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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Sleeman Brewery- Guelph


Sleeman’s Silver Springs Brewery of Guelph Ontario: 19th Century Paternalism to Prohibition inspired Myth
  In Guelph Ontario, urban legend persists that during the prohibition period of the 1920’s, the Sleeman family Brewery and the Albion Hotel on Norfolk Street were local businesses that profited from supplying and accommodating the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone. In a Toronto Star article published 27 December, 1994, Art Chauberlain wrote that “like most Canadian beer and liquor companies, during prohibition in the US, Sleeman did a flourishing business selling to smugglers who slipped across the border”.
This historical myth has since become Sleeman’s chief advertising angle and ‘Dentsu Marketing’, a Toronto based advertising firm, has recently developed and aired television adds presenting this history to the Canadian public. The Dentsu ads suggest that Sleeman’s family history is one involving philandering, piracy and as previously mentioned, Al Capone; however an analysis of the Sleeman Family Collection in the University of Guelph’s “McLaughlin Archives” suggests a history more rooted in Paternalist-Capitalism, Municipal Politics and stemming from English Agricultural roots. This essay aims to present the true Sleeman Brewing tradition from the establishment of the Silver Bank Brewery by founder George Sleeman in 1862, to the troubled years of the 1920’s when Henry Sleeman, son of George struggled to keep the business alive during Ontario’s enforcement of prohibition within a widespread social movement toward temperance. This analysis will reveal how George Sleeman was able to capitalize on a thirsty local market of working class consumers of alcohol during the late 1800’s, as well as assume a paternalistic role in municipal politics in Guelph. Years later however, Georges son Henry would encounter quite a different situation as Ontario legislation made supplying a local market with Sleeman Beer impossible, and his efforts to circumvent this legislation and to seek out a foreign market would ultimately drive the Sleeman Family brewery into the ground, and inspire investigation by the Royal Commission of Customs and Excise (1926) in Ottawa. Finally, an examination of evidence revealed during Henry’s trial in Ottawa during April, 1927 and an analysis of Ontario bootlegging and alcohol smuggling patterns as investigated in the works of Anthony Nicaso, Edward Butts and Ted Henniger will prove the Al Capone connection to the Sleeman family brewery to be a historically exaggerated myth, and that St. Catherine’s bootlegger Rocco Perri was the character most likely involved in any bootlegging activity connected with Sleeman brew. 
 
The Beginning of a Brewing Tradition
  John Sleeman migrated from England to St. Catherine’s Ontario in 1836 and so began the Sleeman family brewing tradition in Canada. Upon his arrival John Sleeman, an English farmer, took up the trade of brew-master and struggled for two decades to establish himself as a profitable businessman in St. Catherine’s before moving with his son George to Guelph Ontario in the 1850’s. 
In 1862, father John and Son George partnered to establish the Silver Bank Brewing Company in Guelph Ontario. Guelph was the ideal location to establish such a business due to two key factors; the supply of natural, clean spring water available via Guelph’s Speed River, and the convenience of the town existing along the Grand Trunk Railway, which connected the towns industry to greater markets such as Toronto, Quebec, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, John retired to England leaving his son George as the sole proprietor of the Silver Bank Brewery at Guelph. 

  The McLaughlin Archives at the University of Guelph’s library hold letters written between the two men, which reveal the economic and entrepreneurial situation that George found himself in following his father’s retirement.  On 22 July 1869, George wrote to his father, “I need not complain, for I never had such a good lot of customers” and commented regarding his Silver Bank Brewery that “every man is in his place and attends to it, they know what I want done and they do it.” In a letter written later the same year dated 6 November, 1869, George wrote, “things are great, and sales are very good…I expect I shall collect considerably money about the new year, if you are getting short don’t hesitate to let me know.” A few weeks later, in a letter dated 18 November, 1869, George wrote “prices are very low for all kinds of produce”, and boasted to his father the profits that were available in Canada for a brewer such as himself, with the essential brewing ingredient of Barley remaining at the low price of 42 Cents a bushel.These correspondences between George and his Father reveal George Sleeman to be an opportunist possessing a formula for success in the years following Canadian Confederation, and the main component of this formula was beer. The Speed River supplied George with clean Ontario spring water, The Grand Trunk Railway provided him access to the essential ingredients for his brewing process which he acquired at an affordable price year round, and Guelph itself supplied the entrepreneur with a thirsty working-class consumer base to which he could market his product locally. Furthermore, his comments regarding his workers knowing their place, and doing as they are told demonstrates the considerable power he had as an entrepreneur and business owner over those employed at the Silver Bank Brewery. 

