The Salty Capital of Southern Canada

Windsor, Ont., has all but outgrown the juvenile delinquency of its rumrunning days in favor of industrial maturity. And it can give lessons in civic enterprise, racial tolerance and labor relations to almost any city in North America

IAN SCLANDERS August 15 1953

The Salty Capital of Southern Canada

Windsor, Ont., has all but outgrown the juvenile delinquency of its rumrunning days in favor of industrial maturity. And it can give lessons in civic enterprise, racial tolerance and labor relations to almost any city in North America

IAN SCLANDERS August 15 1953

The Salty Capital of Southern Canada

Windsor, Ont., has all but outgrown the juvenile delinquency of its rumrunning days in favor of industrial maturity. And it can give lessons in civic enterprise, racial tolerance and labor relations to almost any city in North America


■ HF] TRIUMPH of Windsor, the ninth largest and the most southerly city in Canada, is that it hasn’t become a suburb of Detroit, which has eighteen times Windsor’s population and is the fifth largest city in the United States.

Only the width of the Detroit River separates them. Detroit’s main business section is within five minutes of Windsor by bridge or tunnel. They make the same products and go to the same ball games. Yet Windsor, with its stubby skyline dwarfed by Detroit’s jutting towers, refuses to have its personality submerged in Detroit’s shadows.

With three million residents Detroit is bustling, strident, hard-boiled, congested. Windsor, with one hundred and sixty-six thousand in its metropolitan area one hundred and twenty-five thousand of them within its own limits is as friendly as a small town and clings to pleasant small-town habits. The clerks in its stores still chat with the customers, anglers still dangle lines and legs over its wharves, and Windsor still takes a naive pride in its oddities and traditions.

One of its oddities is that it sits on a fabulous salt bed which provides shaker salt for Canada’s tables, rock salt for Canada’s cattle, calcium chloride for Canada’s roads. Another is that Windsor is south of the border.

This geographic incongruity is explained by the fact that Windsor is on the Essex County Peninsula, a flat fertile finger of Ontario which extends under Michigan. Windsor looks northward across the broad Detroit River, chuckles that “it’s cold up there,” and invites Detroit to sample its “southern hospitality.”

Windsor’s traditions include a dish fried fish, froglegs and chicken, an approximation of the feast

F’rench settlers prepared two and a half centuries ago with sturgeon from the river, bullfrogs from the swamps and partridge from the flat grassy plains and tangled woods. Smacking their lips over it, Windsorites remember that Cadillac was originally a man, not a car a French adventurer who founded Detroit and Windsor in 1701 and is supposed to have invented Windsor’s favorite dinner.

A far more important Windsor tradition is a deep-rooted conviction that human beings are entitled to be treated as human beings, whatever the color of their skin. This dates from the days before the Civil War when the “underground railroad” smuggled United States slaves to the safety of Canada, with Windsor as its chief Canadian “station,” and Windsorites aided hundreds of fugitive Negroes one of them Josiah Henson, who was immortalized as Uncle Tom by the abolit ionist author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

While not two percent of its citizens are colored Windsor has a Negro chairman of its Board of Education, a Negro city solicitor and a Negroalderman. Flach year it celebrates Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the freeing of the slaves in the U. S. Detroit, by contrast, has had violent race riots like those in 1943, in which thirty-four were killed and seven hundred injured.

The river over which one generation ot Windsor men whisked fugitive slaves is the same river by which another generation ran rum from Canada to the United States. It flows through Windsor’s whole history. Cadillac, who referred to it simply as le détruit the strait claimed it for F'ranee and himself because it was a gateway to the fur trade of the northwest. The English took it from the French. After the American Revolution it became

the boundary. In the War of 1812 Detroiters crossed it to capture Windsor and Windsorites chased them home and captured Detroit. In 1838 the Mackenzie-Papineau uprisings in Canada convinced Detroit that Windsor would like to be “liberated from the British.” A motley brigade was rallied for this mission. Col. John Prince, commander of the Windsor garrison, warned that he’d repulse any attack and shoot the first five prisoners taken. That’s what he did, although he relented at the last minute and told the prisoners they could run while they were being shot at. They ran like rabbits but the marksmanship of the firing squad was so accurate t hat none escaped.

There were no more military invasions but invasions by U. S. industrialists, tourists and labor unions have since made Windsor a major factory centre, Canada’s biggest gateway for automobile traffic from the U. S., and a community where unionism is a dominant political and social force. Present-day Windsor has four hundred and seventyone plants which manufacture more than half a billion dollars’ wort h of goods annually. More t ban five million American visitors pour through it each year. And all but a small proportion of its forty thousand workers belong to international unions. These workers have the highest average wages in the country.

The first U. S. industrialist to put down roots in Windsor was Hiram Walker. A transplanted New Flnglander, he opened a grocery store in Detroit and built a combined flour mill and distillery on this side in 1858. The mill failed but the distillery prospered enormously. Walker’s “Club” whisky gained such popularity in the U. S. that his American competitors had a law passed compelling him to label his product Continued on page 52

The Salty Capital of Southern Canada


“Canadian.” They thought this would hurt his sales. Instead it increased them, and soon some of those very competitors were labeling their own bottles Canadian. The town of Walkerville, now merged with Windsor, grew up around his enterprise.

The grey - bearded frock - coated Walker, an abstemious churchgoer who didn’t approve of people who drank his whisky, backed a number of other successful ventures including a railroad from Windsor to St. Thomas, Ont. But one a cranberry farm flopped completely. He spent a hundred thousand dollars trying to prove cranberries would thrive as well in Walkerville’s swamps as in Cape Cod’s bogs. After years of effort he reaped barely enough cranberries for a single pie. “Gentlemen.” he announced as he divided this among friends he had invited to dinner, “you are about to eat the most expensive dessert on record.”

The prospect of hauling some of Walker’s freight was one of the factors that induced the Canadian Pacific Railway to run a line into Windsor in 1890. It wasn’t quite sure what else it would find to carry, but stumbled on a solution by uncovering salt at Sandwich, just west of Windsor, when it was laying its roadbed. The railway organized and backed the company which developed the deposit. But the product which had the greatest impact on Windsor wasn’t whisky or salt. It was automobiles.

Henry Ford had started manufacturing cars in Detroit in 1903. That same year a wagon works on the outskirts of Windsor ran into difficulties and Walter McGregor, its square-jawed young office manager, could see his job vanishing. Worry inspired him to persuade Ford that tariff barriers could be hurdled by making cars in Canada— in the wagon works, of course.

Under an arrangement with Ford, who assured himself of a controlling interest but put up none of the hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars of capital, McGregor organized the Ford Motor Company of Canada. In 1904, with seventeen employees, it turned out one hundred and seventeen Fords. The total payroll, including McGregor’s salary, was twelve thousand dollars. Finances were so slim that when one car was assembled McGregor often had to rush out and sell it before he could buy parts for another. Once a bolt dropped through a crack in the floor and the Ford Motor Company of Canada had to suspend operations while McGregor went to a hardware store.

Later, the Chrysler Corporation built a huge Windsor plant which now has a payroll second only to Ford’s. General Motors manufactures engines at Windsor. Ford and Chrysler have both announced vast plans for expansion at Windsor—this in spite of the fact that Ford is transferring part of its activities to a new plant at Oakville, Ont.

By latest estimates Windsor has forty thousand industrial workers, twenty-five thousand of them producing automobiles and automotive equipment and the other fifteen thousand producing everything from tin buttons to steel bridges, from whisky to hangover remedies, from perfume to chlorine I gas and from toilet seats and toy horses to playing cards.

Windsor’s most rapid development i was in the Nineteen Twenties when, for ! a while, an average of one factory a week moved in. Real-estate prices

soared to fantastic heights, optimists talked of a population of a million, and immigrants swarmed in from Europe, speaking a score of languages.

From Russia came Prince Volkonsky, whose boast that he was the world’s foremost swordsman suffered when he was beaten by a Y MCA fencing teacher. But most of Windsor’s new residents were simply laborers in a strange land of assembly lines, trying to learn English, trying to familiarize themselves with new customs. They brought Windsor a splash of color, a cosmopolitan flavor which still survives.

Above all the Nineteen Twenties was the decade of the boisterous prohibition spree. The U. S. went dry in 1920, and so did most Canadian provinces, but it was legal to export liquor from Canada. And opposite Windsor was great parched Detroit, and behind Detroit there was the whole U. S. with its tongue hanging out. It was a perfect setup for an easy dollar -or an easy million.

Petit Cote, six m les west of Windsor, was a quiet village where the people spoke French and attended Mass every Sunday. On weekdays they cultivated radish patches. Petit Cote was famous for its radishes. But the radish-growers learned that if they rowed to Detroit with a bottle of whisky they could sell it for the price of two bottles. Soon they were selling cases instead of bottles and had launches instead of rowboats. They built big docks and imposing houses, and even changed the name of one section of Petit Cote to Lasalle, which sounded swankier.

For a decade more liquor moved across a couple of miles of waterfront at Lasalle than across any other couple of miles on earth. Other border communities followed suit. A ludicrous angle was that liquor exported from j Canada was billed out by straightfaced Canadian customs officers to destinations like Cuba or St. Pierre and Miquelon, where liquor was legal. When a boat cleared for Cuba in the morning, and returned in the afternoon to clear for St. Pierre, nobody asked questions.

The top operators around Windsor were the Low brothers, Harry and Sam. Harry had been a mechanic and Sam a storekeeper. They piled up a fortune, lived like Oriental potentates, bought control of Carling’s brewery, put up the Dominion Square Building in Montreal. They took over an abandoned railway station on Windsor’s waterfront, fixed it up and threw parties for their customers in the waiting room.

Jim Cooper, an amiable giant whose hobby was sending orphans to private schools and summer camps and buying them ponies, was rumored to have a pipeline under the river through which he pumped whisky. The rumor sprang from his lavish display of wealth. Windsor had never before seen a mansion like Cooper Court, with its marble-bordered swimming pool and its pipe organ. Actually, Cooper needed no pipeline. His market was in Canada and the key to his fortune was a loophole in the law. Cooper discovered that while it was illegal to buy liquor in Ontario, it was legal to buy it outside Ontario and have it delivered to Ontario. He opened an office in Detroit where orders were accepted from Canada by mail or telephone. Under the curious technicalities of law, the placing of an order in Detroit constituted a purchase in Detroit, and the goods so purchased could he delivered legally in Windsor, from a Windsor warehouse. It’s all very confusing and involved, hut it made Cooper a millionaire. He catered to most of the roadhouse trade on the Canadian side of the border, and Detroiters, afraid of

being poisoned by moonshine on their own side, flocked across the Detroit River. Around Windsor, inns sprouted overnight and were packed with hilarious humanity. This outraged Rev. Leslie Spracklin, of Windsor’s Howard Avenue Mission, whose impassioned speeches finally induced authorities to appoint him a special temperance enforcement officer with the right to carry a gun.

Spracklin swaggered around with an armed bodyguard, raiding inns. They even raided a private yacht, without a warrant. The owner sued them for illegal search and was awarded nominal damages by Mr. Justice Latchford of the Ontario Supreme Court, who commented that Spracklin and his pals, boarding the yacht, “displayed their pistols like veritable pirates.” In 1921 Spracklin and his men climbed through the window of the Chappell House. They were surprised in their snooping by Babe Trumbull, the proprietor. After an argument Spracklin shot and killed Trumbull. Charged with murder, he testified that Trumbull had moved a hand as though reaching for a gun. He was acquitted on a plea of self-defense although it was shown that Trumbull had not been armed.

Of all the inns around Windsor Bertha Thomas’ place was probably the most popular. Bertha was buxom, beautiful, full of personality, a Canadian counterpart of Manhattan’s Texas Guinan. Her meals were good, her drinks were good, her band was lively. Bertha’s is still running, Bertha is still there, but the atmosphere isn’t the same. It’s not merely respectable, it’s refined. Most of the other hotspots of the Twenties are gone. Gone, too, are the rumrunners. The Lows lost their money and dropped out of sight. Jim Cooper was drowned when he tumbled off the li^er Deutschland in midAtlantic. And in Petit Cote, radishes are flourishing again.

Also gone from Windsor are the race tracks of the giddy decade— Windsor Jockey Club, now a publicpark; Devonshire; Kenilworth, where Man O’ War, the greatest American horse of all time, defeated the Canadian horse Sir Barton in 1920 for a purse of eighty thousand dollars, the fattest prize in Canada’s turf history. Because betting was then prohibited in Michi-

gan, Detroit race fans kept Windsor’s tracks going. Now Windsorites who want to see the horses run have to cross to Detroit.

Another memory of the Twenties is of Fred Martin, a ruddy-faced Salvation Army officer with a booming voice and an ambitious dream: A tunnel from Windsor to Detroit. With three hundred and fifty dollars of savings he obtained leave of absence from the Salvation Army, took off his uniform, sallied forth and raised twenty-four million dollars. In 1929, pocketing seventy thousand dollars as promoter’s commission, he sat happily back while the tunnel was driven across. Meanwhile J. W. Bower, a New York banker, was spanning the river with a bridge a mile from the tunnel, and the Detroit - Windsor ferry boats were making their last runs.

In 1927 began a new chapter of Windsor’s reputation for lawlessness. Rugged granite-faced W. F. Herman, publisher of the Windsor Star, charged that police were closing their eyes to vice. He sent reporters out to uncover bootlegging and gambling joints and bawdy houses. He printed lists of them. This touched off an investigation which ended in the resignation of the police chief and the magistrate and the dismissal of several policemen.

Hardly a year has since passed in Windsor without a noisy public investigation of the police. There have even been inquiries into the affairs of two of Windsor’s hospitals and into other phases of municipal administration. Actually, Windsor’s reputation as a tough lawless city is probably unjustified today, for Windsor is at least a partly reformed character filled with civic pride and crowded with organizations dedicated to worthy causes.

Windsor, which entered 1920 with about fifty thousand people and a rosy outlook, entered 1930 with roughly one hundred thousand and the blues. Twelve thousand residents lost their jobs in Detroit in 1927 because of a change in immigration regulations. Its real-estate boom had folded, its leading citizens had taken a beating in the stock-market crash and, worst of all, Canadians hadn’t the money to buy Windsor’s cars. By 1933 two Windsorites out of five were on relief.

Windsor and the contiguous com-

munities of Sandwich, Walkerville and East Windsor couldn’t meet their bond interest and in 1935 had to unite as one city. After that things gradually improved. The war brought full recovery. It also brought labor unions into their own in a town which had formerly had strong anti-union elements. The automobile industry, which had fought the union movement tooth and nail, now had to bow to the United Auto Workers, a CIO union. The union victory resulted from a strike in 1945 which lasted ninety-nine days and in which workers reinforced their picket lines with a spectacular barricade of fifteen hundred automobiles drawn up bumper-to-bumper around the Ford plant. The UAW now has twenty-five thousand members in Windsor. Three locals own their own buildings, and the UAW Canadian executive is lodged in a modernistic structure on Ouellette Avenue, the main street.

Windsorites, so hard hit in the Thirties, so busy making money before anti after that, were never noted as patrons of art and culture. But now they feel they can afford a few luxuries. Ferenz Varga, a talented sculptor from Budapest who fled from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and landed in Windsor, is struggling night and day to catch up on orders for statues. And Windsor now has a forty-five-piece symphony orchestra.

Meanwhile Arthur J. Reaume, a dark athletic man who is only forty-six now but lias been mayor of Windsor for twelve years, is busy with plans for

Windsor’s centennial next year. It was in 1854 that the Great Western Railway, today a branch of the CNR, laid a track to Windsor, which marked the event by becoming a village.

