Author: Micheal Matchett

Publication Date: 2013

Edited: 2023



In Guelph, Ontario, urban legend persists that during the prohibition period of the 1920s, the Sleeman family brewery and the Albion Hotel on Norfolk Street were local businesses that profited from supplying and accommodating the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone. In a Toronto Star article published December 27th, 1994, Art Chauberlain wrote that,


"Like most Canadian beer and liquor companies, during prohibition in the US, Sleeman did a flourishing business selling to smugglers who slipped across the border."1


This historical myth has since become Sleeman's chief advertising angle and 'Dentsu Marketing', a Toronto based advertising firm, has recently developed and aired television adds presenting this history to the Canadian public. The Dentsu ads suggest that Sleeman's family history is one involving philandering, piracy and as previously mentioned, Al Capone; however, an analysis of the Sleeman Collection in the University of Guelph's Archives and Special Collections suggests a history more rooted in paternalist-capitalism, municipal politics and stemming from English agricultural roots. This essay aims to present the Sleeman brewing tradition from the establishment of the Silver Creek Brewery by founder George Sleeman in 1862, to the troubled years of the 1920s when Henry Sleeman, son of George, struggled to keep the business alive during Ontario's enforcement of prohibition within a widespread social movement toward temperance. This analysis will reveal how George Sleeman was able to capitalize on a thirsty local market of working-class consumers of alcohol during the late 1800s, as well as assume a paternalistic role in municipal politics in Guelph. Years later however, George's son Henry would encounter quite a different situation as Ontario legislation made supplying a local market with Sleeman beer impossible, and his efforts to circumvent this legislation and to seek out a foreign market would ultimately drive the Sleeman family brewery into the ground and inspire investigation by the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise (1926) in Ottawa. Finally an examination of evidence revealed during Henry's trial in Ottawa during April 1927, and an analysis of Ontario bootlegging and alcohol smuggling patterns, as investigated in the works of Anthony Nicaso, Edward Butts and Ted Henniger, will prove the Al Capone connection to the Sleeman family brewery to be a historically exaggerated myth, and that St. Catharines bootlegger Rocco Perri was the character most likely involved in any bootlegging activity connected with Sleeman brew.


Historic Guelph V52P12Sleeman and Son Brewery, Guelph, circa 1860s.

(Image courtesy of the Sleeman Collection, University of Guelph Archives and Special Collections (XR1 MS A801)).



John Sleeman migrated from England to St. Catharines, Ontario in 1836 and so began the Sleeman family brewing tradition in Canada. Upon his arrival John Sleeman, an English farmer, took up the trade of brew-master and struggled for two decades to establish himself as a profitable businessman in St. Catharines before moving with his son George to Guelph, Ontario in the 1850s.2 In 1862, father John and son George partnered to establish the Silver Creek Brewing Company in Guelph. Guelph was the ideal location to establish such a business due to two key factors: the supply of natural, clean spring water from local creeks and wells along the Speed River,3 and the location of the town along the Grand Trunk Railway, which connected the town's industry to greater markets, such as Toronto, Quebec, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.4 In 1867, the year of Confederation, John retired to England leaving his son George as the sole proprietor of the Silver Creek Brewery.

Historic Guelph V52P13

John Sleeman and son George, from tin-type photograph, 1860s.

(Image courtesy of Sleeman Collection, University of Guelph Archives and Special Collections (XR1 MS 801)).


The archives at the University of Guelph McLaughlin Library hold letters written between the two men, which reveal the economic and entrepreneurial situation that George found himself in following his father's retirement. On July 22nd, 1869, George wrote to his father, "I need not complain, for I never had such a good lot of customers," and commented regarding his Silver Creek Brewery that, "Every man is in his place and attends to it, they know what I want done and they do it."5 In a letter written later the same year dated November 6th, 1869, George wrote, "Things are great, and sales are very good... I expect I shall collect considerably money about the new year, if you are getting short don't hesitate to let me know."6 A few weeks later, in a letter dated November 18th, 1869, George wrote, "Prices are very low for all kinds of produce," and boasted to his father the profits that were available in Canada for a brewer such as himself, with the essential brewing ingredient of barley remaining at the low price of 42 cents a bushel.7


These correspondences between George and his father reveal George Sleeman to be an opportunist possessing a formula for success in the years following Confederation, and the main component of this formula was beer. The Speed River and its tributaries supplied clean spring water, the Grand Trunk Railway provided George access to the essential ingredients for the brewing process, which he acquired at an affordable price year-round, and Guelph itself supplied the entrepreneur with a thirsty working-class consumer base to which he could market his product locally. Furthermore, his comments regarding his workers knowing their place, and doing as they are told demonstrates the considerable power he had as an entrepreneur and business owner over those employed at the brewery.


