Ontario’s Bad Old Whisky Days

“If The Boys Wanna Fight You Better Let ‘Em…” (from “Boys are Back In Town”, Phil Lynott, 1976)

Donald Alexander Smith was a teacher, and later principal, of Paris District High School in Paris, Ontario. Born in 1905, he was active in teaching for about 40 years starting in 1929. He held two honours degrees from Queen’s University in Kingston, one in history and political science, one in English. He was born in Shelburne, ON but relocated to Paris when taking up his first post and lived in the locality the rest of his life.

Smith wrote a two-volume history of Paris, At The Forks Of The Grand, the first of which was published in 1956. The book is catalogued in the main Ontario libraries and is an invaluable record to chart both contemporary and many historical aspects of the town. In his introduction, Smith states he felt that by 1941, many aspects of the town’s history were being forgotten. Also, some important records had been lost due to floods and other causes. He decided to write the history while it could still be compiled, or so much as was still possible.

In Volume 1, Smith has a chapter entitled simply, Whiskey.

Smith relied on many sources including newspaper accounts, regional histories, and anecdotal evidence. His tone is calm and assured and while the work is neither an academic nor a business history, the whisky chapter is full of interest. It discloses many facets of the role spirits played in Paris and environs.

To my knowledge, his account has not been cited in the numerous scholarly and other works on the history of liquor use, liquor control, taverns, distilling, and related topics in Ontario, except for a listing in the bibliography of Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s The historical geography of the distilling industry in Ontario: 1850-1900 (2000).

MacKinnon does not from what I can tell rely on the text on the account, not surprising as her subject matter is really different. Her purview is Ontario distilling from the standpoint of its historical geography. Also, she focuses mainly on the “Big 5” after 1850, especially Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker.

Smith gives a fuller account of the U.S.-born distiller Norman Hamilton than appeared elsewhere to my knowledge. He explains in good detail that Hamilton was an entrepreneur in numerous fields and successful in most. These included running a grist mill, gypsum plant, logging operation for whiskey kegs, raising hogs, and amassing real estate.

After retirement he joined a Congregational denomination and devoted the rest of his days to church work. (Jack Daniel did something similar later in his life).

Details are given of Hamilton’s three marriages and his beautiful home, Hillside aka Hamilton Place. It still stands in Paris and is a heritage landmark. The home was designed and built by U.S. friends of Hamilton in central New York, his old stomping ground.

Of whisky, Smith states that its original price, 13 cents per gallon, was not cheap because the liquor was not stronger than wine. This ostensibly odd statement makes sense to a whiskey historian though. Before 1860 whiskey often was sold diluted, Gerald Carson discusses this in his well-known, early 1960s The Social History of Bourbon.

The most impactful part of the chapter is the toll whisky took on social peace and family relations. Smith was not a bluenose as various parts of the book make clear, and his account of the fighting, riots, and general disorder caused by whisky in Paris for much of the 1800s has to be taken at face value especially as he often quotes detailed news accounts.

No wonder the abstinence forces gained ground after 1850. Of the many troubling stories told, the ones about the gangs building railways in Brant County are not least compelling. When the men came into town on weekends even the constable and night watchman feared for life and limb.

Some of the disorders involved a cathouse called the Brick, on the road between Paris and Brantford. Volume 2 should be consulted for more in its regard.

Suffice to say that the movie westerns of one’s youth are fully brought to life in the all-too-real events recounted by Smith.

A business directory states there were three distilleries in town in 1850. After Hamilton’s closed the others continued for a time but finally all shut, and only a few taverns were allowed licenses, by the late-1800s. This paralleled the growth of both religious and secular temperance movements in the area. So things did finally settle down.

Smith was a local notable and had solid academic training. Also, volume 1 of his book was only published in 1956, long after most of it was written. All this provides further reason not to doubt his veracity. He wrote popular history, but of the best kind.

Today, tranquil Paris evokes “anything but” the raucous whisky era evoked by Donald Smith. It is in fact a haven for artists and one of Canada’s few art colonies. This is explained by the Victorian charm of the town and beauty of its surroundings, watered by two rivers and edged by rolling green hills (not in winter!).

It is also explained by another, perhaps decisive factor. Norman Hamilton’s daughter, Elizabeth lived in the family mansion after the father’s death with her husband, Paul G. Wickson. He was a noted Canadian painter and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy. He specialized in pastoral scenes especially of grazing livestock and horses. He painted in the aerie at the top of the mansion, pictured above in its latter years and still graceful.

In the first picture above, the wooden structures below the church formed part of the Hamilton distillery.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the County Of Brant Public Library Digital Collections, and also appear courtesy the Paris Museum and Historical Society. All intellectual property in and to the images belongs solely to their lawful owners or authorized users. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.