Hidden in plain sight – an exploration of Waterloo’s role in Canada’s prohibition era

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Over the years, Wilfrid Laurier University has obtained a reputation as a party school. Magazines Narcity and Macleans have cited Laurier as one of the best universities in Canada for student nightlife.

Waterloo is home to a plethora of unique breweries, distilleries, bars and nightclubs
– specifically on the city’s King Street strip.

Contributed photo/City of Waterloo Museum

While modern day Waterloo is a vibrant location for students, residents and visitors to visit for a lively night out, this was not always the case.

Today, Laurier students drink in the same places that once ran dry without knowing the history behind the places they frequent.

Prohibition, an act which restricted the importation, manufacturing and transportation of alcohol, was federally enforced in Canada from March 1918 to December 1919. Unlike the United States of America, Canadian prohibition impacted each province individually – while eastern provinces such as Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia experienced a prohibition that lasted decades, Ontario’s lasted 11 years, spanning from 1916 to 1927.

To explore Waterloo’s prohibition, the City of Waterloo Museum has curated an exhibit paired with a self-guided walk- ing tour that takes participants around the city to different historical sites. Informational stickers are placed in front of historical prohibition sites from May through to October of this year.

Informational sticker.
Madalyn Mostacci/Managing Editor

“I think there’s a lot out there that we don’t know about our community’s past,” said Jennifer Huber, the Museum’s Program and Community Engagement Associate.

Early 20th century Waterloo relied on their brewing and distilling industries, which resulted in a widespread public disapproval of Ontario’s prohibition law.

Where there is restriction, there is defiance – throughout the province’s prohibition, those who lived and ran their businesses in Waterloo found creative ways to defy government legislation.

Huber mentioned the creation of a mail order loophole that allowed individuals to obtain alcohol. “Ontario had prohibition at a time when Quebec didn’t. People could send mail orders to get whiskey from Quebec mailed to them here in Ontario,” she said.

Medicinal alcohol served as another loophole as druggists were permitted to prescribe liquor for medical purposes. S. Snyder’s Druggist in Waterloo, formerly located in a building on King Street near the corner of Erb, was one of the locations that provided citizens with over-the-counter alcohol.

Snyder’s Druggist.
Contributed photo/City of Waterloo Museum
Modern day Snyder’s Druggist building.
Madalyn Mostacci/Managing Editor

Perhaps the most well-known form of defiance during the prohibition were speakeasies. These were locations where alcohol was illegally sold and women were permitted to drink.

“They would have two taps in some places where you’d have one tap that served the appropriate alcohol content – beer, for example, and the other tap that served the stronger beer,” said Huber. “Or they would have holes where they could discard any sort of evidence and then turn water on and it was cleared up.”

Although there are not any known locations in Waterloo that used to be speakeasies, Huber told a story from the Alexander House, a former hotel once located on the corner of King and William Street. “They sold a beer that was too high of an alcohol percent content during Prohibition and the bartender ran into a little bit of legal trouble as a result of selling it,” she said.

Finding loopholes in federal legislation to continue the sale of alcohol was also explored by those manufacturing and selling alcohol during prohibition in Waterloo. An interesting case is seen with businessman Samuel Bronfman.

Samuel Bronfman.
Contributed photo/City of Waterloo Museum

Waterloo’s famous Seagram Distillery, established in the 1850s, was originally a flour milling business before becoming a manufacturer of whiskey.

Seagram Distillery.
Contributed photo/City of Waterloo Museum

Huber explains that it was Joseph Seagram who realized there was more money to be made in distillery. Due to his distribution of whiskey around the globe, Waterloo was recognized internationally.

When prohibition was enacted, the Seagram Distillery was struggling. Joseph’s sons had taken over the business and did not want to participate in illegal bootlegging of alcohol.

The company faced financial struggles and was later bought by Samuel Bronfman.

This purchase saw great returns as even after Canadian prohibition was ended in 1927, it continued in America. Due to the complete restriction posed by American prohibition, no alcohol was able to be manufactured in the United States and Bronfman was able to provide Canadian whiskey.

Huber explains that Bronfman was successful through the lack of legal proof that followed the carloads of Seagram goods that would be shipped out.

“[Bronfman] feigned innocence when he said, ‘We loaded carloads of goods, got our cash and shipped it. Of course, we knew where it went, but we had no legal proof. And I never went on the other side of the border to count the empty Seagram’s bottles, you people were thirsty,’ said Huber.

Waterloo also had its own local alcohol bootlegging headquarters. Where nightclubs fittingly named “The Drink” and “The Prohibition Warehouse” stand today on King Street, there once was the Sehl and Heppler Garage.

Contributed photo/City of Waterloo Museum

Huber explains that Alan Bueller, the doorman for the Sehl and Heppler Garage and author of The Pennsylvania German Dialect and the Life of an Old Order Mennonite Man, would frequently see gangsters at the garage.

“What is believed is there was a store warehouse in Elmira that held all kinds of whiskey,” Huber said.

“Somebody would call and place their order for whiskey. Two guys would leave in a truck, go get it, and whoever was picking it up would pull into the garage.

In less than two minutes, they would swap the whiskey from one vehicle into the other and be back off on their way, never taking the same route, or so they said, to get out of Waterloo. There is thought that it was tied to Al Capone,” she said.

The Ontario Temperance Act was passed in September, 1916, outlawing the sale of alcohol but not its manufacture or distribution.

As federal prohibition would not be enacted for two more years, distilleries under federal jurisdiction could remain open. The prohibition of alcohol was not sprung upon Canadians unexpectedly.

It came from a build-up to measures heavily influenced by the temperance movement, which cited alcohol as the main root of societal issues.

Dan Malleck, the author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario and a health sciences professor at Brock University, explained that the temperance movement resulted from worries surrounding the role alcohol morally plays on the nuclear family and the economy.

“A lot of times it was pitched as drunken husbands taking all the money out of the house to drink, become drunks, beat their family and kill themselves or others,” he said. Huber explained that temperance groups influenced Waterloo as well.

“There were a lot of people who promoted abstaining from alcohol. Men and women alike were part of temperance movements and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the largest,” she said.

With the end of Ontario’s Prohibition in 1927 came the creation of the LCBO.

“When I started researching the LCBO, I expected to be reading about the takeover of government by the temperance movement. I expected the people who were running the LCBO to be parroting the temperance movement,” said Malleck. “But what I found was that, in fact, they were the exact opposite. They were people whose job was to get people drinking, but get people drinking in a legal environment in the proper way.”

For the first 35 years of the LCBO’s operation, liquor permits were enforced. Stores would
ask customers to tally what they bought in order to monitor their purchasing.

“Not everybody knows those little pieces of history as they walk down King Street,” said Huber.


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