Historic Guelph V52P14A Silver Creek Brewery wagon delivers beer to the Ambassador Hotel (Old Western Hotel) on Macdonnell Street, circa 1900.

(Image courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives (F38-0-15-0-0-79)).



Aside from establishing the brewery alongside his father in 1862, George Sleeman had many other roles in Guelph, including municipal politics during the 1870s and 1880s, while his brewery continued to produce beer that was preferred by many Guelphites.8 Already popular for his beer and role as a job provider in Guelph, George was also the president of the Guelph Rifle Association (GRA) for 20 years, as well as the president of the Ontario Brewing and Malting Association for four years.9 In the 1880s, the brewery employed 35 to 40 Guelphites and by this time George had established himself as a popular public servant in the town as well. While sitting as a City Councillor during the 1870s, George financed and sponsored the Guelph Maple Leafs baseball team who travelled to Albuquerque, New York in 1874 to win a World Championship and capture some local pride for Guelph.10 John Sleeman, great-grandson of George, commented in 1999 that,


"My great-grandfather was quite the visionary; fortunately for me, he foresaw the great relationship between beer and baseball."


The Guelph Herald declared on January 5th, 1880, that George Sleeman won the Office of Mayor, "By acclamation," and he would hold this position until refusing to run for mayor in 1883.11,12 One of George's first moves while holding the Office of Mayor was to proclaim July 1st, Dominion Day, a public holiday and to advise all Guelph residents to, "Observe the same."13


This proclamation may appear insignificant to contemporary Canadian citizens, as July 1st has traditionally been celebrated as a national holiday in Canada where most workers are granted a day off work in both public and private sectors. However, the fact that Sleeman, who himself was an employer granted the entire City of Guelph a public holiday during the labour dispute of the 1870s and 1880s is significant to the labour historian. Christina Burr's article "The Other Side of Labour Reform," explains how during the 1870s conservative thinkers, like George Brown of Toronto, argued against providing the working class any additional leisure time.14 Brown who was a strong advocate of keeping the ten-hour work day and opposed labour reformers during the 1870s and 1880s stated that providing the working class with more leisure time would, "Give them more time to frequent the tavern or billiard hall."15 Craig Heron's article, "The Boys and Their Booze: Masculinities and Public Drinking in Working-Class Hamilton, 1880-1946," explains how in Ontario, "Alcohol became the lubricant between wage labour and leisure."16 The insights provided by Burr and Heron support the argument that George Sleeman was a visionary and opportunist, who assumed a paternalistic role as Mayor of Guelph and one of the town's business elite. George Sleeman's letters to his father prior to his political career in Guelph speak of his men being obedient and always doing as they are told, and reveal a paternalistic and authoritative personality. However, his popularity as a public servant, and moves such as proclaiming a public holiday during the heated labour disputes of the 1870s and 1880s reveal a sense of vision and a humanistic approach to maintaining his elite position in Guelph. If one accepts Heron's argument that at this time alcohol was the, "Lubricant between wage labour and leisure," Sleeman's move is extremely logical from both entrepreneurial and political standpoints. As a brewer, granting Guelphites more leisure time in the form of Dominion Day, can be viewed as a logical business move given the likelihood that many working-class Guelphites would choose to celebrate the public holiday while consuming Sleeman beer. Especially when one considers that Sleeman himself referred to Guelphites as, "[A] good lot of customers," and the Conservative observation present within political debate at the time that working class Ontarians spent much of their leisure time, "At the tavern and billiard hall."17 As a politician, granting a public holiday during a debate where Tory representatives advocated for maintaining the ten-hour status-quo, and sought to squash movements toward more humanistic labour reform is a very 'liberal' move, and would obviously inspire respect among the labouring class in Guelph for the brewer/ politician.


