Whisky’s Role in Early Settlements

Whiskey in the St. Lawrence Lowlands

Earlier, I have written of the vivid reminiscences of Walter B. Leonard, a retired showman from the North Country of New York. He hailed from the part south of the St. Lawrence River east of Lake Ontario. Ontario was to the north and Quebec further to the east.

Ogdensburg and Potsdam are two of the larger towns in the region. The main counties are St. Lawrence and Franklin.

Writing in the 1930s, Leonard recalled his father’s hotel and saloon in Morley, a small crossing a few miles from Potsdam. This was the late 1860s, when he was a teenager.

The account is full of colour and recalled a time when beer and liquor were usual incidents of small town life, part of running a hotel which served varied meals and hosted many special gatherings fondly evoked by Leonard.

If I had a wand and could conjure my own tv program, I would do a Waltonstype show based on his memoir. “Life in Morley” is a good name, or “Morley’s Hotel”.

The prohibition movement hadn’t made much headway in that part of the country then, but finally penetrated the established centres of influence: church, colleges, editorial rooms, legislatures.

Forty years before the Civil War, liquor was even more a part of daily life. It is common to read statements to this effect for early America in general, but not often does one encounter tangible evidence of it. This was provided by Katy Parker, a local historian in Potsdam. In 1913 she wrote a multi-part history of early settlement in Parish, NY for the Potsdam Herald-Recorder. Parish was one of the pioneer towns founded in the area after 1800.

One part of her history deals with the importance of distilleries to local life and the economy. It covers a period more or less co-terminous with the 1812 War. She includes the accounts of a farmer showing daily purchases for his farm. He was someone, she said, who had always been respected as a solid citizen and Christian. Yet liquor figured very large in the accounts, gallons and gallons of whisky and other drinks next to quotidian purchases of lumber and the like.

The liquor was partly used in connection with “training”, which I think must have meant training cattle and horses to carry agricultural implements. (We remember this meaning in the term “drive train”).  Anything to do with the labour of  a farm, especially clearing land and raising buildings and fences required liquor to ease the travail. Sugar and “ginger” also figure in the accounts. Ginger is our old friend from the cocktail posts I wrote a while back, no doubt it was used with the sugar to make early cocktails.

The author’s calculation of distillery profits is, well, sobering. The profit declined when a tax on liquor was re-imposed to help fight the 1812 war with Canada, but as she notes, Mr. Hoard, her example of a county distiller, didn’t stop on that account although he grumbled.

Her account makes clear this liquor was sold new off the still, no aging. It would have been distilled once or twice and probably rectified roughly through charcoal in a tub. It was likely full of fusel oils, but people drank it all the same.

It was this background that enabled a tolerant attitude to booze in the time covered by Leonard’s recollections and well into the 1800s. By 1913 when Katy Parker wrote, times had changed. There is a wondering tone in her account, as if to say, how could things have changed so radically in just 100 years?

A book written in Canada in the 1880s, dealing with Chateauguay, a part of Quebec south of Montreal settled by British immigrants, states that the American North Country sent plenty of contraband whisky to the area. The writer, oddly to my mind, considers that the whisky was based on potatoes (see p. 179). It is odd because Parker mentions the classic American whiskey grains of rye, corn, and barley as the basis of Hoard’s distillations, not the potato.

Maybe some New York distillers did use potatoes, perhaps too in the riparian counties east of St. Lawrence County. Anyway, the book does confirm that lots of whiskey was made upstate in New York in the early 1800s and found its way to Canada.

Of course, what is across the water from Ogdensburg? Prescott. Who founded a distillery there? John P. Wiser, one of the Big 5 in Ontario before consolidation in the 1920s. What did Wiser make? Rye whisky. Where was he from? Oneida County, NY, just south of the region we are talking about.* What did Hiram Walker, another American, make in Canada? Rye whisky. Two communities separated by a border but of largely British origins and unified culture, making the same kind of whisky after rum lost its hegemony in the wake of the American Revolution.

Later, the whisky types, although not so much the ingredients, diverged, but until the Civil War cousin-distillers would have made similar products: rye- and corn-based whisky, with not too much aging, and lotsa taste from rudimentary distillation. And yes, maybe some potato spirit crept in there, an early form of vodka.

Note re images: the image above of Ogdensburg was sourced at this geneology site. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*At least one account stated he was Vermont-born, see this obituary in 1911 in an Ogdensburg paper. At all events he had an extensive American background before moving to Prescott.

[See as continuation Part II of this account].