The Road To Kingston’s Bier

Look to the centre of the far right-hand portion of this August 19, 1834 issue of the British Whig in Kingston, ON: distiller William Garratt writes a notice to “Agriculturalists and Farmers” telling them if the city continues its opposition to his piggery he will shut the distillery with consequent loss to them of a market for their grain.

The not-so-subtle message: use your influence with city fathers to get them off my case, in your own interest.

The grains, mentioned in the title of the notice, are once again Indian corn and rye. This shows pretty clearly that both were grown in Kingston in this period. The notice to farmers and agriculturalists is to bring “their” corn and rye to Kingston Market. No reference is made to grain agents or brokers or the like. I’m not sure how “agriculturalist” differs from farmer but I doubt it meant grain merchant, in any case farmers are addressed as well.

Garratt argues the odours are transitory for passers-by and no worse than what people experience in their daily activities.

There is correspondence in other issues in the same month from at least one person, anonymous, supporting both Garratt and another distiller, Drummond, in their desire to keep the piggeries operating. The Kingston distiller Molson, of the famed Montreal brewing Molsons, is mentioned too, but not in way to suggest an issue for him or for the Morton distillery, the largest in Kingston.

Probably Molson and Morton’s piggeries (and I’m assuming Morton had one, perhaps he didn’t) were sufficiently removed from human activity to avoid any issue. I don’t think it’s a question of the city preferring the other operations to Garrett’s, as he makes no mention of Molson and Morton in the letter.

In the result, Garrett continued the business so the city must have left him alone. A couple of fires are reported at the distillery in subsequent years, but not serious ones, which is one indication the business continued. Finally, a John Rose leases the distillery from Garrett, and in 1845 announces he has hired a distiller who can make first-rate whiskey, so the business effectively changed hands.

One of the issues in the correspondence was whether cholera in the city, a persistent problem in the early 1830s, was caused by the presence of the animals. Garratt denied any connection.

Early death from epidemic, or inadequate medical care, was an omnipresent risk in the city. One man lost his job due to an improperly set dislocated shoulder and froze in winter after failing to find an “asylum”. One had just closed for lack of sufficient money…

This was the world of early Upper Canada, and Canada West as it was later called, before Confederation in 1867, roiling, insalubrious, dangerous. And Kingston too had the distinction of housing Canada’s capital briefly and being a garrison town and depôt. One can imagine that towns not so benefitted, which was most, probably had it worse. This was so in pioneer life generally whether in Canada or the United States.

Only later in the century did public health measures start to have a real impact. Building effective sewers, water conduits, regulating the worst of industrial nuisances, all this came later.

To live past 65 would have been unusual and into your eighties rather rare before 1850.

In this atmosphere, the presence of breweries and distilleries provided temporary solace to a sorely tried population. Their role was understandable. After 1850 the temperance and abstinence societies started to turn the ship, and did succeed largely in removing liquor from the public face of society. In a word they delegitimized it, which lead finally to provincial-wide prohibition (except for licensed wineries) from 1916-1927.

However, their campaign would never have succeeded had society not progressed, technically and hygienically as it were, beyond the third world conditions that were a fact of life in pre-1850 North America. Indeed some cities continued to experience regular epidemics in late Victorian times as we saw from H. L. Mencken’s recollections of his Baltimore boyhood. Influenza was a scourge in the west up to the First World War.

Note re images: the image above was sourced from the website of the intercity bus service, Megabus, here.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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