Water of Life: How One Whiskey Bottle can Remind Us of an Infamous Part of Michigan History
In archaeology, we frequently use large assemblages of different artifacts to interpret what happened at an archaeological site. While a greater number of artifacts is always useful, the ability of just one single artifact to tell us a story is also amazing. I am reminded of this while researching an old whiskey bottle recovered by CAP from the Brody/Emmons Dump. Seemingly simple enough, this object has unlocked a small piece of Michigan history that I had never heard before.
It all started while researching the company whose name was embossed on the top of the bottle’s lid: Hiram Walker and Sons, Inc. Hiram Walker was born in Massachusetts in 1816. As a young man, he moved to Detroit in 1838 and began to go into business buying and selling various goods. By setting some of his earnings aside, he saved up enough money to begin his own distilling business, starting with vinegar. He also began producing whiskey (Chauvin 1927), whose name is an old corruption for a word meaning “water of life” (Lyons 1999). By the early 1850’s, Walker’s whiskey had become a local favorite, but the prohibition movement threatened his success. In 1855, a number of states, including Michigan, began to ban the sale of liquor except by apothecaries for medicinal purposes. In response, Walker began buying property in what would become Windsor, Ontario starting in 1856 and began building new facilities. In 1858, his new distillery and flour mill were complete and Hiram Walker and Sons was born. Their most popular product was Walker’s Club Whiskey, which was immensely popular in the United States (Chauvin 1927).
As the prohibition movement and the Civil War shut down liquor production in the Confederacy, where most U.S. distilleries were located, Walker’s Club Whiskey was smuggled across the Detroit River into the U.S. and then distributed across the Union (Chauvin 1927; Hill 2016). Walker’s whiskey was so popular that it was rumored that he had built a pipe running underneath the Detroit River purely for the purpose of pumping his whiskey directly into the U.S. As alcohol production once more picked up after the war ended, Walker’s Club Whiskey dominated the market, so much so that U.S. competitors begged the U.S. legislature to require a liquor’s country of origin to be clearly marked on every bottle. Once the law passed, his whiskey was rebranded as Canadian Club Whiskey (Chauvin 1927).
By the 1910’s, prohibition once again reared its head, this time leading to a national ban on alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933. Prohibition hit Hiram Walker and Sons hard, but they were once again able to find outlets for their product across the Detroit River (Chauvin 1927; Hill 2016). Al Capone, the famous gangster, was one of their best customers, who succeeded in distributing Canadian Club Whiskey across the Midwest with the aid of Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang (Pearson 2014). Despite their rum-running success, Hiram Walker and Sons was sold in 1927 for little of its original worth. Today, Hiram Walker’s distillery is now the largest distillery in North America and produces around 150 different products that are distributed widely. They still make world renowned whiskeys, but their first product, Canadian Club Whiskey, is now owned and produced by a nearby competitor (Hill 2016).
Aside from the name of the company, this bottle contains other information that can help us to place it within this history of Hiram Walker and Sons, Inc. Using the free bottle dating reference guide created by Bill Lindsey (https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm, supported by the Bureau of Land Management and the Society for Historical Archaeology), I was able to narrow down when this bottle may have been produced for sale. Present on this bottle are embossed designs and mold seams that reach the very lip of opening, which indicate that it was machine-made. This technology first became popular after 1900, meaning that CAP’s Hiram Whiskey and Son’s bottle post-dates the Civil War smuggling days of the company. Since there are very few bubbles present in the glass itself, it is likely that this bottle was made with more advanced manufacturing technology, further narrowing the time table of this bottle into the 1930’s or later. The presence of an external screw top also suggests this later date, as this closure type only became popular starting in the late 1920’s.
Our greatest piece of evidence is one simple sentence embossed prominently on the bottle: FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS SALE OR RE-USE OF THIS BOTTLE. Post-prohibition, this message was required by federal law on all liquor bottles to further discourage illegal liquor sales. Passed in 1935, the law was repealed and the message discontinued by the mid 1960’s, placing the manufacture and use of this bottle firmly between 1935 and 1965. Based on all of this evidence, this bottle of Hiram Walker and Sons’ whiskey was distilled and consumed legally in post-prohibition East Lansing. While this bottle may not have been part of Al Capone’s illegal liquor empire, it still has an incredible story to tell about Michigan’s past.
Author: Jeff Painter
Chauvin, Francis X.
1927 Hiram Walker: His Life and His Work and the Development of the Walker
Institutions in Walkerville, Ontario. Manuscript accessed online through the
Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive, University of Windsor.
2016 “Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery No Longer Shy About Telling Its Story.”
Windsor Star, Windsor Ontario. Published Sept. 17th, 2016.
Lyons, T. P.
1999 Production of Scotch and Irish Whiskies: Their History and Evolution. In The
Alcohol Textbook, edited by K. A. Jacques, T. P. Lyons, and D. R. Kelsall, Pp. 137-
164. Nottingham University Press, Nottingham.
2014 “From the Vault: Prohibition.” Windsor Star, Windsor, Ontario. Published Nov.