Hiram Walker, Whisky Industrialist in Walkerville, Ontario
Hiram Walker, an American who crossed the Detroit River into Canada, building his own distillery, his own town of Walkerville, while helping other businesses to flourish
While not a Canadian citizen, Hiram Walker was one of the great businessmen of Canada. He built industries and in the process created his own town for his employees. He kept a bright eye on all aspects of his thriving enterprises and was a man who insisted on complete control.
Born on July 4, 1816 in Douglas, Massachusetts, Hiram Walker moved to Detroit, Michigan when he was 22 years old. Always an innovative spirit, he attempted a number of businesses without success. One business took hold in 1850: Walker Wholesale and Retail Store. After several years of selling goods including alcohol, Walker decided to test the distilling business himself for a better profit margin. His whisky hit the spot with customers.
With Michigan leaning toward temperance and limiting alcohol production, Canada’s looser laws attracted Walker’s attention. Barely one mile across the river from Detroit, Walker purchased acreage near Windsor in what was then Upper Canada, and began construction with an investment of $40,000. By 1857, his holdings included a distillery, flour mill, grocery store, vinegar factory and livestock farms. (The livestock were fed the mash left over from the distilling works.)
Walkerville had the newest amenities
The Walker family of Hiram, his wife Mary Abigail and their seven children moved into The Cottage near the distillery in 1859. The first stirrings of the company town were happening, housing 80 to 100 workers at first. Named Walkerville, the village grew rapidly. Under Walker’s exacting direction, sturdy well-built homes were constructed. Street lights, paved and drained roads, running water and a water-pumping station were the modern new conveniences added for workers’ comfort. Churches and schools were built. He also established and paid for a fire department and police force. New hires were offered to lease homes in Walkerville and refusals, according to WalkervilleTimes.com, might have lead to a rescinded job offer. Six hundred workers and their families lived in Walkerville by the late 1880s.
Seeing that his businesses were under control and running smoothly, mentioned Biographi.ca, Walker and his wife returned to their home in Detroit in 1864, and he became an early commuter. Mary Abigail Walker died of heart disease in 1872 at the young age of 46.
Raised to be businessmen, Walker’s sons joined him in the creation of a ferry service crossing the Detroit River, called the Walkerville and Detroit Ferry. Around the same time, the Canadian government was offering subsidies for railway construction. The Walker men took up the offer building a railway expansion in 1885. The Lake Erie and Detroit River Railway became an essential line for new industry, giving farmers and fishermen access to larger markets.
Canadian Club Whisky became famous
The Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery flourished, producing 27 varieties of whisky to tantalize the thirsty customers. “Club Whisky”, Walker’s premium brand, aged in oak barrels for an unusually long seven years. Then the astute businessman did another curious move for the time – he bottled the fine whisky. Oddly, sales were slow; Walker’s Aged Rum lead in sales. In 1882, the Canadian government stepped in with the “Bottled in Bond Law,” a guarantee of age. The premium rye was renamed Canadian Club Whisky. “The simple process gave consumers confidence in whisky products and made Canadian whisky famous throughout the world,” noted WalkervilleTimes.com
Other industries sprung up in Walkerville with the encouragement (and in some cases, financial support) of Hiram Walker. Companies grew, such as Globe Furniture Canada, Ontario Basket Company, Parke Davis and Company, and Walkerville Wagon Works, later to transform into Ford Motor Company of Canada. Walkerville was a true hub of industrial activity. (See First Production Car: Ford)
Walkerville incorporated as a town
To prevent early amalgamation with the city of Windsor, Walkerville petitioned the Ontario government for incorporation as a town. On April 7, 1890, the industrial town was incorporated with Walker’s nephew, Hiram Alexis Walker as its first mayor.
The elder Walker was relieved of his maintenance duties of the police and fire departments, being operated by the new town managers instead. The gas and water operations became Walkerville Gas and Water Company Limited.
Not contented with “only” his Canadian works, Walker held many business interests in Detroit, including iron works, railways, car factories and banks, plus large real estate holdings. He was a magnificent entrepreneur.
After having a seizure, Hiram Walker fell into a coma then died on January 12, 1899 at his home in Detroit. He left a legacy of family, philanthropy, business ingenuity and vision. Walker wrote an important chapter in Canadian History.
Sold several times later, the once bright future of Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery lost lustre in the early 1900s – the dark clouds of World War One and Prohibition were approaching.
This article was first published on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod