Crisis & Change, Our Work, Our History
Change in a Distillery Town: Work, community, and the historical significance of Corby’s Distillery
Curated by Philip Rich
October 14, 2021
The Signal Brewery sits on the Moira River – a lengthy watershed that extends through Hastings County from Stoco Lake to Lake Ontario. Established in 2016, Signal refurbished and repurposed former buildings that once housed the Corbyville distillery – including what would have been a recreation building and a meeting space – and continues a long history of brewing and distilling in Corbyville, Ontario. The brewery bridges Corbyville’s past to the present, even as the town around the distillery has changed.
A small community outside of Belleville, Corbyville began as a small village but eventually became a prominent town thanks to Henry Corby’s distilling operation. H. Corby’s Distillery produced whisky and other spirits from 1859 until 1989 when new owners Hiram Walker & Sons consolidated distilling operations and moved work from Corbyville to their plant in Windsor, Ontario and Winfield, BC. Many of the buildings that made up the former distillery have since been moved to other manufacturing facilities, and more recently some of the remaining buildings burned to the ground. While the original plant may be gone, there are still many stories about the distillery, and its significance to Thurlow Township and Hastings County, to be told.
Corby’s distillery is central to the region’s history, heritage, and collective memory. Hastings County is a largely rural region of Eastern Ontario – just north of Prince Edward County – and the distillery employed hundreds of people from the region for over 100 years. At its peak Corby’s employed over 600 employees. “Corbyville was set up for smaller batch production,” Elmer Cain, a former engineer and manager at the distillery, explains. “The Moira River was a calling card for the distilling business.”
In the early 1800s Henry Corby recognized the Moira’s potential and set up shop. A baker by trade, Corby built a small mill – Corby’s Flouring Mill – and a company town slowly built up around the mill. An 1855 map of Thurlow Township (pictured below) shows Corby’s Flouring Mill adjacent to Hayden’s Corners, a collection of company houses that would grow to become part of Corbyville. Other mills are present down the river towards Belleville.
Henry Corby became interested in distilling grains for alcohol in the mid-19th century and by 1859 had officially incorporated his distilling operation. He sold it to his son Henry Jr. in 1881. The company village grew to support the flour mill and distillery, and a post office was established in 1882. Local historians Nick and Helma Mika have speculated that the post office appears to be the first official use of the name Corbyville in the area.
The distillery produced alcohol for much of Canada and worked closely with distilling operations in British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Windsor, ON. By the early 1900s, J.P. Wiser’s had acquired a controlling stake in the distillery. In 1935 a majority stake in the company was sold to Hiram Walker – Gooderham & Worts Ltd and the plant expanded throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, once World War II began, the factory was forced to switch to munitions production.
Following the war, the Corbyville plant aimed to modernize its manufacturing capacity – more specifically to increase its bottling capacity by automating parts of the manufacturing process. Employment increased to about 400 unionized workers in the 1950s, but Cain estimates that by the 1960s about 250 people worked at the plant as its focus turned to bottling and distilling for 4 to 6 months a year.
Cain was hired in 1968 to modernize manufacturing and retired in 1997 as Senior Vice-President of Hiram Walker & Sons. “The plant needed upgrades,” Cain told me on a sunny afternoon from his home in Aurora. “Distilling, aging, and bottling and storage, the three main areas of production, were aged.” He notes that the owners, who had distilling operations across Canada, wanted bottling to be the focus at Corbyville while other factories in Windsor and B.C. continued to emphasize production.
“During the 60s a lot of the handling in the bottling plant was done manually,” Cain explains. “They were skilled workers, about 30-40 people. Some of [the manufacturing process] was able to be automated, some of it was not.”
Using grain from Ontario farms, the Corbyville plant distilled 6 months of the year throughout the 1970s and 1980s and spent the other time storing product in an expanded and modernized finished goods warehouse. Spent grain from the distilling process was shipped to farmers across Ontario for animal feed.
But by the 1980s the Canadian distilling landscape was rapidly changing. According to Cain, the industry began to contract due to demand and lifestyle choices. Liquor board regulations were also a factor. The large distillers dictated quantities and capacity. Corby’s closed in 1989 and slowly moved operations to the Windsor plant. Shortly after the closure of Corby’s, the Winfield, B.C. plant was closed as well.
Workers from Corbyville, Belleville, and Hastings County lost their jobs. Management set up a program to train and re-train employees who were being let go for future job opportunities, and lump sum payments and retirement packages were also offered. Cain notes that Belleville had a small manufacturing industry at the time – including a Nortel plant, Procter and Gamble, and a Standard Paper Box plant – but it was not as closely tied to local history as Corby’s, and the family’s significance in the region. Henry Corby served as a councillor and mayor of Belleville in the mid-1800s. Henry Corby Jr. was also active in local politics and establishing the first free public library in Belleville. The family continued to be involved with the library in the 1940s and the 1950s, as well as other small pockets of community in greater Belleville including maintaining the large Corby Rose Garden.
“The industry itself had such a history, a long history. The fact that the people who were working there would be affected, and the demand for the product was being rationalized across the industry, it wasn’t out of nowhere,” Cain says. “[But] from an employee point of view, it was a shock to the area.”
The Signal Brewery continues to do its part to pass on tradition. The historic buildings are an excellent connection to the region’s history and heritage. The brewery also houses artifacts from Corby’s including posters and photos, bottles, and news articles, and it hires brewers and production staff – some of whom still live in the area.
But the closure of Corby’s poses an important question. Why is it an important story to tell? Stories of industry and work are a way to document rural communities as they change over time. Changes to communities because of de-industrialization are significant and challenging. Using stories to preserve and share local narratives of work – like the stories of those who worked at Corby’s – can be an important approach to documenting change.