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 and distilling in Ontario except in 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 her account though. This is not surprising as her subject matter is really different from his. Her purview is Ontario distilling from the standpoint of its historical geography. And, she focuses mainly on the “Big 5” after 1850, especially Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker.

Smith gives a fuller account of U.S.-born distiller Norman Hamilton than has appeared elsewhere to my knowledge. He explains in good detail how 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 real estate.

After retirement he joined a Congregational denomination and spent the rest of his days in church work. (Jack Daniel, of American whiskey fame, did something similar later in his life).

We are told details of Hamilton’s three marriages and his beautiful home, Hillside a.k.a Hamilton Place. It still stands in Paris and is a heritage landmark. The home was designed and built by U.S. connections 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 since the liquor was not stronger than wine. This ostensibly odd statement -whisky is at least 40% alcohol today – makes sense though. Before 1860 whiskey often was sold diluted. Gerald Carson discusses this in the American context in his well-known 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. His account of the fighting, riots, and general disorder whisky caused in Paris in the 1800s has to be taken at face value. Indeed 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 a solid academic training. Also, volume 1 of his book was only published in 1956, long after most of it was written. All this is 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 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!).

Another, perhaps decisive factor is that Norman Hamilton’s daughter Elizabeth lived in the family mansion after Norman’s death with 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 today.

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.