Ontario’s Bad Old Whisky Days

“If The Boys Wanna Fight You Better Let ‘Em…” (lyric by the late Irish rocker Phil Lynott)

Donald Alexander Smith was a teacher and later the principal of Paris District High School in Paris, Ontario, a small town despite its grand-sounding name.

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, Ontario. Smith was born in Shelburne, Ontario but relocated to Paris for a teaching post and remained in the locality the rest of his life.

He wrote a two-volume history of his adopted Paris called At The Forks Of The Grand, the first volume was published in 1956. The book is an invaluable record of the town’s history. In the introduction Smith states that by 1941 many aspects of town history were being forgotten.

And so he decided to write a history while it could still be compiled, as some invaluable records had already been lost due to floods and other causes.

Below is an image of Paris in the later 1800s.

 

 

In Volume 1 Smith wrote a chapter called simply “Whiskey”. He gives here a fuller account of the American-born Paris distiller Norman Hamilton than has appeared elsewhere, to my knowledge. He explains that Hamilton was an entrepreneur in numerous business fields and succeeded at most.

His interests included a grist mill, gypsum plant, logging to make whiskey kegs, raising hogs, and real estate. After retirement Hamilton joined a Congregational denomination and spent the rest of his days in church work. Parenthetically, Jack Daniel, of American whiskey fame, did something similar late in life.

Smith imparts details of Hamilton’s three marriages and his beautiful home called Hillside, aka Hamilton Place. It still stands in Paris and is a heritage landmark. The home was designed and built by American connections of Hamilton in central New York State, his former bailiwick.

Of whiskey, Smith states that its original price of 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, as in the first half of the 1800s whiskey often was sold diluted.

The bourbon historian Gerald Carson shows this in the American context in his invaluable study (1963) The Social History of Bourbon.

The most impactful part of Smith’s whiskey chapter describes the toll of whisky on social peace and family relations. Smith was not a bluenose, as various parts of the book make clear, but his account of the fighting, riots, and the general disorder whisky caused in Paris, Ontario of the 1800s is, well, sobering.

 

 

It is no wonder the temperance sentiment burgeoned after 1850. Of the many disconcerting stories Smith relates, those pertaining to gangs building railways in Brant County must rank at the top. When the labourers came into Paris to roister on weekends even the town constable and night watchman feared for their safety,

Disorders regularly occurred at the Brick, a red light hotel on the road leading to Brantford, Ontario. Some scenes described by Smith brought to mind western films I saw in boyhood.

There were three distilleries in the lower part of Paris (hence near the water) in 1850 according to Smith’s book. After Hamilton’s distillery closed the others continued for a time but finally all shut. Only a few taverns were allowed licenses by the late 1800s, and the wild west atmosphere of pre-1850 slowly subsided.

Today, tranquil Paris evokes nothing of the raucous whisky era evoked by Donald Smith. It is known as one of Canada’s few art colonies, the obverse of how it started. The town is all wood frame Victorian charm, watered by two rivers and edged in verdant green hills (except in winter!).

Distiller Hamilton’s daughter Elizabeth lived in the family manse after Norman’s death with her husband Paul G. Wickson. Wickson was a noted painter and member of the Royal Canadian Academy. This background encouraged the development of the arts community.

Wickson specialized in pastoral scenes especially grazing livestock and disporting horses. He painted in the aerie at the top of their mansion, shown above in more recent years.

Graceful it still is, as the town that harbours it, a 180 degree turn from the old roughhouse days.

N.B.  In the first image above the wooden structures seen 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 Paris Museum and Historical Society. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.