Windsor

Whisky barons, a family curse and visits from Al Capone all part of Walkerville's colourful past

Walkerville is often refer to as "the gem of Windsor." Elaine Weeks, co-author of 'Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire,' said if it wasn't for Hiram Walker there would be no Walkerville.

If it wasn't for Hiram Walker there would be no Walkerville

A drawing of young Hiram Walker from 1885. Provided by Elaine Weeks, co-author of Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire. (Walkerville publishing)

Walkerville is often referred to as "the gem of Windsor."

But without whisky baron Hiram Walker, it wouldn't exist, according to Elaine Weeks, co-author of Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire.

Hiram Walker

American businessman Hiram Walker was making money as a distiller in Detroit when the temperance movement, which agitated against booze, was flaring up. Weeks said that Walker saw the railway in Windsor as an opportunity to make money and get his product out into the British Empire. He bought a strip of land that was originally given to early Sandwich resident Antoine Labadie by Antoine de Cadillac.

Elaine Weeks, co-author of Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

"It meant that he had infinite opportunities," said Weeks.

He started with a flour mill, as industry in the area was purely agriculturally-based at the time, and eventually expanded his business to a distillery in 1858.

Walker's Town

Walker was running operations in both Detroit and on the outskirts of Windsor. But Weeks said his distillery was expanding and he needed a place for his workers to live, so he built a town.

He erected homes for his employees, a place of worship, a school, an opera house for entertainment, shops and a library. He even set up a police force that he personally funded. 

Walker paved streets and installed electric lights, and clean, running water, long before the rest of Windsor.

"Walkerville became a model town," explained Weeks.

Three cottages remain on Argyle Street from when Walker built the town around his distillery. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Some saw Walker as strict, because he would only allow people to rent homes if they met his personal standards. Weeks said the terms were subjective, but didn't fall along racial lines.

"He was able to mould the type of people that would live and work for him," she said.

Weeks added the business man has been been termed a benevolent dictator, because he was also very generous.

"There were never any labour disputes," she said. "Never any strikes. He was very good to his people."

She said that wasn't always true in other company towns, like Hershey, Pennsylvania for example. Weeks added that because Walker created this town he "set the wheels in motion" for Henry Ford to come to Windsor in 1904.

Elaine Weeks, co-author of Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire explains gate bottles. 0:35

An interesting piece of folklore — Weeks said Walker may have been a teetotaler, never actually drinking the product that made him wealthy.

Mary Walker

Eventually, Hiram Walker & Sons expanded south through Walkerville, thanks largely to the efforts of Mary Walker, the wife of Edward Chandler Walker.

Women are often forgotten when it comes to history, said Weeks, but Mary was essential to the process.

Mary Walker is under the umbrella with her husband Edward Chandler Walker. Per Walkerville Publishing the photo was taken at the dedication of Victoria Diamond Jubilee Fountain honouring Queen Victoria in June 1897. (Walkerville publishing)

Many of the roads that run west to east in Walkerville are named after Indigenous tribes that lived in the area, something Weeks can be traced back to Mary.

As Hiram Walker & Sons distillery was expanding further south, she wanted to "honour that history."

Mary was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary's cemetery next to her husband. Years later, the grave finally got a plaque, paid for by the group the Friends of Willistead.

Indigenous history

Windsor was formed by the tribes in Detroit coming to the area with Antoine de Cadillac to help protect Fort Detroit in 1701. Weeks said much of the Indigenous population wasn't living in the area at the time, as it was more of a hunting ground. 

She explained tribes came over because they needed more space, setting up near the Ambassador Bridge and eventually along the riverfront.

Burial sites from 7,000 years ago were found when Windsor was digging to remove tracks along the waterfront, she added. 

"That's really how this area began, which is really interesting to think about," Weeks said.

When the French became more determined to establish this area as a community, they started parceling out the land used by the Indigenous community to settlers.

Willistead Manor and Albert Kahn

Hiram Walker and Albert Kahn a historical connection. Weeks said Walker gave Kahn his first opportunity building the headquarters for his distillery. 

Eventually, Kahn would construct buildings in Detroit, then throughout America and Europe.

Willistead Manor was named after Willis Walker, one of Hiram Walker's sons.

He also designed Willistead Manor, completed in 1915 and named after Hiram's son Willis. Not long after Mary and Edward Chandler Walker moved in, her husband died. Some say there is a curse on the family.

Curse of Peche Island

The sons of Hiram Walker wanted him to retire, so they bought Peche island with plans to turn it into a destination island like Belle Isle. But there was a family still living there.

Weeks said Rosalie Drouillard LaForest's ancestors had been deeded the island, but there was no paperwork. She said it may not have been the Walkers that made her leave, but she was forced off the land.

The ruins of Hiram Walker's summer home as seen on September 21, 2017. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

"Before she left, she got down on her knees and she cursed the island and said 'Nothing will ever come of this island.' And she cursed the Walker family," said Weeks.

Things started happening to the Walker family after this, according Weeks. She said Willis Walker, a lawyer, died mysteriously at 28. It's assumed he was one of the lawyers working on the deal for Peche Island.

Hiram Walker did a lot of work to the island, including building a mansion there. He was never able to complete all the work he wanted to do, because he suffered multiple strokes making it impossible for him to finish his dream oasis.

Devonshire Lodge aka the Low house

Entrepreneur Harry Low named his home Devonshire Lodge when he built it in 1928. Gary May, a former journalist, wrote a book on the home. He said Low is one of the two most successful people to make money off prohibition in the area.

Devonshire Lodge now known as the Low house sits on Ontario Street in Walkerville. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Low built up his wealth quickly through the 1920s after moving from Ottawa to Windsor. He came to work in the automotive industry, but found there was more money to be made in alcohol.

May said Low wanted to show off his new wealth so he built the home on Ontario Street, because the more successful rum runner, James Cooper, lived close by.

"It looks a lot bigger than it actually is," said May, adding that Low built the curved home to sit on an angle that faces the corner of the street, making it "thrust out into the neighbourhood."

But Low and his wife only lived in the residence for six years.

After Cooper mysteriously disappeared off of a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the 1930s, she couldn't bear to have anyone else live in the home, and paid to have it demolished.

Downfall of Harry Low

In 1928, Low encountered legal problems. American and Canadian governments were looking into Low not paying taxes on the money he made off selling liquor. May said Low made some bad investments, then the Depression hit. 

"Everything hit him at the wrong time," he said.

A photo of Harry Low from 1928. Provided by Gary May's book 'Two Men and Their Monster'. (Gary May)

There was even a scandal over one of his employees that was murdered. May said Low was implicated through the chatter of his neighbours, but was never charged.

His brother, Sam, was kidnapped and a ransom was demanded and paid.

By 1934, he was bankrupt and had to sell his home. It sat vacant for a number of years, then went through multiple owners, until the 1960s when Liberal MP and cabinet minister Paul Martin and Nelly Martin owned the home.

Al Capone and Prohibition

Low made his fortune off alcohol. He bought two ships to transport it down the Atlantic coast into the American cities there.

During Ontario's short period of prohibition, there was a system called short circuiting. May said boats would be shipped to the middle of the Detroit River during the darkness of night, then turn around and come back to Windsor's shore. This was illegal at the time, but there were 'blind pigs' or speakeasies that bought the booze.

A photo of the piano room in 1928 at the Low house. (Gary May)

Al Capone didn't do as much business in the area as the Purple Gang did in Detroit. May said Capone respected their power and authority, but did some business for Chicago. He said Low's grandson passed on stories told by his grandmother about Capone coming to their home. 

"He was a very polite gentleman. Always greeting her by name, being very polite," May said.

They would then go downstairs, have a drink of whisky and conduct business.

About the Author

Stacey Janzer was born and raised in Essex County. Self-described Canadian treasure. She currently works as a video journalist at CBC Windsor. Email her at Stacey.Janzer@cbc.ca.