Following his retirement from municipal politics, George Sleeman did not stop acting in ways that can be represented as both serving his own economic interests, as well as the community in which he thrived. In 1894, Sleeman funded the establishment of a streetcar system to transport labourers across Guelph more efficiently as his brewery was located on Guelph's western boundary, and most employees lived in St. Patrick's Ward--a working class district east of Downtown--a fair distance from the brewery.18


This analysis of George Sleeman's role as a public servant as well as brewing entrepreneur in Guelph during the nineteenth century lends support to Harold Koch's assessment that George possessed, "A mind that seemed to always be reaching out ahead to give some improvement to the structure and growth of his community."19 An analysis of the correspondence between George and his father in 1869 provides the insight that although he possessed a popular political swagger and acted in the interest of his community, his interest in acquiring personal wealth and seizing the opportunities available in that community in order to do so should not be ignored. George Sleeman can be considered alongside John Labatt and John Molson as Ontario's elites who capitalized on the brewing-friendly agricultural and social environment that existed in Canada during the nineteenth century. However, this environment would change rapidly following World War I, as social degradation observed by many Canadians turned the temperance movement, which had been 'brewing' during the late 1800s, into a period of prohibition which was officially declared in Ontario in 1916.20

 Historic Guelph V52P17

George Sleeman (circa 1905).

(Image courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives (F38-0-4-0-0-2)).



As previously mentioned, George Sleeman's brewery, which employed 35-40 Guelphites during its peak production years of the late 1800s, supplied a predominantly local and regional market focused in Guelph and surrounding area. The legislation passed by the federal government during 1916 that banned all public drinking and sale of intoxicating beverages to individuals, taverns and hotels would have devastating results for the Sleeman family and their brewing tradition, and would ultimately see production at the brewery halt during 1926. During the prohibitionary period in Ontario, the Sleeman brewery entered a somewhat dark, or as the resurrected modern corporation's current advertising suggests, its 'notorious' period. Delving into this period as a historian can prove frustrating and fruitless due to the fact that, "Rum-runners learned over the years that written records of activity could be kept only at their peril," which is an insight shared in Geoff and Dorothy Robinsons' book, It Came by the Boatload.21 However, piecing together what does exist regarding the Sleeman brewery during prohibition, newspaper publications regarding Henry Sleeman's trial during the year of 1926 for tax evasion, and previous publications written on rum-running in southwestern Ontario helps to create a picture of the effects of prohibition on the Sleeman brewery and its CEO Henry Sleeman, the son of George. Prior to exploring this issue, an understanding of the legal situation regarding brewing, the selling of alcoholic beverages and exportation legislation is essential.


As Dahn B. Higley's book OPP: The History of the Ontario Provincial Police notes, following the Ontario Temperance Act of 1916, "The most troublesome issue was the liquor legally produced in Ontario distilleries and breweries for export that was finding its way into stocks of Ontario bootleggers." Higley explains further that, "To export liquor from Ontario was a simple matter and was perfectly legitimate during the 1920s, as long as the receiving country was permitting legal importation of alcohol."22 George Sleeman declared during his days as acting CEO of the Silver Creek Brewery that his product was,


"Endorsed by sensible, thinking men as the most palatable and health-some of beverages when judiciously consumed."23


Although illegal to consume and purchase inside Ontario, it was, from a legal standpoint, still permitted as a legitimate business, so long as the business abided by international customs legislation. The gap between Ontario's declaration of prohibition in 1916, and the Volstead Act of 1919 making prohibition a reality in the United States, provided a three year gap in time where Ontario breweries, including the Silver Creek Brewing Company, could in fact do a lucrative business exporting their product to the United States.24 It should be noted that at this particular point in history, there was nothing 'notorious' or illegal about this process, and although drink was heavily frowned upon by temperance activists, some of whom advocated for outright abolition of the brewing and distilling industries in Canada, it was still possible for these companies to carry out a legitimate business due to international law. In addition, although hard alcohols and traditional beers were banned by the Ontario Temperance Act of 1916, breweries were allowed to produce beers with a 2.5 percent alcohol content and sell them to licensed distributors and health officials for, "Medicinal purposes."25


The passing of the Volstead Act by the United States Congress on October 28th, 1919 made prohibition a legal reality both north and south of the 49th parallel, and notably banned the import and export of alcoholic beverages intended for public and mass consumption in the United States. Ted Henniger's book The Rum-Running Years explains how Canadian distilleries, most often manufacturers of whiskey products, "Became the chief supplier of liquor to the parched USA, with almost 90 percent of this supply coming into the US via the Detroit-Windsor connection."26 Henniger's analysis explains how Harry Law, who earned the nickname of, "Mr. Big," by rum-running associates, was chairman of O'Keefe and Labatt's corporations, during this period. Law also gained control of the Carling Brewery, renaming it, 'Carling Export Brewing and Malting Company.'27 Law was also connected to Seagrams and Canadian Club whiskey products and was known to have been a 'successful' businessman who made considerable profits exporting alcohol illegally to the United States so it could be served in 'blind-pigs' in Detroit and its surrounding area during prohibition. There is no mention of Sleeman products however being connected in any way to Harry Law or his bootlegging business. In addition, Geoff and Dorothy Robinson's It Came By the Boatload includes a photocopy of an export chart concerning alcoholic beverages passing through the Halifax Harbour in 1925 bound for the United States, and although Canadian Club and Seagrams products are once again mentioned, there is no record of Sleeman or Silver Creek products in this report.28