George Sleeman: Brewing & Politics
  Aside from establishing one of Ontario’s most historical breweries alongside his father in 1862, George Sleeman had many other roles in Guelph Ontario including involving himself in municipal politics during the 1870’s and 1880’s while his Brewery continued to produce beer that was preferred by many Guelphites.
Already popular for his Beer and role as a job provider in Guelph, George Sleeman was also the president of the Guelph Rifle Association (GRA) for 20 years, as well as the president of the Ontario Brewing and Malting Association for 4. In the 1880’s, the Brewery employed 35-40 Guelphites and by this time George had established himself as a popular public servant in the town as well. While sitting as a City Counselor during the 1870’s George Sleeman financed and sponsored the Guelph Maple Leafs baseball team who travelled to Albuquerque, New York in 1874 to win a World Championship and capture for Guelph some local pride from a sportsman’s perspective. John Sleeman, great-grandson of George, commented in 1999 that “my great grandfather was quite the visionary; fortunately for me he foresaw the great relationship between beer and baseball.” The Guelph Herald declared on 5 January 1880, that George Sleeman won the office of mayor “by acclamation”, and he would hold this position until refusing to run for mayor in 1883. One of George’s first moves while holding the office of Mayor was to proclaim July 1st, Dominion Day, a public holiday and to advise all Guelph residents to “observe the same”.

  This proclamation may appear insignificant to contemporary Canadian citizens, as July 1
st has traditionally been celebrated as a Federal holiday in Canada where most workers are granted a day off work in both public and private sectors. However the fact that Sleeman, who himself was an employer granted the entire city of Guelph a public holiday during the labor dispute of the 1870’s and 80’s is significant to the labor historian. Christina Burr’s article The Other Side of Labor Reform explains how during the 1870’s and, conservative thinkers like George Brown of Toronto argued against providing the working class any additional leisure time.
 Brown who was a strong advocator of keeping the 10 hour work day and opposed Labor reformers during the 1870’s and 80’s stated that providing the working class with more leisure time would “give them more time to frequent the tavern or Billiard hall.”
 Craig Heron’s article, The Boys and Their Booze: Masculinities and Public Drinking in Working-Class Hamilton, 1880-1946 explains how in Ontario, “alcohol became the lubricant between wage labor and leisure.”  The insights provided by Burr and Heron support the argument that George Sleeman was a visionary and opportunist, who assumed a paternalistic role as Mayor of Guelph and one of the town’s business elites. George Sleeman’s letters to his father prior to his political career in Guelph speak of his men being obedient and always doing as they are told, and reveal a paternalistic and authoritative personality. However, his popularity as a public servant, and moves such as proclaiming a public holiday during the heated labor disputes of the 1870’s and 1880’s reveal a sense of vision and a humanistic approach to maintaining his elite position in Guelph. If one accepts Heron’s argument that at this time alcohol was the “lubricant between wage labor and leisure”, Sleeman’s move is extremely logical from both entrepreneurial and political standpoints. As a Brewer, granting Guelphite’s, more leisure time in the form of Dominion day, can be viewed as a logical business move given the likelihood that many working-class Guelphites would chose to celebrate the public holiday while consuming Sleeman Beer. Especially when one considers that Sleeman himself referred to Guelphites as a “good lot of customers”, and the Conservative observation present within political debate at the time that working class Ontarians spent much of their leisure time “at the tavern and billiard hall.”As a politician, granting a public holiday during a debate where tory representatives advocated for maintaining the 10 hour status-quo, and sought to squash movements toward more humanistic labor reform is a very ‘liberal’ move, and would obviously inspire respect among the laboring class in Guelph for the Brewer/ Politician. Following his retirement from Municipal politics, George Sleeman did not stop acting in ways that can be represented as both serving his own economic interests, as well as the community in which he thrived. In 1894, Sleeman funded the establishment of a streetcar system to transport laborers across Guelph more efficiently as his Brewery was located on Guelph’s West end, and most employees lived in “St. Patrick’s Ward” well across town.

