I have a special fondness for Windsor, Ontario, having been born in the area. The Windsor of today is very different from the one I remember as a child, as happens to all cities, especially those that sit at crossroads. Windsor straddles the edge of the Detroit River, directly across from the city of Detroit, Michigan. The Ambassador Bridge that joins the two cities across the expanse of the river is the busiest commercial crossing along the border between Canada and the U.S., and a popular crossing for general citizens. I remember regular trips to visit the Detroit Zoo with my dad, and excursions to the water’s edge to watch fireworks displays.
The river is a defining feature that dominates my memories of living there, and created a lifelong love of being near water.
Windsor is a very old community, dating far back beyond the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. Several Indigenous tribes already inhabited the area along the river, which was part part of the Three Fires Confederacy between the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi. European settlements began to grow because of the abundance of beavers, whose soft and waterproof pelts doomed the poor creatures.
In between trapping beavers, the early Europeans seemed to have a very confused idea of how the animals lived and built their homes. The painting below from the time period shows them walking around on their hind legs like people in an assembly line of construction.
In 1749 a French agricultural settlement was established where the city of Windsor is now, becoming the oldest continually-inhabited European settlement in Canada west of the city of Montreal. French place names all over the Windsor area come directly from the early settlers, even while the name of the eventual city and many surrounding towns and cities were taken from England itself. Indigenous names are also in the mix, such as the satellite town of Tecumseh, named for a Shawnee chief who tried to unite fellow tribes into a resistance movement against American expansion. A compelling carved-wood statue of Tecumseh himself bathes in the sunlight at the Chimczuk Museum, a great spot to learn all about the history of the city that would eventually become very well-known for table salt, Prohibition-era booze smuggling and automobile manufacture.
Today the liquor production is all legal (to the best of my knowledge, and you can tour the fantastic Hiram Walker museum), and car manufacture, although no longer in its heyday, continues to be an important industry.
Windsor has a thriving downtown with a great food scene, lovely gardens lining the river, a big casino, and plenty of interesting rural communities surrounding it to explore for a day out. There are several wineries and golf courses in the vicinity, as well as Point Pelee National Park, sitting at the southernmost tip of Canada’s mainland.
One of the things I have yet to do is visit Windsor’s salt mines. In 1891 (there are two), William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), sunk a test well on CPR land in Windsor, and found what he suspected was there. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the early part of the 20th century, the proximity of Windsor and Detroit created a superb opportunity for liquor-producers to smuggle their products to the Americans in the throes of Prohibition, and the Detroit River became very busy starting in 1916 after the State of Michigan banned the sale of alcohol three years before it was banned nationally. I’ll blog more about this in the future, but for now, Wikipedia gives a good overview.
The Chimczuk Museum is a worthy beginning for your exploration of Windsor, and the docents are excellent, as is the gift shop. It’s a nice spot to cool off on a hot summer day, and a great place to learn about all the layers of history where so many cultures came together and continue to make a home.
As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus