‘Voices from Lambton’s Past’: Sarnia’s own brewery failed to survive two prohibitions

Unlike many other counties in Upper Canada, Lambton County never was home to a large number of producers of spiritous liquids during the 1800’s. Perhaps because of the type of settler, many of whom abstained from alcohol; perhaps because the effect of strong  temperance supporters such a s Malcolm Cameron and Uncle Joe Little limited the potential markets; perhaps because Lambton was settled late, allowing competition from outside Lambton to keep local efforts to establish breweries in check.

There was a small distillery in Florence during the 1830’s, one in Alvinston during the 1850’s, and in the 1860’s, small companies manufacturing alcohol started up in Moore, Sarnia and Warwick.

But there was a brewery established in Sarnia in 1861 when George Russell began the Sarnia Brewery on Front Street in the rear of the Bank of Upper Canada. His listing in the Sarnia Directory stated that George Russell was a “maltster and brewer of ale and porter, a dealer in malt and hops”.

Despite competition from beer imported from London, Toronto and Montreal, the locals imbibed enough of Russell’s ales and porter that he enjoyed 15 years in the business of providing libations. Russell used some of the profits to invest in real estate along a street on the outer edge of Sarnia, a street which we now know as Russell Street.

Because of failing health, George Russell leased his brewery in 1876 to his brother John, who after a few years leased the business in 1883 to A.E. Sinclair. Sinclair was not as fortunate. Local option prohibition would force him into insolvency.

Let’s join Emma, the youngest daughter of Edmund Sinclair, 10 years of age when her father’s business went bankrupt in 1883.

Fifty years later, she is sitting in her parlour with her father and her own son, Albert Edward, known as A.E., named after his grandfather. The three of them are talking about the headline in the Sarnia Canadian Observer that day ‘Prohibition Ends in U.S.’.

End of Prohibition – 1933

“Grandpa, you owned a brewery at one time. Did you lose it because of prohibition?”

“No, A.E. As you know from this newspaper, prohibition was in effect south of the border from 1919 to 1933. But it did come much earlier here in Canada.  It was back in 1878 that the government of the Prime Minister at that time, Lambtonite Alexander Mackenzie, was able to pass legislation called the Canada Temperance Act or Scott Act. It inflamed supporters on both sides of the debate about the evils of alcohol. But it was different from the later US prohibition.

“The Scott Act provided for a local-option statute at the city or county level which could only come into effect when approved by voters during a municipal plebiscite. Lambton’s only Scott Act regime began on 1 May 1886, after my business had already closed. It lasted for three years, causing great despair and loss of sales for local hotel-keepers.

“Here in Lambton, the Lambton Scott Act Association, led by J.S. McCrae, was formed and appointed a special constable, M.S. Campbell of Watford, to try to ensure that enforcement would result in a higher conviction rate in Lambton than in other counties.

“Mr. Campbell’s strong enforcement of the criminal justice system was intolerable to local hoteliers. One of their number, Sarnian Charles Hand, tried to intimidate J.S. McCrae by dynamiting his residence in the early morning of 10 June 1886. Fortunately, no injuries resulted from the explosion and there was only minor damage.

“The Scott Act was repealed in the late 1800’s. But Prohibition would again come into effect in all of Ontario for a few years following passage of the Ontario Temperance Act of 1916.”

“What happened to your business, Grandpa?”

“When I lost it, the a family by the name of Heuser, from Marine City, across the river, bought the brewery and continued to operate it under the Heuser family name in the same building until the late 1890’s.

“The Sarnia Brewery was re-established about eight years ago by a brewer named Casimir Kocot, who believed that American prohibition, now in effect, would continue and knew that Sarnia’s location would be ideal for beer-smuggling.

“He produced beers with names that closely resembled American brands, names like Olympic Rice Beer, Red River Ale and Blue Ribbon Lager. His beer was exported using the tested method of scows built for speed which would race across the St Clair at night, or by sneaking an extra box car, loaded with beer, on a train bound for Port Huron through the St Clair Tunnel. Detroit proved to be the Sarnia Brewing Company’s biggest customer.

“Kocot also founded the Sarnia Wine & Cognac Company in 1927 which produced a quickly made spirit called Hit Parade Gin also intended for sale across the border. Looks like Kocot got out at the right time. Last year, he sold his interest to a group which changed the name to Sarnia Breweries.

“But, mark my word. The repeal of Prohibition across the border will be the death knell for Sarnia Breweries.”

“Grandpa, I know a lot of alcohol somehow got across the border over the years since prohibition. How did they do it without getting caught?”

“Well, A.E., sometimes they did get caught. But, more often, they did not. To many, it was well worth the risk.

“Stag Island was a great place for rum-running, as they called it. From there to the USA was a short run. Apparently the Royal Canadian Mounted Police put no obstacles in the way to prevent smuggling, but the duty of the Unites States Border Patrol was to block entry of contraband liquor into the USA. For a part of this period, people say that Al Capone controlled the trade in the Windsor-Detroit area and at times ventured as far north as Sombra to practice his own version of free trade. I have a friend who saw a port hole from a fast boat which was scuttled rather than risk capture. This boat apparently was carrying liquor and Al Capone.

“As well, barrels were shipped out at many places along the St Clair from Point Edward to Port Lambton. Legal export warehouses owned by Canadian breweries, facetiously called “beer-scows” or “Bermuda scows” operated to provide product to small boats and scows that became known as “whiskey barges”. Any person who owned a boat along the St Clair was invited to participate. Many a barrel cleared RCMP customs legally as they were cleared for export to Cuba or Bermuda and then diverted, usually to the Detroit area..

“While “whiskey barges” operated from Stag Island, a more enterprising way to ship liquor across the river was also used from Stag Island. Cylinders were filled and then towed across the river underwater on a cable. There was an intricate system of flag signals to control and protect the passage or should I say smuggling of these illegal goods to a ready market in the U.S. I am sure that many families who live along the St. Clair, especially if they owned anything from a row-boat to a fast cigarette boat, have quietly become wealthy from rum-running during these years of prohibition.

“One more story, A.E. What would you think if I offered you a ‘drink of ink’. Doesn’t sound good. Now, it seems that coal oil could be shipped free of duty across the border. So some enterprising person  began to ship barrels of this product across the river in prodigious quantities. When suspicion on the part of US Customs led to a drum being opened, it was discovered to contain purple beer. The metal in the ink drums had chemically changed the colour. For many months, it had gone undetected and revelers in a certain Detroit had been imbibing what they had been calling their ‘drink of ink’.”

“Grandpa, what about that man you called Samuel Hands? Can you tell me about him?”

“Certainly, A.E. If your mother would be able to get me a cup of tea while I light my pipe, I would be happy to tell both of you what I remember about that time.”

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 

Both the Sarnia Brewery and the Sarnia Wine and Cognac Company did fail soon after the repealing of prohibition. It led soon after to financial arrears and sale for back taxes of both the brewery and the cognac company. When the assets were auctioned off, the last of the beer and wine making era in Sarnia ended.

If you visit the Sombra Museum, you can see the port hole mentioned above. It came from a fast boat which was scuttled rather than risk capture. This boat is said to have been carrying liquor and Al Capone.

Where was there once a peppermint distillery in Lambton? Some unusual crops have been grown in Bosanquet. One of them was peppermint, grown in an area known as Little Egypt north of Thedford. On 450 acres purchased in 1939 from the Canada Company, a group of Hungarians built 3 distilleries, in which they distilled peppermint grown on about 150 acres. Unfortunately, over a period of about 20 years, the price for the product fell more than 75%, making production unprofitable.

Another interesting crop in Bosanquet was hemp intended for use in rope-making. It was grown experimentally by Howard Fraleigh under the auspices of the Federal government until a ban on marijuana in 1938. Fraleigh also operated a Flax Mill in Forest from 1898 to 1945 to process flax grown in Lambton. Flax grown here was used in the making of aeroplane wings during the First World War.

The story of the dynamiting of J.S. McCrae’s residence in the early morning of 10 June 1886 by Charles Hand will be told in next week’s column.

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  • Glen C. Phillips

    Great story! Where’d you find all the historical information?