  This analysis of George Sleeman’s role as a public servant as well as Brewing entrepreneur in Guelph Ontario during the 19
th Century lends support to Harold Koch’s creed that George possessed “a mind that seemed to always be reaching out ahead to give some improvement to the structure and growth of his community.”An analysis of the correspondence between George and his father in 1869 provides the insight that although he possessed a popular political swagger and acted in the interest of his community, his interest in acquiring personal wealth and seizing the opportunities available in that community in order to do so should not be ignored. George Sleeman can be considered alongside John Labatt and John Molson as Ontario Elitist’s who capitalized on the brewery friendly agricultural and social environment that existed in Canada during the 19th Century. However, as the next part of my essay will explain, this environment would change rapidly following World War I, as social degradation observed by many Canadians turned the temperance movement which had been ‘brewing’ during the late 1800’s, into a period of prohibition which was officially declared in Ontario in 1916.

Prohibition in Ontario and Its Effects on the Sleeman Brewery
  As previously mentioned, George Sleeman’s Brewery which employed 35-40 Geulphites during its peak production years of the late 1800’s, supplied a predominantly local and regional market focused in Guelph and surrounding in South-Western Ontario. The legislation passed by the Federal Government of Canada during 1916 that banned all public drinking and sale of intoxicating beverages to individuals, taverns and hotels would have devastating results for the Sleeman Family and their Brewing tradition, and would ultimately see production at the Brewery halt during 1926. During the prohibitionary period in Ontario, the Sleeman Brewery entered a somewhat dark, or as the resurrected corporations current adds suggest ‘notorious’ period. Delving into this period as a historian can prove frustrating and fruitless due to the true fact that “rum-runners learned over the years that written records of activity could be kept only at their peril”, which is an insight shared in Geoff and Dorothy Robinsons’ book, It Came by the Boatload.
 However, piecing together what does exist regarding the Sleeman Family Brewery during prohibition, newspaper publications regarding Henry Sleeman’s trial during the year of 1926 for tax evasion, and previous publications written on rum-running in South-Western Ontario helps one comprehend what Prohibitions effects were on the Sleeman Brewery and its CEO Henry Sleeman, the son of George. Prior to exploring this issue, an understanding of the legal situation regarding Brewing, the selling of alcoholic beverages and exportation legislation must be understood.
 
As Dahn B. Higley’s book The History of the Ontario Provincial Police notes, following the prohibition act of 1916, “the most troublesome issue was the liquor legally produced in Ontario Distilleries and Breweries for export that was finding its way into stocks of Ontario Bootleggers.” Higley explains further that “to export liquor from Ontario was a simple matter and was perfectly legitimate during the 1920’s, as long as the receiving country was permitting legal importation of Alcohol.”Sleeman’s product that George had declared during his days as acting CEO of the Silver Bank Brewery as, “endorsed by sensible, thinking men as the most palatable and health-some of beverages when judiciously consumed”, although illegal to consume and purchase inside Ontario, was from a legal standpoint still permitted as a legitimate business, so long as the business abided by International Customs legislation. The gap between Ontario’s declaration of Prohibition in 1916, and the Volstead Act of 1919 making prohibition a reality in the USA, provided a 3 year space in time where Ontario breweries, including the Silver Bank Brewing Company, could in fact do a lucrative business exporting their product to the United States.It should be noted that at this particular point in history, there was nothing ‘notorious’ or illegal about this process, and although drink was heavily frowned upon by temperance activists, some of whom advocated for outright abolition of the brewing and distilling industries in Canada, it was still possible for these companies to carry out a legitimate business due to international law. In addition, although hard alcohols and traditional beers were banned by the Ontario Prohibition Act of 1916, Breweries were allowed to produce 2.5% beers and sell them to licensed distributors and health officials for ‘medicinal purposes’.

  The passing of the Volstead Act of the US congress on 28 October, 1919 made prohibition a legal reality both North and South of the 49
th parallel, and notably banned the import and export of alcoholic beverages intended for public and mass consumption in the United States. Ted Henniger’s book The Rum-Running Years explains how Canadian distilleries, most often manufacturers of Whiskey products, “became the chief supplier of liquor to the parched USA, with almost 90% of this supply coming into the US via the Detroit-Windsor connection”, during the period. Henniger’s analysis explains how one Harry Law whom earned the nickname of “Mr. Big” by rum-running associates, sat on the chair for O’Keeffe and Labatt’s Corporation, and during this period Law also gained control of the Carling Brewery, renaming it “Carling Export Brewing and Malting Company”. Law was also connected to Seagram’s and Canadian Club whiskey products during this period and was known to have been a ‘successful’ businessman who made considerable profits exporting Alcohol illegally to the United States so it could be served in ‘blind-pigs’ in Detroit and its surrounding area during prohibition. There is no mention of Sleeman products however being connected in any way to Harry-Law or his bootlegging business. In addition, Geoff and Dorothy Robinson’s It Came By the Boatload includes a photocopy of an export chart concerning alcoholic beverages passing through the Halifax harbor in 1925 bound for the United States, and although Canadian Club and Seagram’s products are once again mentioned, there is no record of Sleeman or Silver Bank products in this report.

