Sign at the old plant©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Corbyville was a company town that rose from the spirits so to speak. However Corbyville's spirits were of a very tangible nature. The H. Corby Distillery Company, current producers of Canadian Club, Wiser's DeLuxe, Polar Ice Vodka and Beefeater Gin, to name but a few, got its start at this location in the middle of the 19th century.
The small area that became known as Hayden's Corners was first settled in the late 1700s. By 1790 Captain John W Meyers had constructed a mill which he powered using the fast-flowing waters of the Moira River. Around 1812 the Reed family followed Meyers' lead and built a flour mill on what was to become the future location of Corbyville. Twenty years later, Henry Corby, an energetic, adventurous 26-year old arrived from England eager to seek his fortune in a new land.
Henry Corby was a baker by trade. Upon his arrival in Belleville, he opened a small general store. Once established, he sold the store and along with a partner, William Dickens, opened one of the first bakeries in Belleville. The bakery was an instant success and within a short period of time became known as Belleville's premier bakery. After serving as an unattached volunteer in the Mackenzie rebellion, Corby parted ways with Dickins, sold his interest in the bakery and purchased a steamer. He then spent the next four years travelling up and down the shores of Lake Ontario, working as a grain merchant. By 1857 he was ready to settle down and take up a new trade. With his background as a baker and his knowledge of the grain industry, a new grist mill seemed to be the ideal choice.
Initially Corby had wanted to build a dam and mill in Belleville. Henry Corby was a vocal and active member of the Liberal party and it has been speculated that political differences between him and the Conservatives forced him to alter his plans. Whatever the case, Henry purchased the grist mill from the Reeds in 1855, began construction of a dam and commenced with major renovations to the mill. With the renovations complete, the mill was reopened in 1857. The mill site was located five kilometres north of Belleville, along the banks of the Moira River, known for its pure, clean, sparkling water. A small company village, known as Corby's Mill, consisting of a general store, a few houses, along with the mills slowly began to take shape.
In those days, it was common practise for farmers to set aside a small amount of their more inferior grain to be distilled into spirits. Sensing another business opportunity, Henry added a distillery and quickly developed a reputation as a superb whiskey maker. By 1859 the distillery, known as Alma Mills after his late first wife Alma, had taken on equal importance to the mill and would soon grow to eclipse it.
In the meantime Henry Corby had other ambitions. He once again became active in the Belleville community and served as mayor of Belleville during 1867 - 68. He continued his political career by serving as a member of the provincial parliament for the Liberal party. Before he died in 1881, he sold the business to his son Henry Jr., known as Harry, who ran it for the next 25 years. Harry invested substantially in the business and moved into the retail trade, setting up a bottling operation in Belleville. He was also active politically and served as a Conservative senator for 12 years. He continued his father's philanthropic endeavours by creating a park, donating a library building, serving as captain of the fire department, and numerous other activities. His other commercial interests included the Quinte Hotel in Belleville and a substantial investment in a bridge to connect Hastings and Prince Edward Counties.
The small community town that was situated around the Corby mills continued to thrive and grow. In 1882, the year after Henry Corby's death, William Bennett opened a post office in his general store under the name of Corbyville. The community boasted a population of around 100 and included a cooper, Peter Marille, a carpenter, James Becket, a blacksmith, T. Hanswill, along with a cabinetmaker and shoemaker, William Scantlebury. By 1886 the village had acquired a Methodist church, a school, a hotel, operated by R. B. Palmer and a flour mill, run by J.A. Bradshaw. F. Bronton opened the Union Cheese Manufacturing Company in the mid 1890s. The distillery was sold to Mortimer Davis in 1906 but the community continued to expand with the population doubling to about 200 by 1910.
By the end of the World War 1, major changes had taken place in the alcohol industry. During the war, production of alcohol had been restricted to military purposes only. After the war was over, sales dropped sharply as the temperance movement began to take hold. Corby's, as one of the smaller producers, began hurting badly. They finally merged with Wiser's Distillery and began operating under the name of Canadian Industrial Alcohol Company. Luckily for this new entity, the hard times didn't last long. Prohibition in the United States, which forbade the manufacture of alcohol, was about to create a lucrative market for Canadian hooch. By 1921 the company was producing 50,000 gallons of alcohol per month. This period of growth and prosperity that lasted for many years.
In 1950 the H. Corby Distillery Company had reverted back to its original name. The company continued along the path of growth and expansion with additional mergers and acquisitions. Unfortunately the founding plant in Corbyville did not remain part of the success story. The plant closed in 1991, putting approximately 220 people out of work and closing the Canada Customs offices located directly across the street. Production was shifted to newer plants in various areas across Canada and the head office moved to Toronto.
The nearby city of Belleville with its many attractive historical buildings continues to grow and prosper and in time will likely absorb the remains of Corbyville. A new housing development is currently in the works. For now Corbyville continues to exist as a separate entity, the ghosts of its past remaining undisturbed in a field just past the entranceway to the community.