Inns, Hotels and Prohibition in Kinmount
January 31, 2024
Fred Dettman's Dunbar House
By Guy Scott
The first access to the Kinmount area was via the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road. In the earliest years of settlement (before 1874), all access to Haliburton County was via the Bobcaygeon Road. Countless thousands travelled north (and south) via this Road: by wagon/stagecoach or walked. A regular stagecoach ran between Bobcaygeon and Minden. One day the coach went north and the following day returned south. Yes, it took an entire day for the stage to go one way! (Today, an hour will do the trick, which speaks volumes about the state of the road in pioneer times!). The uncertainty of road conditions meant many travellers often ran out of sunlight or ambition at various points along the road. It was quite common to simply seek shelter at the nearest homestead in either case. Camping under the stars was to be avoided at all cost, especially in the nasty Canadian weather. (A British immigrant once stated Canada had 9 months of winter and 3 months of bad weather!) Many enterprising pioneers threw up a shingle advertising their homes as ‘inns’ simply because road travellers would stop anyways. It was a chance to earn a few scarce dollars as well: a sort of “cottage-industry” if you will.
For the “walkers” or those travelling by wagon, a one-day trip was usually not possible. Thus a series of inns grew up along the Road. These so-called Inns were very primitive by today’s standards. Anything could have an inn, as long as it was a building with a roof. There was no need to have a special building: many inns simply offered shelter in a corner of their log shanty; sometimes without walls or partitions! Other inns were part dwelling part inn. Many (if not most) inns sold alcohol. Alcohol sales were the real money makers in the innkeeper’s world. To be ‘legal’ a licence was required, but these were not hard (or expensive) to acquire. However, if the inn sold alcohol, it was the law that a separate room was required: No bar in the living room corner. Liquor was the preferred beverage: beer was harder to handle due to volume and refrigeration issues. But hard liquor was cheap, easy to find and easy to handle. It was sold by the glass, no ice or mix required. In the 1860s, whiskey could be purchased for as low a price as 20 cents a gallon! And it was popular with travellers and locals alike.
These primitive lodging places were strategically sited at fairly regular intervals of about 5 miles along the road. The 5-mile interval was often the limit for many travellers in the difficult conditions. Bobcaygeon village, being the kickoff point, contained a number of elaborate, first-class inns. Most travellers stayed overnight in Bobcaygeon, before starting north. The next inn was Silver Lake, where Thomas White ran an establishment. Union Creek was home to another inn later under the proprietorship of the famous Bill Dunbar. Next stop on the road was the village of Kinmount. An obvious destination for travellers, most tried to plan their trip based on Kinmount. There were several inns in the hamlet. In fact, the inns in Kinmount were always called hotels because they were separate buildings dedicated to business only. (A hotel is the next step high up the accommodation chain from an inn). Hotels almost always contained a bar room or tavern room. Being in a village, they also catered to locals and often served as the local pub. The town hotels also featured private sleeping rooms and a proper kitchen with a menu.
John Hunter, the first settler and founder of the village was an inn-keeper as well as a sawmill operator. His establishment stood near the present site of the Kinmount House bed and breakfast. He clearly held a liquor licence, since the deed of this parcel of land still held a liquor licence designation long after it ceased to be a hotel. Another hotel was built on lot 3 East of Main Street, the current site of the Post Office. It was a large operation featuring a bar room, a restaurant, at least 20 rooms and stabling for horses. It was operated by several hotel keepers through the years, the most famous being Bill Dunbar (called the Kinmount House) and Fred Dettman (called the Dunbar House). A third major hotel next door was Bowie’s brick hotel. Joseph Bowie also operated a stage coach service from Kinmount to Minden after the railway reached Kinmount. The fourth major hotel was the Northern Hotel, which stood between the Community Centre and the rail line. It was a huge structure similar to the Dunbar House, complete with tavern, restaurant and stables. It was built by a Neil MacKinnon, but was operated by the Scott family for decades before being sold to the Simpson family.
There mere fact Kinmount contained at least 3 major hotels at any one time testified to the importance of the village as a centre or stop in the local transportation network. The arrival of the Victoria Railway in 1874 further enriched the hotel industry in Kinmount. It also didn’t hurt that the Burnt River ran through town. Every spring, thirsty lumbermen and river drivers would flood the town; patronizing the local bars and adding to the coffers of the hotel keepers. The Bobcaygeon Road was also the main artery for the cadge teams who drew provisions for the lumber shanties north in the fall. Mossom Boyd and his company actually kept a house in town to act as a bed and breakfast for his crews. The Boyd Company had so many men and teams moving up and down the road in the 1860s and 1870s that Kinmount was a half-way stop for his business. Five miles north of Kinmount where the Lower Dutch Line met the Bobcaygeon Road was the infamous and elusive Springhill Hotel. By all accounts, it was a simple shanty at a key location. This inn stood on the west (Lutterworth) side of the road and had an evil reputation among some locals. It was a noted bootlegger hangout, but rumours also circulated about missing travellers who disappeared during overnight stays. Legend has it the proprietor murdered them in their sleep and robbed them of anything of value. Of course nothing could be proven, but the legend did exist….
