Welcome to December, my friends, and welcome to my somewhat delayed weekly post here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. Perhaps another time I will regale you with the story behind the partial reason for the delay; for now I’ll just say that it was yet another new adventure in rural living for Raymond and me, having to do with a full-to-the-brim septic tank and the kindness and help of both a neighbour and a local septic-tanking-pumping company. You might even be able to fill in the blanks without me telling you the whole story.
But today’s instalment is about two other things: Christmas – which seems appropriate, it being early December and all – and Canadian whisky. Actually, make that three things: it’s also about making connections with interesting people who have great stories to tell.
Now, I hope you’ll bear with me as I backtrack a little here. Back in March 2014, I did a post (which you can read here) featuring a vintage (1964) newspaper ad for Seagram’s V.O. Canadian whisky that, slightly inexplicably, shone a spotlight on the good taste in Canadian whisky of the people of Madoc, Ont. (Which is “town” for most of us who live in Queensborough.) I say “slightly inexplicably” because a reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse had already filled in the blank for me, sharing the information that a top gun at Seagram’s back in those heady 1960s days was a chap with a huge Madoc connection named Jack Baker – and also that Jack Baker had later gone on to produce a whisky with his own name on it.
That post garnered all kinds of comments (click here to read them) from folks who knew or had worked with Jack Baker (or at least, whose fathers had), and also comments from Canadian-whisky connoisseurs who remembered Jack Baker’s namesake product very fondly.
Eight months later, in November 2014, I followed up on that post with one (which is here) sharing some of the interesting information that readers had come up with, and a bit more that I had gleaned myself about Jack Baker. The main element of that post was the legendary whiskies made by Jack Baker. Jack Baker’s Secret and Jack Baker’s Top Secret whisky are long-gone mid-20th-century libations, but they are remembered fondly by many drinkers of Canadian whisky, as I reported then.
And that, I thought, was that.
But a short while ago – a year after that second post, in fact – something marvellous arrived: a comment from the person who, as he very accurately put it, “can best give you info about Jack Baker Distillery.” Who would that be? Well, I’ll tell you. It would be Frank Baillie, who not only was president of the company that produced Jack Baker’s Secret and Jack Baker’s Top Secret – Jack himself being chairman of the board (and, as Frank says, the real boss) – but also the man who has been married to Jack’s daughter, Elizabeth (Lib), for the past 54 years. Now isn’t that something?
Thanks to the enlightening and entertaining comments that Frank and Lib posted (you can see them here) and their subsequent email exchanges with me, I have learned all kinds of interesting things about not only the whisky, but the man behind it – and behind a whole lot of stories about Madoc back in the day.
And among those stories is a Christmas one that I am going to share with you.
But first, a bit more from the treasure trove of material and memories that Lib and Frank were kind enough to send along.
Probably the best place to start is with a bit of background on Jack Baker. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War and, looking for some peace and quiet after that, chose tiny Madoc to settle his family in. A man of enterprise and ambition, Jack set up a construction business and a service station. And then – have I mentioned that he was an enterprising sort? – it struck him that Madoc could really use a liquor store. Or, as it says in an ad for his whiskies that Frank sent me, Jack “noticed that the local townsfolk in and around Madoc spent a good deal of their time driving back and forth to the area’s only liquor outlet in Belleville. Not being a man to ever look the other way when opportunity was staring him in the face, Jack leased a store which he owned in Madoc to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, who made him the manager.” (Interestingly, another ad for Jack Baker’s Secret and Top Secret says that Jack built – rather than leased out – the building that was to house the Madoc liquor store. As with all legends, the details sometimes get a little cloudy.)
Anyway, Jack became the manager of the Madoc liquor store, which Lib tells me was close to the intersection of St. Lawrence Street West and Russell (or is that Russel?) Street in downtown Madoc. As you already know, he later went on to work with Seagram’s and to produce a whisky of his own (and a little more on that below), but it is evident that his time as a businessman in an interesting line of work in a small town in central Hastings County is what stuck most with him in later life. Why is it evident, you ask? Because those Madoc days are all referenced big-time in publicity that was produced for his whiskies.
And thanks to Frank and Lib Baillie, I can show you those ads from the 1970s. Click on each one to enlarge it – in some, the reproduction is a tiny bit fuzzy, but I think you can read them all when you zoom in. Herewith, stories about a wrist-wrestling contest, and a rollerskating rink on the roof of the LCBO, and Big Bill Baker, and all manner of interesting local lore. Do any readers remember?
I’m going to let Lib Baillie tell the last part of the story of her dad and the whisky that bore his name:
“Secret and Top Secret were produced in Waterloo [Ont.] at the House of Seagram. Father was very close to Charles Bronfman and when the patriarch Sam gave Charles a distillery for his 21st birthday (Thomas Adams Distillers), Father ran it for Ontario, Quebec and The Maritimes. Charles made space available in Waterloo as a thank-you.
“Jack Baker’s Distillery died shortly after he did. He really WAS the company – I’ve never met anyone with his level of salesmanship, tenacity and guts.”
In reading the stories that Jack recounted in those 1970s ads, you certainly do get a sense of his “salesmanship, tenacity and guts,” as Lib so aptly puts it. But I think you also get a sense of how his experiences in Madoc helped shape him: helped him learn about human nature and human foibles, and thus perhaps how to be a better salesman and businessman. And even more to the point, gave him a wealth of great stories to tell!
And here’s the Christmas story I want to share with you this Christmas season. It says a lot about small-town life in central Hastings County back in the middle of the last century. Though I would like to think that if the same Christmastime catastrophe happened in little Madoc today, the response would be exactly as it was back then.
Herewith, with huge thanks to Frank and Lib Baillie (and the late Jack Baker), The Day a Town Gave Itself for Christmas:
The Day a Town Gave Itself for Christmas
“It was a bitterly cold Sunday night that December 23rd, 1945. Even today I can see the flames from my service station lighting up most of Madoc, Ontario.” Jack Baker chuckles. “I wasn’t laughing then, I can tell you. I had just spent every thin dime I had to buy that station. Every spare penny I could scrape up was invested in the 5000 gallons of gas in those tanks. Whether my family and I had a Christmas at all, was a matter of whether or not I sold that gas. When I ran up and saw those flames shooting through the roof, I saw my whole life going up in smoke. Including every stick of furniture I owned, which was stored above the station. I was wiped out.
“Everyone tried their best, but it was a burned out shell by morning. As I stood there, alone in the frozen ice coated remains, I saw a 300 pound air compressor that I had thrown outside at the height of the fire. I tried to lift it and I couldn’t.
“Then a strange thing happened. As I stood there in the wreckage of my station people started arriving. Before long most of the town was there. Even farmers from miles away. They didn’t waste time talking about it, or offering sympathy, they just pitched in and started chopping and shovelling away all the ice and snow. They worked like beavers. Pretty soon the lot was cleared. The town electrician rigged power for my pumps, which had escaped damage.
“As if that wasn’t enough, those people did the darnedest thing. They got into their cars and lined up at the pumps. They filled their tanks to overflowing. I still think some went home, filled the tractor from their car and came back for more. Anyway, by dark I had sold more gas than I ever had in my life. They cleaned me out. And I had money for Christmas.
“Every year since, just before Christmas, I can’t help remembering the charred remains of that other Christmas. But most of all, I remember those wonderful people in Madoc. Without asking, or hesitation, they banded together and unselfishly gave me a priceless Christmas present I’ll never forget. That taught me one thing. Besides having your health, there’s nothing more important in life than having good friends. Fortunately for me, I’ve kept both. Which has enabled me to realize my life’s ambition, to create two of the finest, smooth-tasting Canadian whiskies available today, Secret and Top Secret. When you taste them, I know you’ll be pleased. All you have to remember is to mention my name: Jack Baker.”
Wow! Jack Baker was a great salesman (as you can tell from the story’s end – but it is an ad, after all), and a great storyteller. And thanks to Frank and Lib Baillie coming across Meanwhile, at the Manse and sharing their wealth of Jack Baker and Madoc knowledge, I can share a wonderful Christmas story with you all, featuring kindness and neighbourliness and true Christmas spirit in our own Madoc.
I think we can all raise a toast to that.