Saints & Sinners: A Spirited History of Grey County
Saints & Sinners A Spirited History of Alcohol in Grey County is a story that needed to be told.
As a child growing up in Owen Sound, I overheard elderly relatives reminisce about the ‘good old’ days of prohibition, while others seemed to be totally disgusted by the whole subject. I always wondered why there were so many strong opinions surrounding the whole issue. Researching and designing the exhibit, Saints & Sinners, gave me the opportunity to gain a better understanding of this tantalizing part of Grey County history.
As new settlers came into the wild untamed forests, then known as the Queen’s Bush, they established many small towns and villages. Each of these communities had at least one tavern and often times more. As the Toronto-Sydenham Line and the Garafraxa Road pushed further north, even more taverns were built. It is reported that by 1852, there were twenty different drinking establishments between the village of Durham and the village of Sydenham, now Owen Sound. One of the men working on the construction of the Garafraxa wrote in his journal of his first sighting of the village of Sydenham. He described it as being “approximately one acre of partially cleared land with three log structures; one to house the Crown Land Agent; one to house newly arrived settlers, and a third was a tavern”. The village of Sydenham went on to become the town of Owen Sound and was known as “the fightin’est, drinkin’est, whorin’est town in the province of Ontario”. It was given the name of Corkscrew City and was known from Halifax to Vancouver as the place to go to get a plate of oysters and a full glass of whiskey at any time of the day or night because the bars never closed.
It is not surprising that Owen Sound was also the location of the first Canadian branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The ladies of the community were fed up and sought to take matters into their own hands. They had a long hard battle ahead of them. They did not attain much success until, finally in 1905; a bi-law was passed prohibiting the sale of alcohol within the boundaries of Owen Sound. At that time, Owen Sound was also the home to two highly successful breweries; Eaton’s Brothers on the West side and Schwan’s on the East. They were allowed to carry on with business as usual as long as they did not sell their products within the town limits.
Things went on this way until 1917 when National Prohibition was enacted bringing the party to a grinding halt spelling the end to Grey County’s lucrative brewery trade.
Alcohol consumption and production went underground, bootleggers and blind pigs flourished throughout the County. The Saints and Sinners exhibit takes a look at this and many more stories from Grey County’s wild and colourful past.
As for me, well, I must admit I would like to have seen what Owen Sound was like during this rollicking time in history but I can also appreciate the concerns over the out of control atmosphere of the times. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall…