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.
One aspect of Salem’s history that is frequently remarked upon is the preponderance of hotels in the hamlet.
At the peak of the innkeeping business, Salem boasted five hostelries, almost equal to the six that flourished in Elora at the same time.
Elora’s regional cattle market, plus the grain buying by the flour mills in Salem and Elora, supported these hotels; farmers from northern Wellington, their ranks swelled with others from Grey and Bruce counties, converged on Elora to sell their produce and buy their supplies.
Elora’s lively market built momentum during the 1850s and 1860s, and then declined quickly after the completion of the railway into the northern part of the county.
The five hotels in Salem in 1871 diminished to only two by 1878.
It is easy to overrate the importance of Salem’s hotels. Though five in number, none had more than eight bedrooms, and their dining, barroom, and stabling facilities were on a similar small scale.
The three major Elora hotels, the Commercial, Royal, and Dalby House, all dwarfed anything in Salem, and the Commercial alone had more bedrooms than all the Salem hotels combined.
Still, many farmers found it convenient to stay the night in Salem, and arrive at the Elora market first thing the next morning. After the decline of the Elora market, cattle buyers and traveling salesman found the Salem hotels handy when calling on farmers in northern Pilkington and Nichol townships.
We know almost nothing about Salem’s first innkeeper, John Pearson. His name is mentioned in most early accounts of the hamlet, and his establishment was open by 1849, perhaps earlier. At this time, Sem Wissler was still attempting to keep a firm hand on his village – it was only three years old at the time – and Pearson operated in premises rented from Wissler. Pearson stayed in Salem only a few years.
Salem’s hotel industry became firmly established in 1854 and 1855, when the British Hotel, the Salem Hotel, and the Rising Sun Hotel opened their doors within a period of 18 months. The Union Hotel followed in 1859. The opening of these hostelries coincided with the establishment of Salem’s flour-milling industry by Sem Wissler and Levi Erb.
The most significant and longest-lived in Salem were the Rising Sun Hotel and the Salem Hotel. The Rising Sun, under the management of Christian Goldnier, opened in late 1855 on Woolwich Street, in a building rented from Sem Wissler.
Goldnier did not remain long as the publican; he was soon succeeded by George Flad, who purchased the property from Wissler in 1860. The Rising Sun would remain in the Flad family until it closed in 1913.
Under George Flad’s management, the Rising Sun gained an unrivalled reputation as the liveliest of Salem’s hotels.
George displayed an ongoing contempt for liquor regulations, and for Sunday closing laws in particular. In one short period in 1866, he was fined twice for his Sunday hospitality; the first time the charge included gambling, in which the losers at card games purchased a round for the house.
Slightly chastened by a $20 fine, Flad restricted Sunday sales to beer only. When charged the second time, Ellen Flad, who was bartender, testified that everyone knew beer was only intoxicating in large quantities. That time, the Flads were fined $10.
One of the peculiarities of the 19th-century liquor laws was that Sunday sales were permitted to bona-fide travelers. The next time he was charged, George Flad employed an oversharp Elora lawyer to argue that his customer, who was merely walking two blocks from his house to that of a friend on the other side of the Rising Sun Hotel, was a legitimate traveler.
The defence was successful, and Flad was acquitted. Flad, of course, was not the only tavern-keeper in Elora and Salem to defy Sunday laws, but he was the most flagrant about it.
The Rising Sun was not a large establishment, and the Flads lived on the premises. Amiable and gregarious, George Flad attracted a regular local clientele to the family-like atmosphere of the Rising Sun, an ambiance enhanced by Mrs. Flad’s reputation as having the best dining room in Salem.
As well, the Rising Sun gained a reputation for orderly conduct: Flad tipped the scales at an imposing 300 pounds, and few obstreperous tipplers wished to risk an altercation with him.
Campaigning politicians made the Rising Sun an obligatory stop; the walls of the cramped barroom often bulged from the pressure of crowds attending political meetings and debates in the 1860s and 1870s.
Even with healthy barroom receipts, the Rising Sun did not provide sufficient income to support a family. George worked as a brewer for Conrad Doerbecker and his successors at the Salem Brewery, and later engaged in farming as a sideline.
It appears that brewery employment, not the hotel, originally attracted him to Salem. This was only one of several links between Salem’s hotel and brewing industries. When he was attending to the kettles and vats, members of his family assisted with the operation of the hotel, and Mrs. Flad was, in effect, the manager.
Regulatory standards for hotels became more rigid in the 1870s and 1880s, and more than once Flad faced the prospect of losing his licence. Each time, however, he managed to make the necessary improvements and alterations to stay in business. Stiffer regulations no doubt played a role in the demise of Flad’s competitors. George Flad was succeeded as proprietor by first his wife, and then by his son, also named George, around 1892.
The younger Flad adhered more rigidly than his father to Ontario’s liquor laws, but continued the warm atmosphere that had made the Rising Sun a popular spot for more than three decades. He also changed the name of the hotel from the Rising Sun to the Commercial House.
George Flad Jr. died in 1904 at the age of 47, having spent his entire life at the hotel. His wife carried on the hotel for another nine years.
In Oct. 1913, Salem held a prohibition vote under the local option permitted by the provincial government. The vote went 219-127 against liquor sales. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Flad sold the last glass of beer, and closed the door forever on Salem’s last remaining hotel.
A footnote: In the 1860s, George Flad Sr. experienced much difficulty in getting others to spell his name correctly. In business directories, advertisements and even official records, he is listed variously as Fludd, Flatt, Flath, Flad, Fladd and Fead.
Throughout his life, he consistently spelled his name as Flad. His descendants added a second ‘d’ to the name in the early 20th century.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Nov. 10, 1992.