‘Cracking Down’ on Brewers and Distilleries
  The export chart included in Geoff and Dorothy Robinson’s book exists due to a move by the Canadian Federal government in 1926 to appoint a ‘special committee’ for the purpose of the “Investigation of the Administration of the Department of Customs and Excise”. The government reacted to what they deemed “serious losses to the public treasury because of inefficiency and corruption on the part of officers of the department of Customs and Excise” who were the men responsible for inspecting outgoing and incoming cargo at Canadian ports. Specifically this committee was tasked to investigate “all matters affecting the prevention of smuggling, the prosecution of offenders and the seizure, storage and disposal of smuggled goods.”
 The hearing revealed in February of 1926 that the Niagara, Windsor, Sarnia and Sault St. Marie regions were the most corrupt within the department, and at these ports there existed a “very considerable business of moving liquor into the United States.” Although Henry Sleeman’s brewery and its activities are mentioned nowhere during the proceedings of this committee held in 1926, which was ironically the year that George Sleeman passed away, the committee proposed an action plan to crack down on smugglers of alcohol into the United States and those distilleries and brewers who supplied them with their products.
 
Approximately one year later, on April 9th, 1927 an article published in the Montreal Gazette entitled, “Another Ontario Brewery Unable to Produce It’s Books”, declared that the Canadian Customs Commission was expressing impatience with the Sleeman’s of Guelph, Ontario.John Sleeman was called to Ottawa on April 7th to represent his business in front of the Customs Commission, due to alleged tax-evasion and unbalanced books as well as to speak to allegations of a connection with one Mike Bernardo of Toronto, whom was connected to known Ontario bootlegger Rocco Perri of St. Catherines. At this hearing, Henry Sleeman defended himself by claiming he did not know where his missing books holding the financial records of his business were, as well as explaining how in 1926-1927, the Brewery in Guelph was not operating. Commissioner Wright responded to Sleeman’s testimony by stating “Nonsense, books couldn’t disappear like that Mr. Sleeman, we’ve had enough with disappearing books”. Sleeman was also asked about previous fines his firm had received due to the production of ‘over-strength’ beer that exceeded the 2.5% limit imposed by Prohibition Legislation in Ontario. In the end, Sleeman was given one month to produce the missing records to the Commission. Sleeman Family records kept in the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Archives reveal that following this trial Henry sold his Brewery to the Holliday Brewing and Malting Company, another Guelph firm that had supplied Henry’s father George with its main competition in the town.
 By 1933 the Brewery which was being operated by the Holliday Company, officially halted production and this marked the end of Sleeman Brewing in Guelph, until the company was resurrected by John Sleeman (Great Grandson of George) in 1988. John Sleeman told the Toronto Star that year why he chose Guelph as the location to reopen the Brewery, “I chose to put our brewery in Guelph for the same reason my Great-Grandfather chose Guelph, it has the ideal spring water for brewing Beer.”

  The recent advertisements employed by the Sleeman Brewery that connect the business to piracy, notorious figures such as Al Capone and base the company’s history on a foundation of philandering; continue to mislead the general public given the true history of the Sleeman Family Brewery in Guelph Ontario. The alleged connection to Rocco Perri brought up by the Canadian Commission of Customs and Excise in 1927, is a much more likely scenario than any direct link between the Sleeman’s and Al Capone, who operated out of Chicago and was heavily connected to Detroit based bootleggers. Antonio Nicaso explains in his book Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada’s Most Notorious Bootlegger how Perri was even referred to by many as the “Al Capone of Canada”.
 Rocco Perri’s proven connections to the community of Guelph include him being implicated in the murders of two bootleggers by the names of Domenic and Joe Scaroni during the early 1920’s, although he was never convicted in either case. 
 
