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James Scott Cooper

The Amiable Giant of Prohibition
From “The Rumrunners, a prohibition scrapbook”
by C. H. (Marty) Gervais, published 1980
condensed by Laryssa Landale

James 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.

The 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.

Cooper 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.

It 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.

But 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.

Like 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.

Cooper 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.

Although 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.

Cooper 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 products.

A 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.

When 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 businessman bootlegger.”

Arrangements 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.

Farming Innovator

The 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 flashy promoter.

In 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.

Cooper’s 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.

The 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 Ontario.

Cooper 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.

Cooper’s 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.

At 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

Only four years later, when profits from the whisky-trade rolled in, the baron commenced work on a second Cooper Court at Walkerville.

This 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.

The 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.

One 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.

The 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 music.

At 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.

But life in Walkerville wasn’t all fun and games.

James 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.

At 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 for Cooper.

Under 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 Customs.

At 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.

Two 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.

Cooper 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.

News 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.”

Or did he?

Despite 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 warrant.

Did 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’s Legacy

When 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.

Cooper 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.

Cooper’s 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 a dime.”

At 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 gifts.”

Pougnet 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.

In 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.

Sadly, 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.

After 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 these musings.

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