What is it about the brewers of beer and politics?
Old John Molson arrived in Canada in 1782, as a young man, and at first worked in the meat industry, but then quickly found his true calling when he went to work at the brewery of a Mr. Lloyd. When Lloyd became indebted to Molson, he was forced to sell his business to pay off the debt. At the auction, there was only one bidder who had just reached the age of majority eight days earlier; John Molson.
That Mr. Molson became a beer mogul and it is no secret that his empire today is the oldest brewery in North America. He was also not a man to let grass grow under his feet and constantly sought out new endeavours. Molson invested in steamships when they were newly invented, bought up large sections of the Montreal wharf, started Montreal General Hospital and ran successfully for the House of Assembly in Montreal.
Barrie’s answer to John Molson would be Robert Simpson, a fellow East coast Englishman and brewer.
Robert Simpson came to Canada at the age of 18, the same age as Mr. Molson had been upon his arrival. Both eager new Canadians set to work immediately to achieve the kind of success they had dreamed about in the old country. Where John Molson steadily built good fortune upon good fortune, our Mr. Simpson suffered numerous set-backs, almost all of them fire-related.
In the late 1830s, Robert Simpson set himself up as a brewer in the Village of Kempenfedlt, where an influx of settlers was expected to begin arriving at any time. Within a couple of years, at about the same time as a fire destroyed Simpson’s small industry, the writing was on the wall for the Kempenfeldt community. It was quickly becoming apparent that the nearby settlement of Barrie was going to be the prominent town on the north side of the bay.
Simpson’s next brewery was located in Allandale and it lasted some seven years before it met the same fate as the previous one. After 1848, Robert Simpson spent the rest of his brewing career in Barrie, and called his business the Simcoe Steam Brewery. It was located at the foot of Mary St., between present day Simcoe St. and the shore, just west of the Spirit Catcher.
Robert Simpson’s house still stands today. It is 30 Mary St., a well-preserved brick home built in 1874 that today looks across at the rear of the Barrie Bus Terminal. His first home stood closer to the brewery and is a city parking lot now.
It was in the mid 1850s that Robert Simpson’s fortunes began to turn around. His brewing business took off in a big way and he was then accepted by the local Barrie business establishment as one of their kind. This made it possible to dip a toe into local politics, which was both a responsibility of a successful business man and a sign that he had truly made his mark in the town.
At different times, Robert Simpson was councillor, reeve, deputy-reeve and a magistrate. In 1871, when Barrie became incorporated as a town, Robert Simpson was at the helm and so became its first mayor. He held that position several times, and as Steve Travers, the current Town Crier, tells on his fantastic history walks, it probably didn’t hurt any that the candidate was fairly generous with free beer!
Another sign of success is travel. In the late 1800s, crossing the Atlantic was a one-way trip for most folks, and they only did it once upon immigration to Canada. In another parallel, both John Molson and Robert Simpson made at least two or three voyages back home. Molson took these trips to gather brewing equipment that was not yet available in this very young nation. The purpose of Simpson’s journeys is less clear. On one occasion, though, a local paper quotes an English newspaper as reporting the second visit in a year of the Mayor of Barrie in Canada, Mr. Robert Simpson Esq., to the waters of the famous Scarborough Spa. Was he ailing or on holiday? It is not known.
Robert Simpson was married twice, first to Sarah Soules and then to Margaret Purvis. His second wife survived him by mere months, dying at age 45 while Robert passed away at age 74 years. He left behind 2 sons and 2 daughters and is buried in Barrie Union Cemetery.
One week after his death on April 2, 1891, the ‘Northern Advance’ had this to say about Mr. Simpson. “He always took great interest in the improvements of the town. He was on different occasions the president of the St. George Society and a member of the Corinthian Lodge, A.F. & A.M., for 28 years. His funeral on Sunday last, to the union cemetery, was largely attended by both citizens and members of the Masonic fraternity.”