New book tells history of Windsor’s original six breweries

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It’s an intoxicating tale with gangsters, movie star connections and a literal river of beer.

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Brewed in Windsor — A Tasty History, the ninth local history book from Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks, explores the largely forgotten beer making history of a city better known for its whisky.

“The more you dig into the local history and start to connect the dots, the more fascinating the story becomes,” said Edwards. “You had a brewery founded by Hiram Walker that became almost world famous because they won an award at the World’s Fair. As soon as they opened they won a big award, so that put them on the map. Then it goes from there to direct connections to the Purple Gang and Al Capone.”

The book, which includes more than 500 historic photos, highlights nearly 250 lost bars of Windsor-Essex, addresses the effects of 9/11 on Windsor’s bar scene and touches on the current craft beer revival.

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But its main focus is the rise and fall of the Windsor’s original six commercial breweries.

The Brewed in Windsor book by Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks is displayed at the Walkerville Brewery on Monday, December 6, 2021.
The Brewed in Windsor book by Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks is displayed at the Walkerville Brewery on Monday, December 6, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

There was the British-American Brewery (1885 – 1969), the first incarnation of Walkerville Brewery (1889 – 1956), the Riverside Brewing Company (1926 – 1935), the Tecumseh Brewing Company (1927 – 1931), Old Comrades Brewing Company (1947 – 1952), and Hofer Brewing Company (1928 – 1939).

“It’s a book about kind of a forgotten segment of Windsor’s past, the fact that we had this incredible brewing industry at one time,” said Weeks. “Especially during Prohibition days but it goes back even further than that.”

Several of the Windsor operations had Detroit mob connections.

For the Walkverville Brewing Company it was the infamous Purple Gang, whose best customer was Al Capone. They broke into the Windsor beer business after Herman Radner, father of comedian Gilda Radner, bought the brewery in 1925.

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The book suggests Radner, the brewery’s “mystery man,” might even have been a secret member of the gang.

“All of a sudden he had a bunch of money to come over to Windsor and buy the Walkverille Brewery around 1925, right at the height of Prohibition,” said Edwards.

“Next thing you know, Herman Radner is in charge of the brewery and the main focus of the operation was to export beer to the Purple Gang in Detroit. Business was going good. Then one day he was over in Detroit and some gangsters tried to kidnap him.”

Radner was shot in the leg during his escape.

“It made the news in Detroit, and that’s when they started putting the mob connection together,” said Edwards.

Riverside Brewery was tied to another underworld enterprise known as the River Gang.

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“They were as badass as the Purple Gang,” said Edwards. “They came over and founded Riverside Brewery. They put the money up to build a brewery right on the river so they could move the beer across to Belle Isle. They had a fleet of trucks on Belle Isle. They bought off the cops on Belle Isle and they would deliver beer all over Detroit.”

When the brewery went out of business, it also caused quite a buzz.

“When Riverside Brewery was closed, they had to dump all the beer into the river because they wanted to avoid paying tax on that product,” said Weeks. “That was quite the event. People were rowing up in their boats with their buckets to catch the beer before it got wasted. I guess there were a lot of drunken fish.”

Brewed in Windsor —  A Tasty History is available in Windsor bookstores and at Walkerville.com .

twilhelm@postmedia.com

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