Mr. A.A. Esty was a man displaced in time

Looking back at newspaper archives has become a bit of a habit for myself. Particularly, I have enjoyed learning about the people who used to call this area home.

What was it like to live in that time? What sort of things preoccupied their time? And of course, what controversies plagued our local towns?

One-hundred and twenty years ago in 1902, many prominent events occurred in this nation: the first Victoria Day was celebrated; troops returned home from the Second Boer War; King Edward VII was crowned, and; an Ontario prohibition referendum was held.

As you likely know, prohibition was not introduced in the Province of Ontario because less than the majority of the electorate placed a vote.

Although more than 65 per cent of those who voted wanted prohibition to be introduced, it is estimated that only 30 per cent of the voting population visited the polls. I share these statistics from the referendum with you to explain what people’s opinions of drinking were during these years.

Only four months before the referendum, a Howick hotel keeper was charged with selling liquor during prohibited hours. Mr. A.A. Esty was the owner and operator of the King Edward Hotel in Wroxeter. He began leasing the building in 1900, and purchased the hotel – then known as the Walker House – from Mr. Alex Walker in the spring of 1901.

It was reported in many local newspapers that Esty had a difficult time renewing his liquor license because of the low population in the village of Wroxeter. It would make sense that if there were only so many licenses to go around, the governing body issuing these licenses would like to see them in more urban areas.

Only a year after taking ownership of the establishment, Esty found himself the target of allegations of selling liquor after hours.

In the Aug. 7, 1902 issue of the Wingham Times, it was reported that Esty appeared before Magistrate Miller on Monday, charged with selling liquor during prohibited hours.

“Three witnesses were examined but no case was made out against Mr. Esty,” the Times wrote. “The party who laid this information must have surely been guessing. As one of the witnesses said he was not in the hotel on the day in question.”

Upon researching more into the character of this entrepreneur, I came across a brief in the Feb. 11, 1904 issue of the Wingham Advance which stated, “A load of pleasure seekers from Wingham and Wroxeter were in town on Thursday of last week. Mr Broadway of Wingham and Mr. A.A. Esty of Wroxeter seemed to be the leaders of the party.”

This is not the kind of press that paints someone in good light, but I continued to research this story.

Esty did not appear before a judge until three years after the charges were laid. He appeared in the Gorrie Courthouse in November 1905 with Magistrate Richard Ross hearing the case. Charges were laid by Inspector Clegg. Lawyer R. Vanstone defended Esty, and Lawyer D. Holmes for Clegg.

The Magistrate reserved his decision at the November meeting until the following month.

In the first week of December 1905, the Magistrate ruled that Esty was guilty. The punishment was a fine of $20 and the costs associated with the trial. It was reported by newspapers following the case that Esty had already taken steps to appeal the case.

The First Appeal

The first appeal of this case came before Judge Holt, this time in the Goderich Courthouse only weeks later, according to a January 1906 issue of the Wingham Advance.

Due to the absence of a material witness for the defendant, Holmes asked for an adjournment, and a medical certificate was produced to account for the absence. The case was adjourned until a future day and it was agreed upon by both parties that the respondent would pay the costs of the day. However, both parties could not agree on the hearing of any evidence during that sitting.

“The court suggested that evidence of the present witness be taken and the evidence of the absent one taken at the next sitting,” the Advance reported. “To this suggestion the counsel for the respondent would not agree.”

The second sitting was held in the Wingham Courthouse in mid- January 1906. Judge Holt heard from a number of witnesses before reserving his decision until the following month where he quashed the previous decision of Magistrate Ross.

The Wingham Advance wrote, “the costs in this case must be very heavy, as it has been tried in Gorrie, Goderich and Wingham and eight to ten witnesses had to appear at each court. Mr. Clegg, the inspector, will probably realize the necessity of enquiring into the character of his informants hereafter.”

As I was continuing to research the character of Esty, I found an article published two years after the trial, showcasing that Esty’s reputation had not been cleared with his fines.

“It is reported that there is horrible rowdyism practiced at the King Edward Hotel,” the Wingham Advance reported on Nov. 12, 1908. “There was a pugilistic encounter between the bartender and one of the frequenters, in which the former came off victorious, disabling the latter very badly. From all accounts, there is work for the license Inspector. May he be alive to his duty… Right thinking citizens are disgusted with what they hear about the hotel and the actions there.”

After publishing these details, the newspaper twice issued clarifications, the first from the reporter stating in the following week’s issue that he was misinformed in regard to the quarrel. The unknown author went on to write that it “did not happen in the premises of the King Edward (hotel) and the proprietor was not responsible for the dispute.”

Two weeks after the first article about the dispute was published, the editor of the Advance, Theo Hall, addressed the topic.

In an editor’s note, he wrote, “with reference to the item that appeared in the correspondence recently, in reference to the hotel, Mr. Esty feels that he has been dealt with unfairly. We are sure that neither the Advance, nor its Wroxeter correspondent had any desire to be unfair to Mr. Esty, and we are only too pleased to hear from Mr. Esty that he is endeavouring to keep an orderly hotel and adhere to the law strictly.”

Although the editor stood by his reporter, he also asked for the matter to drop.

“Our correspondent, we believe, reported it as it was represented to him without any personal animus and now that it is clear that Mr. Esty was not to blame in the matter referred to it may be allowed to drop,” Hall wrote.

It appears as though the saying ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ is one that has stood the tests of time, or at least over 100 years, because it was reported only the following year in 1909 that Esty was selling the King Edward Hotel in Wroxeter. Only two months later is was reported that Esty and his family had moved to Buffalo with plans of again engaging in the saloon business. Perhaps it was a fresh start from the controversy that surrounded him in Ontario.

It appears to me that Mr. Esty was a man displaced in time. Had he operated a bar today, he would be regarded as a savvy businessman who stood up for his business, and won the legal battle. Unfortunately during his time, the opinions of locals were vastly different than those today and it is likely that the allegations and rumours ruined his business.

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Kelsey Bent is a reporter with Midwestern Newspapers. She can be reached for comment by emailing kbent@midwesternnewspapers.com.

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