Historic Guelph V52P19Silver Creek Brewery letterhead, circa 1926.

(Image courtesy of the Guelph Historical Society Collection).



The export chart included in Geoff and Dorothy Robinson's book exists due to a move by the federal government in 1926 to appoint a 'special committee' for the purpose of the, "Investigation of the Administration of the Department of Customs and Excise." The government reacted to what they deemed, "Serious losses to the public treasury because of inefficiency and corruption on the part of officers of the department of Customs and Excise," who were the men responsible for inspecting outgoing and incoming cargo at Canadian ports. Specifically this committee was tasked to investigate, "All matters affecting the prevention of smuggling, the prosecution of offenders and the seizure, storage and disposal of smuggled goods."29 In February 1926, the hearing revealed that the Niagara, Windsor, Sarnia and Sault Ste. Marie regions were the most corrupt within the department, and at these ports there existed a, "Very considerable business of moving liquor into the United States." Although Henry Sleeman's brewery and its activities are mentioned, nowhere during the proceedings of this committee held in 1926, which was ironically the year that George Sleeman passed away, did the committee propose a plan to crack down on smugglers of alcohol into the United States and those distillers and brewers who supplied them with their products.


Approximately one year later, on April 9th, 1927, an article published in the Montreal Gazette entitled, "Another Ontario Brewery Unable to Produce Its Books," declared that the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise was expressing impatience with the Sleemans of Guelph, Ontario.30 John Sleeman was called to Ottawa on April 7th, 1927 to represent his business in front of the Commission, due to alleged tax-evasion and unbalanced books as well as to speak to allegations of a connection with Mike Bernardo of Toronto, who was connected to known Ontario bootlegger Rocco Perri of St. Catharines. At this hearing, Henry Sleeman defended himself by claiming he did not know where his missing books holding the financial records of his business were, as well as explaining how in 1926-1927, the brewery in Guelph was not operating.31 Commissioner Wright responded to Sleeman's testimony by stating, "Nonsense, books couldn't disappear like that Mr. Sleeman, we've had enough with disappearing books." Sleeman was also asked about previous fines his firm had received due to the production of 'over-strength' beer that exceeded the 2.5 percent limit imposed by Ontario Temperance Act. In the end, Sleeman was given one month to produce the missing records to the Commission. Records in the Sleeman Collection reveal that following this trial, Henry sold his brewery to the Holliday Brewing and Malting Company, another Guelph firm that was the main competitor for Henry's father George.32 By 1933 the brewery, which was being operated by Holliday, officially halted production and this marked the end of Sleeman brewing in Guelph until the company was resurrected by John Sleeman (great-grandson of George) in 1988. John Sleeman told the Toronto Star that,


"I chose to put our brewery in Guelph for the same reason my great-grandfather chose Guelph, it has the ideal spring water for brewing beer."33


The recent advertisements employed by the Sleeman Brewery that connect the business to piracy, notorious figures such as Al Capone and base the company's history on a foundation of philandering; continue to mislead the general public given the history of the Sleeman family brewery in Guelph. The alleged connection to Rocco Perri brought up by the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise in 1927, is a much more likely scenario than any direct link between the Sleemans and Al Capone, who operated out of Chicago and was heavily connected to Detroit-based bootleggers. Antonio Nicaso explains in his book Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger, how Perri was even referred to by many as the, "Al Capone of Canada."34 Rocco Perri's proven connections to the community of Guelph include him being implicated in the murders of two bootleggers, Domenic and Joe Scaroni, during the early 1920s, although he was never convicted in either case.