The next stop (another 5 miles) was the village of Minden. Another major centre on the Road, Minden contained formal hotels like Kinmount. The very first business in Minden was Daniel Buck’s Hotel/Post Office. The village always contained at least 2 major hotels, including the famous Rockcliffe Hotel. In its early history, the Rockcliffe was more of an actual hotel than a tavern.
The next stop along the Road north of Minden was Peterson’s Corners, which also contained a hotel or inn. After Peterson’s Corners, traffic on the Bobcaygeon Road lessened and there were fewer inns or hotels. After Hindon Hill, there were actually no true settlers along the road until it reached Dorset. Here at the narrows between two lakes, another small hamlet grew up. Dorset’s prosperity was not tied to the Bobcaygeon Road, but to lumbermen coming from Muskoka. The hamlet contained several hotels and was part of Haliburton County, but was more closely linked to Muskoka. The Bobcaygeon Road was chopped out from Dorset to Dwight, but was abandoned due to lack of traffic.
The arrival of the Victoria railway in the 1870s drastically changed the local travel patterns and the inn keeping business. The Bobcaygeon Road declined as a major transportation route, mostly people preferring to use the quicker railway instead of plodding up the Road. Consequently, the little inns along the road went out of business. Silver Lake and Union Creek establishments closed down. Union Creek sporadically operated as a boarding house when the Galena Hill mines operated, but they were unreliable at best. The hotels in Kinmount prospered as the village became a major railway hub. Likewise the Springhill Hotel & Peterson’s Corners establishments disappeared. Minden never got a railway link, but the lumbering industry along the Gull River helped Minden’s hotel business. Most of the major traffic followed the railway corridor and new centres such as Burnt River, Gelert, Lochlin and Donald sprang up. But because of the speed of the railway (Lindsay to Haliburton in less than a day), inns were not necessary in the little villages along the route. The day of the wayside inn was over, but not the day of the village hotel.
The hotels in major centres like Kinmount and Haliburton prospered in the railway age. The rails brought settlers, lumbermen, travellers, tourists and hunters to the area, and required accommodation. The major hotels and livery stables rented out horse and wagon teams to travellers or taxied visitors to outside locations. They served meals and alcoholic beverages to visitors and locals alike. It was a golden age of the local hotels as evidenced by the elaborate ads the hotels placed in the local newspapers. But even then, as it was in the pre-railway Pioneer Era, the hotels relied on the liquor business to make a profit. And doom was on the horizon. By the turn of the century (1900), the Temperance Movement was gaining strength. This social organization attacked the use of alcohol as social evil. Certainly Ontario was awash in liquor in 1900, with a tavern, bar or similar establishment for every 80 people. Alcohol was cheap, readily accessible and could be a problem in society. There was no government control, and alcohol could be obtained freely from taverns or distilleries. Pioneer “bees” usually featured whiskey by the gallon and drunkenness was a regular feature. Most villages built a jail and hired a (part-time) constable to act as the long-arm of the law. Kinmount’s jail was housed in the basement of the old town hall/township office and contained three cells. Roy Spence acted as constable and J. Peters held the position in Galway Township. Almost all their duties centred on alcohol. It was mostly drunks who were locked up, usually just until they sobered up. The hotel keepers also used their own system of bouncers or enforcers. When the lumber camps let out in the spring, things got slightly unsettling in Kinmount as scores of men who hadn’t had a drink in months descended on the village.
As Newton’s Law states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” While this law was made to apply to the world of science, it also fits society in many ways. Drunkenness, rowdiness and bad behaviour caused by alcohol were considered by many Kinmount residents as blight on their society. A branch of the Temperance League was established in town as early as the 1880s. The Salvation Army opened a branch in Kinmount as well. But despite the best efforts of these groups, Kinmount was still considered to be awash in alcohol to the detriment of the community. But their day was coming.
In 1902, the Government of Ontario passed a law that allowed municipalities to vote on the “local option” of banning liquor sales within their boundaries. It took a simple majority vote by ratepayers to ban alcohol in its entirety. In 1908, Somerville Township held its referendum on the local option. It was a tough campaign that often pitted one family against another. The Temperance organizations (working with the churches) were well organized on the dry side while the hotel keepers led the wet side. The wet group underestimated the power of the dry lobby until near voting day. Women, who were very prominent in the dry group, couldn’t vote, but many a husband was ‘leaned-upon’ by their wife. The hotel keepers held a strategy meeting on the eve of the ballot, but neglected to bring in the lumbermen from a nearby shanty, a fatal error. The dry side triumphed on election day, and Somerville Township and downtown Kinmount went dry by a narrow margin.
The three Kinmount hotels were ruined. Liquor sales were their bread and butter, and now the writing was on the wall. The hotels lingered on, trying to survive on meals and rooms, but eventually the Northern Hotel closed down, Bowies’ became a boarding house and the Dunbar House converted into a garage. The golden age of hotels was over. All three buildings eventually burned, but they were shadows of their past glory. Somerville Township is still dry to this very day, even though it contains a liquor store. Under local option, alcohol may only be served in restaurants or in local outlets…. no taverns or bar rooms.