In conclusion, it appears from a proper analysis of the Sleeman Brewing Tradition in Guelph Ontario under Henry Sleeman, which incorporates works regarding Ontario rum-running by Nicaso, Geoff and Dorothy Robinson and Ted Henniger as well as viewing the evidence revealed by Ottawa’s Commission of Customs and Excise; that the Capone connection to the Sleeman Brewery, and indeed Guelph Ontario is a prohibition inspired and historically fabricated myth. The illegal activity of the Sleeman Brewery existed during a time where virtually all operating Brewery’s and Distilleries in Ontario aimed to circumvent legislation that made their daily operations difficult and removed their traditionally lucrative market of consumers. Sleeman’s activities do not appear to compare to the activity of other producers of alcohol during the time, and due to the fact that virtually every text published on the subject deems Ontario Whiskey the chief product being moved from Canada to the United States during prohibition, via the Sarnia, Detroit, Niagara and Sault St. Marie ports; the likelihood of Capone and his men seeking out the Guelph brewery that employed under 40 people, traditionally supplied a local market and was out of operation during the mid-1920’s is highly unlikely. Finally, an analysis of the Sleeman family collection in the University of Guelph’s historical archives, especially the correspondence between George Sleeman and his father John who retired to England in 1867 reveal the fact that the Sleeman’s had established themselves as local elites who took advantage of the favorable social and physical conditions of Guelph in order to do a lucrative business supplying working class Guelphites with Beer, employing a traditionally English brewing process. George Sleemans success in municipal politics, as well as his investment in the community of Guelph, reveals how during the 19th century in South-Western Ontario, a brewer was able to hold an elite position in society. However, by the time his son Henry took over the family business following World War I, social and legal conditions had changed making it extremely difficult for Henry to do the same. Prohibition would ultimately drive the once successful Sleeman Brewery into the ground, and force Henry along with other Ontario Distillers and Brewers to try and circumvent prohibitory legislation and continue to produce wealth doing what they did best, which was providing working class Ontarian's with alcohol which Craig Heron has referred to as “the lubricant between wage labor and leisure” during the period. 

by: Micheal Matchett (BA)

Sources
1) Toronto Star. “Grandfathers Recipe Behind Sleeman’s Success”. 27 December, 1994.
2) Donald E. Coleman. Guelph: Take a Look at Us. (Boston Mills Press, 1977)
3) "Historic Guelph, The Royal City", Vol XXXIV 1994-1995, published at Guelph Ontario September 1995 by the Guelph Historical Society.
4)
McLaughlin Archives, University of Guelph. “Sleeman Family Collection”, Correspondence Between John and George Sleeman. Box 17, file 5.
5) McLaughlin Archives, University of Guelph. “Sleeman Family Collection”, Newspaper Clippings. Box 13, File 1.
6) City of Guelph, V.R. [microform] : public holiday proclamation! : George Sleeman, Esq., Mayor. http://archive.org/details/cihm_54275

7) Christina Burr. The Other Side of Labor Reform. Published in, ‘Laboring Canada’. (Oxford University Press, 2008).
8) Craig Heron. The Boys and Their Booze: Masculinities and Public Drinking in Working Class Hamilton, 1880-1946. Published in, ‘Laboring Canada’. (Oxford University Press, 2008).

9) Harold Koch. “Guelph Historical Society”. McLaughlin Archives, University of Guelph. Vol XIX. No.3.

10) Edward Butts. Outlaws of the Lakes: Bootlegging and Smuggling from Colonial Times to Prohibition. (Lynx Images Inc, 2004).

11) Geoff and Dorothy Robinson. It Came by the boatload. (Self-Published, 1983).

12) Dahn H. Higley. The History of the Ontario Provincial Police. (Queens Printer, 1984).

13) Ted R. Henniger. The Rum-Running Years. (Lancelot Press, 1981).

14) House of Commons. “Special Committee’s Investigation of the Administration of the Department of Customs and Excise 1926.” (Ottawa Kings Printer, 1926). http://books1.scholarsportal.info/viewdoc.html?id=/ebooks/oca5/40/CCcustomsexcise1926proc01uoft

15) Montreal Gazette. “Another Ontario Brewery Unable to Produce It’s Books”. 9 April, 1927.

16) Toronto Star. “After 55 Years Sleemans Back Brewing Beer”. 21 November, 1988.

17) Antonio Nicaso. Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada’s Most Notorious Bootlegger. (Wiley & Sons ltd, 2004). 

2 comments:

  1. Great article - well written - well researched. Have never been to University of Guelph's archives - but will make a point of going now...Thanks from an amateur historian in Hamilton.

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  2. I'll second the great article comments above. Thanks for the great read. I found it looking for some info on the ads that Sleeman keeps running about it's "bad boy" image and all. I suspected it was exaggerated if not outright fabricated. Not surprised, that's the ad-man game after all. Just disappointed that they think it's right. I imagine they have a lot of people fooled and sell a lot of product based on it.

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