Prohibition referendum: Fergus went dry in local vote of 1935

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.

Referendums have never been a significant component of the Canadian political system. There is one exception: the liquor question. Votes to outlaw the sale or manufacture of liquor are as old as Confederation.

Those in positions of political authority used the referendum because of the animosity they might arouse if they took a strong personal stand themselves, particularly when opinion in their jurisdiction was evenly divided, or close to it.

This was how prohibition came into force across Ontario in 1915. In the decade previous to this, quite a few Ontario municipalities had voted their bar rooms and liquor stores out of business. A move in the other direction began in the mid-1920s, culminating with the sale of beer under Howard Fergusson’s government and the creation of the Liquor Control Board to handle regulations and the sale of liquor in government-controlled stores in 1927.

In succeeding years there was further liberalization of liquor laws, both by regulation and legislation, and under both Conservative and Liberal provincial governments. All this was done a small step at a time, and without any referendum.

In the early 1930s the provincial liquor authorities began to licence hotel bar rooms. Local municipalities still had a voice, should they choose to use it. They could hold a referendum and ban the sale of beer by the glass, but the vote had to be 60% against beer parlours, not a simple majority.

Several municipalities held votes on the liquor question in 1934 and 1935. The attempt to ban bar rooms failed in both Harriston and Mount Forest. The liveliest, and only successful campaign for the prohibitionists, occurred 81 years ago in Fergus, in April 1935.

The LCBO quietly granted licences to two separate operators, who set up beverage rooms in two of the old Fergus hotels, the Simpson House and the Commercial Hotel. Only one of the outlets persisted more than a few months, and this one moved, after a couple of months, from the Commercial Hotel to the old Murphy House hotel building near the corner of St. Andrew and St. David streets.

The presence of even one beverage room in Fergus was sufficient to inflame the prohibitionist forces in the town, led by a very active branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and by W.G. and Milton Beatty, the tea-drinking brothers who ran the dominant industry in Fergus.

The locals were particularly incensed by the fact that the proprietor was a newcomer to Fergus, and by a sign he placed in a window boldly spelling out “Ladies Beverage Parlour.”

The beer parlour issue started to boil on Nov. 5, 1934, when a delegation from the WCTU appeared before Fergus council to ask that the question be placed on the ballot at the municipal elections to be held the following January.

Councillors Beecher Parkhouse and William Irvine moved that Fergus council do so. Their motion instructed Reeve Armstrong and village solicitor J.A. Wilson to contact Queen’s Park immediately on the matter.

The majority of Fergus council wished to avoid the issue altogether if possible, knowing that opinion would be divided and that the animosity could be destructive to the community. Another delegation, led by R.D. Kerr, W.M. Tait and R.M. Glen, appeared at council a month later, armed with a petition bearing 575 names, asking Fergus council to pass a bylaw immediately outlawing beer parlours.

Council was forced into action, but there were delays. The LCBO admitted losing some correspondence, there were further delays because Fergus council was apparently unaware the liquor vote was to be held based on a provincial voters list, not the municipal one. By this point, a vote in January 1935 was obviously impossible.

Meanwhile, the Fergus WCTU pushed themselves into top gear with a series of meetings. Speakers such as Mrs. Berry at the December 1934 meeting, which packed the hall at Melville Church, stated that Canada had a long history of referendums on the liquor question, and therefore no liquor law should be changed without one. She was outraged at the increase in the consumption of beer: “Is Ontario to spend more for beer than bread?” she asked the crowd.

Through the fall of 1934 the WCTU had been pushing a Sunday School temperance course at local churches, and early in 1935 they formed a Junior WCTU.

Fergus council eventually passed a bylaw authorizing the vote at a rare Saturday evening meeting on Dec. 15. A couple of weeks later, the nomination meeting, held on New Year’s Eve, drew a large house of angry people. The liquor question seemed to get people upset over other matters as well: finances, secret meetings of council, even over newspaper coverage of council.

Despite all the yelling and ill will, most of the old council returned to the table for 1935. They eventually sorted out matters with officials at LCBO, and at the March 4 council meeting they set the date for the plebiscite: April 10, 1935.

Meanwhile, public meetings continued. The Home and School Association brought in Dr. George McQuibban, the Alma doctor who sat for North Wellington in the provincial legislature and was perhaps the most robust temperance advocate there. A month later, the WCTU heard Rev. Dr. Dickie, who stated it was time for Canada to pass and enforce strict prohibition. It had never been truly tried in Canada, he noted.

Because the vote had to be held under provincial law, the provincial voters list had to be updated. Judge R.L. MacKinnon spent almost 10 hours reviewing the names of those who wanted to be added, and those who should be removed. He added more than 200 people, all of whom had to appear personally, and he struck off 100 other people.

The dry committee, bankrolled by the Beatty brothers and their general manager, W.L. Ham, put together a huge rally in the old Town Hall, next door to Melville Church on St. Andrew Street. Spectators filled all the seats, with more than 150 standing and others who couldn’t get in.

Dr. A.J. Irwin of the Ontario Temperance Federation spoke first, outlining the bad effects of drinking on automobile accidents and domestic troubles. He claimed that with beverage rooms in operation, beer consumption had risen 27% in one year. Under questioning, though, he had to admit that hard liquor sales had declined 50% since the introduction of beer halls.

Milton Beatty followed, and he was in fine form that night. He began by ridiculing a circular issued earlier that day by the “wet” committee. He described the proprietor of the Murphy House as a virtual monster, and declared his belief that women should be banned from beverage rooms even if they remained. The ladies room at the Murphy House, he told the crowd, was a snare for their unsuspecting daughters.

In conclusion, Beatty asserted that beer halls were having a negative impact on sales for Beatty Bros. (in fact, the firm’s annual report issued a short time before showed that sales and employment had never been higher, despite depression conditions).

The dry side followed their rally with a full-page advertisement in the News Record. In the days immediately before the vote, the liquor question dominated talk in Fergus. The dry side received additional support from those who had no problems with beer parlours, but who resented the way they had been imposed on Fergus, with neither a referendum nor the approval of the local council.

There were more meetings in the days before the vote, including another rally by the “dry” committee on the eve of the referendum. While this meeting was in progress, a speaker argued in favour of beverage rooms on Toronto radio station CFRB in a 40-minute speech, broadcast largely to influence the vote in Fergus.

On voting day, R.D. Kerr managed the committee room for the Temperance League, with a pool of more than 30 cars at his disposal to get the vote out. Col. Pritchard headed the hastily-convened committee in support of beverage rooms. There was talk at the time of forming a branch of the Canadian Legion in Fergus, and its prospects would be much diminished without a beverage room.

The vote produced the largest turnout ever in Fergus: 87%. The dry side outpaced the wets by a vote of 992 to 565. Under the 60% rule, at least 884 “no” votes were required. The margin in Fergus was 63.7%. Thus began the famous Fergus “dry” spell that would last a generation, and saddle Fergus with the reputation of a vehemently anti-alcohol town.

But even in the mid-1930s, at the peak of the influence of the Beatty brothers, there was a significant minority in favour of the sale of alcoholic beverages.

The Murphy House closed for good after the liquor vote. Taking no chances, the Beatty firm and W.L. Ham, purchased three other hotel buildings in Fergus in order to be certain they would never serve alcohol. They renovated the Commercial into retail space and apartments, the Simpson House into an apartment building, and demolished the American Hotel in 1944.

The remaining two Fergus hotels, the Murphy House and the Wellington, fell to the wrecker’s hammer as well in the 1940s.

As a consequence of the 1935 vote, Fergus achieved a unique distinction: it was the only town in Ontario over 2,500 population with no hotel, and no overnight accommodation for travellers.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 17, 2000.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015