business manager]
told newspapers that the Walkerville millionaire’s only fault
was his big-hearted generosity. He conceded that although Cooper
was wealthy, “he gave it away as fast as he got it,”
and noted that the public’s memory of Cooper’s philanthropy
was “only an inkling of the magnitude of Mr. Cooper’s
said Cooper preferred to keep his gifts private, but they extended
far and wide. In Belle River, Cooper built the town’s first
high school, the first ballpark and even paid for all the children
in the town to have haircuts and their teeth fixed.
his hometown of London, Ontario, Cooper poured money into two orphanages,
and transported children to Port Stanley for an annual picnic. Cooper,
like Harry Low and other giants during prohibition, was a legend
in his own time.
his sprawling, grand Walkerville manor was dismantled and the land
sold when it became too expensive to maintain. The only vestige
of that era and the extravagant forty-room mansion in Walkerville
is a much smaller house built by Cooper’s wife on Devonshire
Road near Ontario Street. It utilized salvageable materials including
bricks, windows, panelling and staircase from the Cooper mansion.
James Cooper’s alleged death in 1931, rumours circulated throughout
the Border Cities that he had, in fact, faked his own death to avoid
further pursuit by his prohibition rivals. The circumstances surrounding
his supposed demise and the fact that his body was never found supported
here to read the next article in the prohibition 2 issue
to prohibition main