Galway Township, on the other hand, never adopted local option; simply because there were no taverns within its boundaries! When the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #441 decided to operate a beverage room in their facility, they were forced to select the Galway side of town. Even then, many local residents complained it was too close to the school across the street. A compromise was reached whereby the beverage room did not open until 4:00 pm, after school. And this it stands to this very day.
The ‘wets’ in Ontario suffered a further defeat in 1916, when Ontario brought in province-wide prohibition. All sales, distribution and manufacturing of alcohol were banned. It was ostensibly a wartime measure, but anyone could see the hand of the Temperance League in this legislation. Women acquired the vote in 1917, and prohibition gained countless new allies that kept the ban in place after the war ended. The west tried desperately to have prohibition lifted, but referendum after referendum saw the dry forces triumph. The ‘demon alcohol’ was still totally illegal. But demand for alcoholic beverages never went away; it just went underground. Alcohol was not hard to make, and many people possessed the skill and desire to do so. Thus was born the age of moonshiners, bootleggers and rum runners.
A moonshiner was a person who operated an illegal still. To avoid detection by the law, moonshiners hid their stills in remote areas of the bush. Access, a disguised or remote location and a source of good water were the prerequisites. The Kinmount area had them in plenty. The area was soon dotted with stills. Even today the remains can be found around the area. Once brewed, the moonshine was distributed on the sly to willing buyers by the local bootlegger. These sales agents of the demon alcohol got their nickname from the way they hid their bottles down their boots (or in special coat pockets). A rum runner was a bootlegger who carried larger volumes further distances. Rum runner were especially active ‘exporting’ alcohol into the still-dry USA during this era. Policing prohibition was a thankless and near-impossible task. The provincial government was responsible for this duty, and the nearest office was Lindsay. Enforcement in the Kinmount area was sporadic to say the least. One such raid was made by the Lindsay Police who ‘discovered’ a large moonshine operation near Salmon Lake. Unfortunately, the government agents did not bring a large enough wagon to cart away the still and its large barrels of fermenting mash. The agents retired to town to acquire the necessary transport, but ran out of daylight and were forced to wait until the next day. Their return the next day found the site empty: all evidence being carted away in the night. No doubt, a tipster alerted the moonshiners and the still lived to see another day.
There was a dark side to the moonshine business, besides its illegal nature. There is a certain skill involved and failure to do the job correctly sometimes produced a poisonous alcohol that was fatal when consumed. A batch of bad liquor circulated in town and several local men were killed by alcohol poisoning. It as a bad situation. Alcohol was illegal, but people still wanted it and were willing to take risks to get it. By 1925, over half the residents in Ontario were regularly breaking the Prohibition laws. The provincial government finally acted and ignoring the referendum results, struck down prohibition.
In its place, Ontario set up the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Only government outlets could sell and distribute liquor (legally). Even taverns and other places that sold liquor had to get it from the LCBO. Quality, prices and licensing were strictly controlled by the LCBO and its overseer the Liquor Licence Board. Overnight moonshiners and bootleggers were put out of business and proceeds from alcohol sales now flowed into the government coffers instead.
But there was a still a problem in the Kinmount area. The nearest LCBO outlet was in Lindsay and Somerville was still dry. If locals wanted a drink, they had to dive to Lindsay or patronize the bootleggers. A taxi system was developed, whereby anyone travelling to Lindsay carried an extensive shopping list for the LCBO. Eventually the moonshiners disappeared as cheap, reliable liquor was more readily available, especially after the LCBO came to Fenelon Falls, Bobcaygeon and Minden. But Kinmount still languished without its own outlet, assuaged only by the fact the new Legion contained a beverage room (after 1949).
Kinmount’s chance came in the 1960s. Pressure on Premier Les Frost, who was from Lindsay, led to a branch of the LCBO being granted to Kinmount. The site chosen was the blacksmith shop on the south-west corner of the bridge (still called the ‘old liquor store’). Les Frost was a veteran of World War I and wanted a local veteran to be the manager. Word was sent to the legion to send some names. Norman Gilmore was chosen and filled the role as manager admirably for many years. In contrast to today’s “self serve” stores, the old system involved filling out an order form, passing it over the counter and being served. The arrival of Kinmount’s own LCBO store was a boon to the community. Local business noticed a sharp rise in sales as local residents no longer needed to go elsewhere and neighbouring residents now travelled to Kinmount for a one-stop shopping trip.
After many years of faithful service, the LCBO outlet outgrew its location, and the new and larger outlet was opened in its current location. Kinmount’s LCBO store was somewhat unique in that it was a combination outlet, selling both liquor and beer. Most LCBO outlets confined to liquor only, beer being sold by the Brewer’s Retail (now the Beer Store). The Brewer’s Retail was also set up in 1927 as a sister system.