Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the location that would be LaSalle was inhabited by the Indigenous for centuries. Thanks to its location next to the river and near the Great Lakes, it was a popular spot to camp, meet and hunt.
The land was primarily inhabited by the Anishinaabe, the Iroquois, the Miami and the Mississauga.
The Indigenous of the area had a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, relying on animals and fish for their food and clothing. The women of the local tribes were involved in the governing of the tribes, as well as in healing and the spiritual aspects.
Due to location along the river, the Indigenous of the area began to interact with Europeans as early as the 1600s, which would bring a fundamental change to their way of life forever.
Today, the majority of the land that was once home to the Indigenous is covered by the McKee Purchase of 1790.
So, the town was named for Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, but who was he? He was born on Nov. 22, 1643 in France to a well-off family and he would travel as a colonist to North America and arrive in New France in 1666. Granted land on the western end of the Island of Montreal, which became known as Lachine. He would begin to learn from the Indigenous and started to explore parts of North America. In 1682, he would canoe the lower Mississippi River from the mouth of the Illinois River to the Gulf of Mexico. He would claim the Mississippi River basin for France, who would keep control of it for about the next 150 years until the Louisiana Purchase.
For his explorations in Lake Erie and Lake Huron, he would build a ship called Le Griffon, which I will talk about in the next section.
La Salle would die at the age of 43 near present day Huntsville on March 19, 1687. After becoming lost for up wards of two years, his men mutinied and he was slain by a follower, who himself was shot and killed to avenge the death of La Salle.
When you go to La Salle, you will notice that there is a recreation of ship in the roundabout at Todd Lane and Malden Road. That ship is the Le Griffon that I spoke of earlier.
The ship was constructed in the Niagara River and it was armed with seven cannons, making it the largest vessel in the Great lakes at the time. It would take its maiden voyage with La Salle on Aug. 7, 1679 and a crew of 32. They would sail through the Great Lakes, in waters that only canoes had been in previously.
On Sept. 18, La Salle disembarked near where Green Bay is today. The ship would disembark with six crew members and a load of furs. It was never seen again. It is not known what happened to the ship and the wreck has never been found. Various sites have been theorized to be the final resting place of the ship, but so far nothing has been confirmed.
To honour the ship and the namesake of the community, Mayor Ken Antaya in 2018 broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the ship to christen it. Father Louis Hennepin, who dressed in a hooded, brown-grey robe, also gave the original blessing on the ship.
Today, it serves as a notable landmark within the community.
Founding Of The Community
The oldest French community in Southwestern Ontario, and the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in Canada west of the Quebec border, La Salle has plenty of history.
A mission was established in the area, in the Town of Sandwich and LaSalle would be identified as part of Upper Canada in 1792. Now known as Old Sandwich Town, it was one of the oldest settlements in Ontario and is now part of Windsor today. In 1749, Petite Cote, or Little Bank, was on the spot where LaSalle would eventually be. At the time, the economy of the village was radishes, which were exported to the United States.
In 1924, Petite Cote had 800 people and was incorporated as the Town of LaSalle.
Throughout the 1920s, the community was famous for being the rumrunning capital of Canada thanks to its close proximity to the United States during the Prohibition Era. It was said that Chicago mobsters Al Capone and Frank Parker would come to the community to drink alcohol and boost their bank accounts with illegal booze smuggled out.
By the 1950s, the Town of LaSalle existed as its own community. Unfortunately, that community hit hard times and in 1959, it amalgamated into the Township of Sandwich West after a referendum that barely passed. The mayor at the time, Herbert Rundstedler, was very opposed to it. Due to this, LaSalle became known locally as The Town That Chose To Die.
This was the arrangement until Windsor annexed part of the community, as I mentioned previously. The Town of Sandwich West would continue on, despite seeing its population fall from 33,000 to 6,000. None of future LaSalle was taken in the annexation.
