I had my first bottle of beer at age six in the staff house at the Helen Mine in Wawa.
It was ironic therefore that the first jingle I played years later when I was operating the control board at CKCY Radio was for Doran’s Northern Breweries: “I could…sure could…I could do with a Doran’s!”
Rumour had it that the popular 1950s comedian and mimic Stan Freberg – who later ran an advertising agency in the States – had written the series of commercials for the northern Ontario brewery that had manufacturing plants in Sudbury, Timmins, the Lakehead and Sault Ste. Marie.
To say the radio ads reflected Freberg’s cornball humour would be an understatement.
His claim to fame as a comedian was a series of hit records spoofing various icons – radio censors (Elderly Man River), Lawrence Welk (Wun’erful, Wun’erful!), Joe Friday (St. George and the Dragonet), Harry Belafonte (The Banana Boat Song)... the list went on and on.
One Doran’s commercial I remember was a real groaner. It featured a man and his young son visiting a brewery. An employee runs up to the father and says his son has fallen into a vat of beer. “That’s okay,” the father replies calmly. “Haven’t you heard – the son always rises in the yeast!” Cue jingle: “I could…sure could…etc.”
But perhaps I should explain the opening paragraph of this look back at those thrilling days of yesteryear.
To begin with, it’s necessary to understand that my dad – who went overseas during the Second World War a social drinker and came back with a great fondness for the amber nectar – seemed to believe that, whatever ill befell you, a bottle of beer (or three) would make everything right.
So when a dipso dentist in Wawa pulled a six-year molar out of my jaw without giving me any freezing – he thought in his befuddled state that he was pulling an infected baby tooth – dad took me to the staff house of the Helen Mine, where he was working as timekeeper, and handed me his bottle of brewski, telling me to swish it around in my mouth. I hated the taste (then!) but hanging out with my dad DID make me forget about the pain.
The bottle of beer I’d had a swig from had arrived in Wawa on an Algoma Central Railway freight car from Sault Ste. Marie and featured a Soo Falls Brewing Company label.
It wouldn’t be the first time that one of dad’s offspring played a role in the drinking of a bottle of suds from that brewery. My brother Greg was born while dad was overseas and when Sgt. Mel Douglas got a telegram informing him of Greg’s arrival, he asked a fellow member of the 19th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery – also from Sault Ste. Marie – if he would like a bottle of Soo Falls lager to celebrate Greg’s birth.
The man replied: “Jeez, Mel, don’t do that to me! You know I love that beer and where the hell would we get one here in Belgium?” The man’s jaw dropped when dad produced two bottles of Soo Falls’ finest. When dad had written home to my mother telling her he had developed a taste for European beer but it just wasn’t Soo Falls, she bought two unsliced loaves of bread from the Golden Grain bakery next door to the apartment building she was living in at 2 Albert Street West, hollowed them out, inserted a bottle of beer in each of them, parcelled them up and mailed them overseas to dad.
The Doran’s saga provides an important thread in the fabric of northern Ontario’s history.
J.J. Doran, a hotel owner from North Bay, went together with two brothers-in-law to launch the Sudbury Brewing and Malting Company in 1907 – expanding across the north through the purchase of the Soo Falls Brewing Company in 1911 and the Kakabeka Falls Brewing Company of Fort William (Thunder Bay) in 1913. Six year later, the company established its Doran’s Brewery Division in Port Arthur (amalgamated with Fort William to form Thunder Bay in 1970) and in 1928 the Gold Belt Brewery of Timmins was added to the mix.
The divisions all operated under their individual names until 1960 when they were consolidated under the moniker of Doran’s Northern Breweries.
In 1971, the company was purchased by Canadian Breweries but six years later its employees bought the company back, becoming North America’s first employee-owned brewing co-op.
My dad’s love affair with Doran’s reached its zenith around that time. He was sitting with some wartime buddies at the Soo’s Branch 25 of the Royal Canadian Legion when one of the brewery’s salesmen bought a round and sat at their table. He told his tablemates that the company was rebranding its various products but hadn’t yet come up with a catchy name for the lager.
“Are you kidding?” my dad replied. “Call it Superior – we live on the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s a natural!”
Not only did the salesman like the idea, he submitted it to the company’s marketing people. When the product was launched it was called Doran’s Superior Lager and the promotional tagline was…wait for it: “It’s a natural!” Dad got no credit for his suggestion, but he was thrilled to know his idea had been a good one.
Flash forward to the spring of 1983 when I was freelancing for the Sudbury-based newspaper Northern Ontario Business. They were doing a special section entitled An Economic Report on Northern Ontario and engaged me to interview Northern Breweries Ltd. President Ross Eaket. During our chat, I asked Ross where the names of the various company products had come from. He replied proudly: “Our employees named them all!” He was shocked when I told him my story and pointed out that dad had never received any acknowledgement of his input.
The company president got up from behind his desk, told me he’d be back in a minute and returned with a two/four of Superior – asking me to give it to my dad with his compliments and adding: “It is the least we can do!”
As I carried the case of beer into the Douglas household on Pentagon Boulevard, I told my dad that at long last I could repay him for that beer he shared with me in the Helen Mine staff house some forty years before.