Windsor distiller Hiram Walker used to keep the whisky flowing at U.S. speakeasies during America’s prohibition era. Now, a little troupe of Windsor actors is helping to tell the story as part of a new tour in a city best known for its auto industry. Judging by the reaction of the new rum-runner tourism, visitors have a hefty thirst for bootlegging history. (Photo courtesy Mark Baker, Rum-Runners Tours of Windsor)

Rum-runner tourism helps lift the veil on 'dirty little secret'
- Windsor's bootlegging past a hit with visitors and locals

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Al Capone used to sneak into Windsor occasionally to order a new supply of Canadian whisky to help keep his gin mills lubricated. But for years, the story of the Roaring Twenties-era rum-runners has been treated as Windsor’s dirty little secret.  

It was a shady story of a city that grew rich from the nefarious activities of Yankee gangsters and mobsters, people like Al Capone and Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang.  

But the secret is out, thanks to a new attitude at the Hiram Walker distillery, a more aggressive tourism boss in the city tourism office and a bus tour that introduces visitors to the pistol-packing parson and other colourful characters from the days of U.S. Prohibition.  

Heritage tourism is thriving in Canada’s Motor City, a place where visitors can come to learn how the whisky trade helped shape the local landscape.  

Windsor has long had an association with alcohol, with Hiram Walker introducing his Canadian Club whisky in 1858. But in 1918, when Detroit became the first major U.S. city to ban the sale of alcohol in public establishments, Windsor began in earnest to gear up to satisfy its big neighbour’s unquenchable thirst for booze.  

Prohibition went U.S.-wide in 1919, and bootleggers (called rum-runners over water) began to build a sophisticated network to transfer alcohol across the Detroit River from Canada. Ontario, too, had a shorter and less severe fling with Prohibition in the 1920s, but nevertheless, the Canadian government happily responded to the U.S. situation by licensing distilleries and breweries to manufacture and distribute alcohol “for export only.”  

28-mile 'river of booze'

The Detroit River was a 28-mile-long waterway that beckoned to smugglers and was quickly dubbed “the river of booze.” It is said that three-quarters of all the liquor supplied to the United States during Prohibition was transported across the waters around Windsor and Detroit.  

Chris Ryan, CEO of the newly created Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island agency, says Windsor was for many years sensitive to the “sin city” moniker it was saddled with, a title reinforced in the 1980s and ’90s because of the many adult entertainment establishments that grew up in the city to cater primarily to U.S. visitors.  

It took a long time to live down that title, Ryan tells, and consequently, many were hesitant to cash in on Windsor’s Roaring Twenties notoriety.  

“But the fact is, it was a dynamic time in the city’s history,” says Ryan. “It’s all part of our heritage tourism. We’re known for the War of 1812 and our part in black history (the Underground Railroad). The rum-running era helped to shape the city. The money it generated was used to build some of Walkerville’s (a Windsor neighbourhood) most beautiful homes.”

Mark Baker is helping to let the story out of the closet. Baker, a local actor, operates a rum-runners bus tour currently offered through local tour companies. Introductory tours opened to the general public on an experimental basis were quickly filled, and Baker was bombarded with inquiries as word leaked out locally.  
Apparently, there’s a mighty thirst for rum-runner history.  

Baker has gathered half a dozen fellow actors who portray real characters from the rum-running era. Visitors board a bus for a five-hour tour of Windsor locations linked to the wild days of U.S. prohibition, including a former Methodist church where the antics of its 1920s-era minister, Leslie Spracklin, earned him the title of “the fighting parson.”  

Spracklin’s fame grew from his busting up of blind pigs and speakeasies, then stuffing a pistol into the waistband of his trousers during Sunday sermons after receiving threats from those connected to the booming booze business. His career came to an abrupt end when he burst in to Babe Trumble’s residence at the back of his Chapel House roadhouse and shot him dead.  

“It kind of turned his parishioners away from him,” jokes Baker.  

Stand in room where Al Capone placed his orders

Over at Hiram Walker, Tish Harcus explains the company that bought the distillery a few years ago, Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc. of Dearfield, Illinois, gave her the green light to rewrite the script to recount the rollicking story of a bygone era.  

Apparently embarrassed by their predecessors’ business dealings, the previous owners forbade any mention of it, Harcus says. But today, visitors are lining up for the new Speakeasy Sundays tours, as well as the traditional Wednesday-to- Saturday tours of the distillery, which now also touch on the rum-runners.  

“A lot of grandmas were among the rum-runners,” says Harcus. “But Hiram Walker was doing nothing illegal. In fact, there were 20 export docks along the river and Hiram Walker owned the only legal one.   “We’re a mile from Detroit and at the time, this was Canada’s largest distillery,” says Harcus. It was a potent combination.  

Exhibits include cryptically coded telegrams and a price list from 1923 that shows Chicago gangster Al Capone paid Walker $7 for a case of Canadian Club he resold in the States for $75.  

Visitors are taken to Hiram Walker’s personal wine cellar, has been converted to replicate a 1920s-era speakeasy. It is also said to be the room Al Capone was ushered into on more than one occasion to place a sales order.  

“When Capone came to town, he wasn’t interested in showing himself in public,” explains Harcus. “He wanted a quiet, out-of-the-way spot to conduct business.”  

Visitors can also visit Hiram Walker’s office, a stately, wood-panelled room, and at the tour’s end, there’s a whisky-sipping stop to help keep them in the mood.  

Windsor and the surrounding Essex County have a long association with alcohol. A few years after Hiram Walker began distilling, a group of Kentucky winemakers arrived and set up shop on nearby Pelee Island.   Vin Villa winery is now recognized as Canada’s first commercial wine-maker and today, the island and surrounding mainland boast more than a dozen wine-makers, from the large Pelee Island and Colio, to smaller boutique producers. In total, they produce more than twice as much wine as Ontario’s newer and better-known Prince Edward County.  

But the story of Essex County’s up-and-coming wine district is one for another day. Stay tuned! — July 2010