In conclusion, it appears from an analysis of the Sleeman brewing tradition in Guelph under Henry Sleeman, which incorporates works regarding Ontario rum-running by Antonio Nicaso, Geoff and Dorothy Robinson, and Ted Henniger as well as viewing the evidence revealed by the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise; that the Capone connection to the Sleeman brewery and indeed Guelph, is a prohibition-inspired and historically fabricated myth. The illegal activity of the Sleeman brewery existed during a time when most operating breweries and distilleries in Ontario aimed to circumvent legislation that made their daily operations difficult and removed their traditionally lucrative market of consumers. Sleeman's activities do not appear to compare to the activity of other producers of alcohol during the time, and due to the fact that virtually every text published on the subject identifies whiskey as the chief product being moved from Canada to the United States during prohibition, via the Sarnia, Detroit, Niagara and Sault Ste. Marie ports, the likelihood that Capone and his men sought out a Guelph brewery that employed under 40 people, that traditionally supplied a local market, and was out of operation during the mid-1920s, is highly unlikely.


Finally, an analysis of the Sleeman Collection in the University of Guelph archives, especially the correspondence between George Sleeman and his father, John, who retired to England in 1867, reveals the fact that the Sleemans had established themselves as local elites who took advantage of the favourable social and physical conditions of Guelph in order to do a lucrative business supplying working-class Guelphites with beer, employing a traditionally English brewing process. George Sleeman's success in municipal politics, as well as his investment in the community of Guelph, reveals how during the nineteenth century in southwestern Ontario, a brewer was able to hold an elite position in society. However, by the time his son Henry took over the family business following World War I, social and legal conditions had changed making it difficult for Henry to do the same.


Prohibition would ultimately drive the once successful Sleeman brewery into the ground, and force Henry along with other Ontario distillers and brewers to try and circumvent prohibitive legislation and continue to produce wealth doing what they did best, which was providing working-class Ontarians with alcohol.



  1. "Grandfathers Recipe Behind Sleeman's Success," Toronto Star, December 27, 1994.
  2. Donald E. Coulman. Guelph: Take a Look at Us. (Cheltenham, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1977).
  3. Isabel Cowie, "Inns, Taverns, Hotels in Guelph and Area," Historic Guelph: The Royal City, 34 (1995).
  4. Coulman.
  5. Correspondence between John and George Sleeman, Sleeman Collection, XR1 MS A801 Box 17, File 5, Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Newspaper clippings, Sleeman Collection XR1 MS A801 Box 13, File I, Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library.
  9. Ibid; Wellington Mercury, 1906.
  10. Ibid; Guelph Mercury, July 3, 1999.
  11. Ibid; Guelph Herald, January 5, 1880.
  12. Ibid; Wellington Mercury, 1906.
  13. City of Guelph, V. R. [microform]: Public Holiday Proclamation! : George Sleeman, Esq., Mayor.
  14. Christina Burr, "The Other Side: The Rhetoric of Labour Reform," in Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History. eds. Joan Sangster and Bryan D. Palmer (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  15. Ibid, p. 88.
  16. Craig Heron, "The Boys and Their Booze: Masculinities and Public Drinking in Working Class Hamilton, 1880-1946," in Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History, eds. Joan Sangster and Bryan D. Palmer (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  17. Burr, p. 88.
  18. Cowie, p.13.
  19. Harold Koch, "Guelph Historical Society". McLaughlin Archives, University of Guelph. Vol XIX. No. 3.
  20. Edward Butts. Outlaws of the Lakes: Bootlegging and Smuggling from Colonial Times to Prohibition. (Toronto: Lynx Images Inc., 2004).
  21. Geoff and Dorothy Robinson, It Came by the Boatload: Essays on Rum-running. (Self Published, 1983). p. 11.
  22. Dahn H. Higley. OPP: The History of the Ontario Provincial Police. (Toronto: Queen's Printer, 1984), p. 162.
  23. Coulman.
  24. Higley, p. 162.
  25. Higley, p. 167.
  26. Ted R. Henniger, The Rum-Running Years (Hantsport, Nova Scotia: Lancelot Press, 1981), p. 91.
  27. Ibid, p. 92.
  28. Robinson, p. 5.
  29. House of Commons. "Special Committee's Investigation of the Administration of the Department of Customs and Excise 1926." (Ottawa: King's Printer, 1926).
  30. "Another Ontario Brewery Unable to Produce Its Books," Montreal Gazette, April 9, 1927.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Newspaper Clippings, Sleeman Collection, XR1 MS A801 Box 13, File 1. Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph.
  33. "After 55 Years Sleemans Back Brewing Beer," Toronto Star, November 21, 1988.
  34. Antonio Nicaso, Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger (Toronto: Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2004).