Reaume’s French paternal ancestors had already been in Windsor a century and a quarter in 1854. They were there when the French founders handed Windsor over to the victorious English. In 1812 there were Reaumes in the small force that counterattacked and captured Detroit. Reaume’s maternal forebears were English and Protestant.

“My father,” he chuckles, “was a Catholic and my mother was an Anglican. So they compromised by getting married in Detroit’s First Presbyterian Church. Now I’m a Mick, and I have a brother who is an Anglican.” He does his swearing in French but converses with more facility in English.

One thing that makes him swear is the phrase “racial tolerance.” At least, he doesn’t like to hear this applied to Windsor. “If you allow as we do in Windsor that there is nothing inferior about people who are different in color or creed, then you don’t have to be tolerant. You simply accept them.”

Reaume points out that Windsor didn’t elect a Jewish mayor, David Groll, in the toughest period of the depression because it was tolerant but because it felt Croll was honest, sincere, capable. For the same reason it has been re-electing Dr. H. D. Taylor, a Negro physician, to its school board for twenty years. Taylor is now serving his

second term as chairman of the board.

James Watson, assistant city solicitor since 1947 and city solicitor since 1951, worked his way through Osgoode Hall law school, Toronto, as a sleepingcar porter. He used to astound traveling businessmen by untangling their legal problems, although he can’t remember ever receiving more than an ordinary tip.

“Windsor,” says Dr. Roy Perry, a Negro dentist, “is one of the most enlightened communities in North America.” Perry has been chairman of the Board of Health, has held every office in the Essex County Dental Association, including the chairmanship, and for four years has been a Windsor alderman and chairman of the civic parks and recreation committee. More of his patients are white than colored. The majority of them are children who instead of dreading their trips to the dentist look forward to visiting the big soft-spoken gentle man.

Perry, son of a riverboat stoker, remembered gratefully how the late Bill Wesgate, a Windsor ice-cream manufacturer, used to treat him and a multitude of other youngsters with free samples of his product every Hallowe’en. Perry decided that some day he’d like to do something for kids himself. Now his annual skating party, for which he hires the Windsor Arena arid buys the butcher shops out of hot dogs, is attended by more than a thousand young guests.

Perry’s wife, who has a BA degree from a college in Virginia, is working toward an MA degree at Assumption University, a Roman Catholic institution in Windsor. A former Detroit advertising woman, she manages Assumption’s Year Book and has sold more advertising for it than anybody ever did before. It’s typical of Windsor that nobody thinks it is strange that she, colored and Protestant, should be soliciting business for a Roman Catholic institution.

Neither does anybody think it strange that Assumption, established in 1855, should have a student body that is one third Protestant and also contains Orthodox Greeks, Hebrews and an agnostic.

Roy Perry’s brother, Walter, runs a newsstand and also stages Windsor’s Emancipation Day celebration each August which draws up to a hundred thousand, lasts three days, and features fried chicken and watermelon dinners, speeches by outstanding Negroes, concerts by Negro musicians and a contest to pick a dusky queen of beauty.

Windsorites, although they wrap their Sunday garbage in Detroit Sunday papers, stick to the Windsor Star on weekdays. The three Detroit newspapers, the Free Press, the Times and the News, once sold more copies in Windsor than the Star, but the late W. F. Herman, a giant in Canadian journalism, changed that. Its daily circulation, now seventy-three thousand, is ten times the combined circulation of the Detroit papers in Windsor.

Windsor will soon have its own television station to compete with Detroit’s three. The Windsor district, the Windsor Chamber of Commerce says, has more television sets than any other part of Canada, fifty-three thousand. And most viewers, it is believed, will prefer to watch Canadian programs when they are available. For Windsor, friendly as it is with Detroit, and closer to a dozen American cities than to the nearest Canadian city, prefers to be Canadian. It clings to Canadian ways, Canadian institutions, with the stubborn determination of the Englishman who dresses for dinner in the steaming jungle. It won’t be a suburb of Detroit. ★