By the 1980s, there was huge growth in Sandwich West with 400 homes being built on an annual basis. Within a 10 year period, the community’s population had increased to 25,000. As a result of this, Reeve Vince Marcotte wanted the township to have its own identity and an application was put forward to create a town again. It was not set in stone that the community would become LaSalle again, and out of 100 names two emerged as the front runners, Lasalle and Trillium.
The population of the future town voted overwhelmingly in favour of LaSalle. On June 1, 1991, The Town of LaSalle was incorporated and Vince Marcotte became the first mayor. Upon its creation, LaSalle automatically became the largest town in Essex County. The creation of the town was a big deal and on June 2, 1991, 1,000 residents came out to the environmental building to celebrate. In the process, they consumed 2,500 hot dogs, 2,500 hamburgers, 4,000 bags of chips and 4,000 cups of pop, all provided for free. The new town crest was featured Le Griffon, a duck to symbolize the environment, a tractor for the agricultural heritage and two clasped hands. The clasped hands were actually designed by Neil Jobin, a 12-year-old in the community. The clasped hands symbolize unity.
Today, LaSalle has a population of over 33,000 people.
The Battle of Windsor
Located in the Detroit River, right across from LaSalle is Fighting Island. Originally population by the Indigenous people, the name comes from the many Indigenous artifacts that were found on the island in 1810 which those who found the artifacts believing it was the location of intense fighting.
It was first settled by the French in the 18th Century as they began to move through the area and settlers started to arrive.
It was on this island that the Battle of Windsor would occur from Feb. 24 to Feb. 25, 1838.
You may not have heard of this battle, but comes about because of the 1837 and 1838 rebellions that gripped Upper and Lower Canada and ushered in Confederation three decades later. Men on both sides of the border, calling themselves Patriots, formed in 1837 with the intention of seizing southern Ontario between the Detroit and Niagara Rivers. With the United States and Canada working together, they decided to attack the 400 Patriots who were on the island. The US would capture the men if they fled back into America, while Canada and Britain would attack on the island and pursue them to the United States.
The Canadians and British attacked on Feb. 25, crossing the ice to attack. The battle was an overwhelming success for the Canadians. With 300 Canadian militia and British regulars against the 400 Patriots, only eight Canadians died. As for the Patriots, 25 were killed and 65 were captured.
The Battle of Windsor is the last military action of the 1837 and 1838 Rebellions and today, a plaque commemorates the role in Ontario’s heritage.
The 1952 Flood
Disasters have a way of reshaping a community, and changing it forever. One of the worst disasters to happen in LaSalle was the flood that hit the community in 1952.
It was on March 13, 1952 that the water of the Detroit River rose 20 centimetres in just 24 hours to hit a new high water mark. Many residents were worried as the water began to rise and Mayor Herbert Runstedler stated that he would be contact the ministers of the Roman Catholic and Protestant church to appeal for help if rising waters forced an evacuation.
The mayor would send a telegram to Paul Martin, the local Member of Parliament, stating, quote:
“Situation overnight has become critical. Water over banks in some places already. Require engineers immediately.”
500 sandbags were ordered and the army was requested in case the water level became worse.
The Geauvreau family reported that the water had risen to four inches below their home and before long they were getting ready to evacuate their home with the help of Constable Vincent Bergeron. Mr. Geauvreau placed the furniture on blocks and left the home with his family. His baby was carried through the freezing waters to a section of the road that was above the water. He would say after, quote:
“Even if the water goes down slightly, I can’t move a baby back into the house as damp as it is now.”
Typically, the water would drain rapidly but do to swollen waters of Lake St. Clair blocked the exits of village drainage ditches. These ditches overflowed their banks, flooding the residential districts and local farmland.
By March 14, the would drop below the record high level. On March 5, Don Brown, an MP for the area as well, promised to place the flood problem of the Windsor area before the House of Commons.
The Tea Party
If you were a fan of Canadian music through the 1990s, then chances are you were a fan of The Tea Party, one of the Canada’s top bands from the 1990s to the 2000s. while the Tea Party would get its start in Toronto, its members, Jeff Burrows, Stuart Chatwood and Jeff Martin all grew up in LaSalle.
Forming after a marathon jam session in Toronto, the three had played together for years in different bands while they were growing up in the LaSalle area. The name of the band came from the hash sessions of famous Beat generation poets like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.
Over the course of their career, which took off in 1996, they have sold two million albums worldwide, had four double-platinum albums, one platinum album and four gold albums in Canada. During that same period they were the 35th best selling Canadian artist in Canada. They have also been nominated for 22 MuchMusic Video Awards and several Juno Awards. In 1996, The Tea Party was the first Canadian band to play the main stage at Lollapalooza and would tour the world throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s.
The 1921 Bank Robbery
In 1921, Ontario was deep in its prohibition years, which began in 1916 and would continue until 1927. During that time, residents across the province found ways to get alcohol, and some people began to make a lot of money from it.
In LaSalle, there were several people who made a lot of money making alcohol in the relatively isolated location at the time, which would then be distributed through the province. Along Front Road, there were several taverns and the bootleggers would gamble all night with their ill-gotten gains.
Of course, all that money also meant there were people who wanted it and that brings us to the July 20, 1921 robbery. It was noon on that day when a green Cadillac pulled up in front of the Merchants Bank and five men proceeded to walk towards the bank.
Along the way, they robbed a man walking by of $70, which is worth nearly $1,000 today.
They then walked into the bank and ordered everyone onto the ground. Vital Benoit, who owned the local hotel and was the only customer in the bank, made a move to the doors as he had $6,000 in his hand, which would be $82,500 today. He was ordered to stop by the robbers but he kept walking towards the door. One robber then shot at him, hitting him in the leg but only causing a flesh wound.
The robbers then stole money from the tellers cages and the vault, taking $16,000 in total in the process. That take would be about $220,000 today. As they left the bank and walked to their car, they threw a wad of cash at the man they had robbed, who was now sitting in his car.
At this point, several bystanders tried to stop the robbers and one gave chase in his car with three others. He kept the car in sight until they reached Canard Bridge and the tires of his car were shot out.
The Windsor Star would report on the slow response by police, quote:
“News of the robbery came as a great surprise at police headquarters but was viewed with general expression that the bank is an ideal mark for bank robbers.”
Soon enough, police had jumped into their vehicle and given chase but the robbers blew out a cylinder in the police car, forcing them to stop.
It would take several weeks before four Windsor men were arrested for the crime.
The 1958 Tornado
Tornados are not an unusual thing for the LaSalle area. Described by The Windsor Star as, quote:
“a freakish, bouncing and strangely silent tornado ripped its way through LaSalle.”
The tornado tore through the area, destroying greenhouses, throwing a house off its foundation and dropping a huge amount of rain on the area. The newspaper would report, quote:
“Terrified residents dove into ditches or rushed into basements to escape the force of the twister, which eventually broke into three separate funnels dancing from 500 to 5,000 feet off the ground.”
In all, damages were estimated to be $100,000, or nearly $1 million today.
If you decide to go to LaSalle, then you need to go during the annual Strawberry Festival, which typically happens during the first weekend of June.
The origins of the festival date back to 1988, running from May 28 to 29, when the first-ever festival was held, bringing out hundreds of locals for what would quickly become an annual event. In that first event, 520 pints of strawberries were cleaned, cut and devoured, aided with 365 litres of vanilla ice cream. The first event was sponsored by the Sandwich West Township and the LaSalle Business Improvement Association and included a downtown parade, strawberry jam, jelly and pie eating contests, local arts and crafts and a fishing derby.
The chairperson of the event, Marg Gignac stated at the time, quote:
“What started out as a small celebration has snowballed and blossomed into a full festival. The whole community has contributed to what has become a team effort.”
The festival even had its own mascot, Mr. Strawberry.
Of course, calling it the first annual strawberry festival may not be 100 per cent accurate as small strawberry festivals were held for decades in the community, often through churches, community organizations or just various houses coming together.
While the event has lately been virtual due to COVID-19, it will be back in full force soon.