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The Whiskey Baron

This story was initially published in 2007

On July 4, 1816, Hiram Walker was born in Douglas, Massachusetts. A prominent Ontario entrepreneur, Walker’s business ventures would come to play an important part in the development of the Windsor-Detroit border region.

Hiram Walker
Hiram Walker
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-134862
Arriving in Detroit, Michigan in 1838 at age 22, Walker began working in a dry goods store in downtown Detroit. By 1850, he had established his own dry goods store and, in 1854, Walker decided to begin manufacturing vinegar in order to compete with the local company selling its product in his store. This venture was so successful that he soon built his own small vinegar factory in Detroit. However, while experimenting with vinegar, Walker decided to investigate the distilling of spirits, something that was sold alongside vinegar in dry goods stores. That same year, the first barrel of whiskey, “Walker’s Club,” which later became “Canadian Club,” was distilled at the vinegar factory. Little did Walker know that this small investment would prove to be his most important.

Hiram Walker’s original office
Hiram Walker’s original office
© Margaret Caron / Parks Canada / 2007
With the temperance movement gaining power in Michigan, Walker decided to purchase a parcel of land in 1856 on the other side of the border a few kilometres east from the village of Windsor, Ontario. By 1859, a flour mill and distillery were operational. By the mid 1860s, several buildings had been constructed by Walker himself in what became Walkerville, including a hotel, a store and company housing for his employees. Walker also provided police and fire services to the village, and the children attended school in Walker-built buildings. The Canadian government recognized Walkerville as a village in 1869 with the building of a post office, and as a town in 1890.

Walker also invested in many other areas. He constructed the Lake Erie, Essex and Detroit Railway, connecting Windsor with communities like Leamington and eventually Niagara Falls. Walker used his railways to ship many of the products fabricated in the many factories found in the industrial Walkerville.

In 1895, Walker retired due to declining health. He passed on his investments and businesses to his sons. He died in 1899 of a stroke at his home in Detroit. Walker left behind a successful distillery business that would become world-renowned, as well as a model company town. He left a lasting impact on the industrial and economic development in the Windsor area for years to come.

Hiram Walker was designated a National Historic Person in 1971.

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