A sorry tale of drunkenness at the Commercial Hotel

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


Liquor often got the better of Billy Cowans, a clerk in the Mill Street store owned jointly by his brother and J.M. Fraser of the Elora Mill.

On a June day of 1859, as was his wont, he dipped into the barrel of whiskey provided for the use of the store’s customers as a token of goodwill. On this particular day, he took a few dippers more than was his usual custom, then decided to continue his binge in the more convivial surroundings of the barroom of the Commercial Hotel next door.

Hours later, he made a bold attempt to navigate his way to the door. He never made it. Billy collapsed to the floor, and for the rest of the day was a hazard to the steady flow of patrons in Elora’s busiest saloon.

He did not expire immediately. Doctor William Middleton testified at the inquest the next day that Bill was breathing as he stepped over the prostrate form on his way to the bar. Doctor John Finlayson confirmed the diagnosis when he arrived a short time later for a bend of the elbow.

Tom Snelling, the 16-year-old bartender, thought Bill was asleep with his eyes open. Besides, there was nothing unusual about people on the floor of the Commercial barroom. Snelling continued his assigned duties, dispensing rotgut whiskey at three cents a tumbler.

It was late in the evening before everyone agreed that Bill had indeed passed to the far side of the Jordan. By coincidence, several of the local magistrates happened to be in attendance. They concurred that an inquest should be held the following afternoon. Proprietor John Bain agreed to leave the cadaver in situ until the inquest convened, appropriately, in the Commercial saloon.

The jury ruled death by apoplexy brought about by excessive alcohol consumption.

Whenever anything of consequence happened in Elora in the boomtown days of the 1850s and 1860s, it was usually in or near the Commercial Hotel.

Though not Elora’s first hotel, it was the first worthy of the name. The earliest portion dates to 1848. A series of additions followed over the next two decades, until by 1870 the Commercial boasted 70 bedrooms for rent, four sample rooms for traveling salesmen, five parlours, a dining room, a banquet room and a large stable in addition to the popular barroom.

Things at the Commercial were never livelier than when John Bain was proprietor between 1858 and 1865.

Politics and the Commercial Hotel were inseparably connected in the early days. Elora was a hotbed for the Clear Grit brand of reformers, and the Commercial’s banquet room was frequently called upon for meetings and rallies.

Over the years, most of the face cards of Canadian politics made at least one appearance at the Commercial; George Brown, A.A. Dorion, Sandfield Macdonald, Luther Holton, Oliver Mowat, and Edward Blake are among the better known names.

While the political bigwigs were inside sating themselves with oysters, roast beef and Madeira, lesser ranks of party followers rallied outside on Mill street. Their festivities usually culminated with the hanging-in-effigy of at least one prominent Conservative. Once, a rival mob assembled the following night to put to torch a representation of George Brown and other reformers. It was a gesture of political bi-partisanship that was a credit to the village.

At the local level, Elora council regularly met in an upstairs parlour. On one occasion, assessor David Foote left the council meeting after a noisy altercation and proceeded downstairs to cool his ardour in the barroom. This strategy was a failure. An hour or so later, he spotted Reeve J.M. Fraser at the opposite end of the bar and renewed the confrontation by breaking one of John Bain’s wooden chairs over the reeve’s head.

John Bain normally did not tolerate such behaviour. On an unhappy day in 1861, he and his son ejected an obnoxious patron from the barroom. On the street, a few additional well-placed punches sent the unfortunate man on his way to the promised land.

The incident brought John Bain the nuisance of a manslaughter charge. He was acquitted when he explained to the jury that he was a semi-professional boxer and did not know his own strength.

The Commercial’s saloon possessed an ambience that was irresistible. Even temperance men were not immune to its charms. Surveyor Edwin Kertland, who was vice-president of the Elora Friendly Society, the village’s first temperance group, was once tempted inside, and for several days spent most of his waking hours in the barroom.

On the third day, as his behaviour became increasingly vocal and outrageous, the other members of the executive of the Friendly Society convened in the adjoining dining room and expelled Kertland for his scandalous disregard of his solemn vows.

Robert Biggar took over the Commercial Hotel in 1865. He and his family retained control for the next 40 years. The Commercial earned a tamer reputation under Biggar’s management, though one not without memorable incidents, which often centred on Biggar’s running battle with Ontario’s increasingly-restrictive liquor laws.

The decades preceding the First World War were not good ones for the hotel business and the Commercial expired in 1920, a faded apparition of its glorious prime years.

The banquet hall of the Commercial is now the theatre of the Gorge Cinema. The old barroom at the front of the building was occupied over the years by a number of businesses, including the Elora Frozen Food, Cafe Flore, and Partridge I.

None of the proprietors of the property saw fit to mark the spot on the floor where Billy Cowans expired, though it would have been entirely fitting for them to do so.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Sept. 25, 1990.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015