As part of the “Taverns and Troublemakers” exhibit at the City of Ottawa Archives (running October 1st until March 19th) a historical tavern tour was offered: “Booze, Bus and Banter” (next tour is March 9th, with a possibility for more). Because I love alliteration, hate missing any beer-related event in Ottawa and am always looking for an chance to apply my History BA, I hopped aboard.
How fitting is it that on Back to the Future Day (October 21 2015 for those pretending they’ve never watched the movies) I was able to take a trip back through Ottawa’s bar history. I even had my own version of Doc Brown and the DeLorean: Cliff and a yellow school bus!
The tour was laid out in 5 stops: the exhibit at the archives and then The Carleton, Elmdale House Tavern, The Prescott and Chateau Lafayette. Between stops, our tour guides (Elmdale’s Josh, The Laff’s Deek, and Olga representing the City) entertained us with historical tales around these fine establishments. Most stories seemed to involve the establishments being robbed by bumbling crooks… Oh and on-board oysters were served. For reals. At each stop the tour guests were given just enough time to quaff a quick pint, glass or quart, with the exception of The Prescott, where we took extra time for square pizzas and meatball sandwiches. The fascinating histories around these establishments and the temperance movement in Ottawa are captivating.
Here are my favourite takeaways:
- Canada Temperance Act (1864), also called the Dunkin Act (which I find suspicious close to drunkin’), allowed any local county to forbid the sale of liquor by majority vote.
- Even before Prohibition, communities still had the option to be “wet” (booze OK) or “dry” (booze not OK). Nepean has only been “wet” for 50 years.
- Local author Brian Doyle (of Pick Me Up At Peggy’s Cove fame) has an outstanding story concerning the Elmdale Tavern entitled Beer, Blood and Broken Glass. If you click any hyperlink in this blog, make it that one.
- The Prescott was once named The Preston but the name was changed as it was the last building on the highway to Prescott, a town 65 miles away along the St. Lawrence River.
- The Laff opened in 1849 and is the only bar in Ottawa that predates Prohibition; The Prescott was founded in 1934 and is the second oldest.
- The Laff has had many names over the years and was originally known as Grant’s Hotel. The current name, Chateau Lafayette, was chosen to help attract more French speaking patrons.
- There are more breweries in Ottawa today than at any other point in history. This is the golden age. In fact, from 1971-1980, there were zero breweries. This was known as the city’s most productive and least fun decade.
The tour and exhibit were both well structured and informative. I’d certainly recommend the tour, but I’d also recommend acting quickly as half the bus promised to be back for tour #2. It’s important to note they made that promise after visiting 4 taverns, but still… A big thank you to the staff and volunteers that made this event happen, especially the Friends of the City of Ottawa Archive.