The History of Windsor’s Six Bustling Breweries
Story by Karen Tinsley
Photography Courtesy Walkerville Publishing Inc.
Chronicling the life and times of Windsor’s “original six” breweries, Brewed in Windsor—A Tasty History has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: booze, bars, bootlegging, boats and bullets. Steeped in border city folklore, nostalgia and interesting stories of days gone by, this lively, lushly illustrated book is chock full of beautiful colour photos and beer paraphernalia. Co-author Chris Edwards takes us behind the scenes of researching, writing and marketing in today’s constantly evolving literary landscape.
Local husband-and-wife historians Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks are no strangers to the writing, publishing and marketing of books about Windsor and Detroit; including Brewed in Windsor, they have researched, written and published nine of their own titles and collaborated on nineteen others!
Chris says, “Brewed in Windsor takes us back to the time when our city was home to six bustling breweries. We also get a fulsome glimpse of how Prohibition fueled their growth. In addition to supplying Windsorites with hundreds of gallons of tasty brews, when Detroit breweries were forced to close their doors, Windsor beer makers continued producing and ‘exporting’ their ‘liquid gold’”.
Not only did our border city ship boatloads of beer to Detroit; Windsor became an American mecca for its splendid array of roadhouses, “each a glittering jewel, like a diamond-studded bracelet.”
Chris continues, “The deeper you dive into our local history, an intoxicating tale emerges. The Hiram Walker brewery won an award at the World’s Fair, which put Windsor on the radar. And then there are the connections to the underworld.”
For the original Walkerville Brewing Company, it was the infamous Purple Gang and Al Capone. They broke into the Windsor beer business after Herman Radner (father of comedian Gilda Radner), bought the brewery in 1925—at the height of Prohibition.
“Next thing you know”, says Chris, “Herman Radner is running the brewery exporting massive quantities of beer to the Purple Gang in Detroit. Then, some gangsters tried to kidnap him, and he was shot in the leg getting away.”
“This made headlines in Detroit, and that’s when the media realized the mob connection.”
Over at the Riverside Brewery, the River Gang was running the show.
“Every bit as notorious as the Purple Gang, they built a brewery right on the river. They had a fleet of trucks on Belle Isle,” Chris adds.
“When Riverside Brewery closed, they dumped all the beer into the Detroit River to avoid paying tax on the product. People were rowing up in their boats with buckets to catch beer!”
We asked Chris what inspired the idea for this book.
“We knew about the 1999 book, ‘Brewed in Detroit’, which included a compilation of every brewery in Detroit on record, the brand names of all beers and ales marketed in Detroit, and stories of the rise and fall of many of the operations; but what really inspired this book was a Windsor man named Bill Marentette.”
For a brief period, Bill was employed at the Walkerville Brewing Company. His grandfather Daniel Marentette owned and operated the storied Dominion House until his death in 1902. Bill main-tained a veritable museum of artifacts and memorabilia from local breweries, some dating back to the late 1800’s. A respected member of the Canadian Brewerianist Society and the Essex County Historical Society, Bill was featured in The Windsor Star and on CBC Radio & TV.
“We first met Bill several years ago, when he was a contributor to our magazine, ‘The Walkerville Times’. Our inaugural book, The Best of Times Magazine, featured four of his pieces,” Chris recalls.
Sadly, Bill passed away from COVID in 2021.
“He was 93 years old, but as vital and lucid as a man many years younger. “We dedicated Brewed in Windsor to his memory.”
We think Bill would be proud! This 160-page book has obviously been meticulously researched and features more than 500 vintage photographs and illustrations (including beer and brewing memorabilia from Bill Marentette’s own massive collection).
When asked about his writing process, Chris shares, “This is the ninth book Elaine and I have written together; we’ve collaborated on nineteen other historical books. Our company, Walkerville Publishing, has produced all of them, so I guess you could say we’re experienced. I’d say persistence is key—but sometimes it all just comes down to serendipity—I’ll be looking in the Windsor Star archives for something, and I’ll discover something else that’s amazing and relevant.”
Brewed in Windsor also features a section titled, “Lost Bars of Windsor Essex”. For Windsor Baby Boomers and history buffs, it’s a trip down Memory Lane. As the book says, “though most drinking establishments on these pages have disappeared…we thought it highly appropriate to add this boozy blast from the past to Brewed in Windsor.”
Which was no mean feat, according to Chris: “Ads from back in the day are a little hard to find; then I discovered directories featuring all the bar names. Many of the bars changed names so many times over the years. That was a challenge. Our Facebook community helped us out with that. What bar had the most names? One of them for sure was the Metropole.”
But as challenging as it was, “Lost Bars” was one of the most fun parts to write: “like trying to find the missing pieces of a giant puzzle,” says Chris. Nearly 250 lost bars of Windsor Essex are featured. This section also addresses the effects of 9/11 on Windsor’s bar scene and touches on the current craft beer revival.
What’s next for this dynamic literary duo?
Chris is candid: “From a business perspective, publishing books doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore. But we can dream! Our big dream is to produce a book on the history of the Detroit River, but it will be labour intensive and expensive—so we may look for partners and sponsors.” Stay tuned!
Brewed in Windsor: A Tasty History is available now for $24.95 direct from Walkerville Publishing, at select book and gift shops in Windsor-Essex and at www.walkerville.com.