Pure Spring was in every fridge
Mervin Mirsky fiercely protected the family business
Mervin Mirsky, rest his soul, could rattle you. It was 1984. The tip was from a west-end woman who was certain that a glass Pure Spring bottle had exploded, leaving her six-yearold with a nasty cut. She wanted answers.
Mirsky, the company president, would have none of it. Pure Spring bottles did not explode. No, never. The child must have dropped or banged it. I hear his stern warning yet. “If you print that, I will sue you!”
Well, we did anyway, but a lesson was learned.
Mirsky died last week. He was 96. The media made little of his passing, which is a shame. We are addicted only to the urgent.
It is easy, after a little digging, to understand why Mirsky was so fiercely protective of the Pure Spring brand.
Not only was it an iconic Ottawa label, but the company was deeply imbedded in family history, which reached back to his grandfather, Jacob, the city’s first rabbi.
We live in an age when Ottawa — it is a strain to find an exception — does not mass-produce any common household items.
He came from the age when almost every store, possibly every fridge, carried Pure Spring products: Ginger Ale, Honee Orange, Minted Grape, Cream Soda and the oddly-spelled Gini, a once-famous mix.
At its peak, one Citizen story reported, Pure Spring had annual sales in the $50-million range. It had 50 or so trucks, at least one of them manned by the likes of Paddy Mitchell, legendary bank robber.
“At one point, in the ’60s and ’70s, they were outselling Coke, on a volume basis in Eastern Ontario, which was quite an accomplishment,” said Mervin’s son, Peter, the eldest of five.
The product went west to Alberta, east to the Maritimes, making Pure Spring the largest independent soft drink firm in Canada.
In his respected history of Ottawa, Shirley Woods Jr. reports Pure Spring ginger ale had the highest per capita sales of any ginger ale in North America.
It was, in effect, Ottawa’s drink, and the Mirskys made it. Little wonder Mervin gave no inch to the critic.
According to A Common Thread, a history of Jews in Ottawa, Jacob arrived from New York City in 1894, a bearded figure in a top hat, a Talmudic scholar and cantor.
He had a son named David. By age 14, David was a newsie, selling papers, magazines and snack items on the CPR’s Gatineau line.
Soft drinks, he soon noticed, were a big seller, just as glass bottles were in short supply. The family lore is that David began to collect bottles and return them to Bradings Brewery, where he struck a business deal.
He began selling bottled water pre-1920, drawing it from a spring at the base of Nanny Goat Hill, then added soft drinks. Pure Spring was born, incorporating in 1925.
David had three sons, including Mervin and a twin, John, often called Jack.
It is family lore that they drew straws as to who would go to war. Mervin won. Or lost.
He enlisted, serving several years overseas and rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He came home with an English bride, Barbara, and searing memories of BergenBelsen, the concentration camp he witnessed shortly after liberation. It was a milestone in his life. His children recall that, 45 years later, he would confront the Holocaust-denier, David Irving, at a public lecture in Ottawa. He did so with such vigour that his sons say he had to be escorted by security to make a safe exit from the event.
“He never backed down from a fight,” said his son, Michael.
When he returned from the war, Mervin practised law briefly with his twin, Jack, but the business called.
He dove into Pure Spring, helping it recover from a Depression-era slump. It grew into a plant on Aberdeen Street, off Preston, forging a lifelong bond with the Italian community.
As so often happens in a lifetime, he would come to know tragedy. At the peak of his law career, Jack was killed in a car accident in 1962.
Only months later, David died at the age of 72.
The Mirsky family sold Pure Spring to Crush, the soft-drink giant, in the mid-1960s, though Mervin continued to run it until about 1987.
Common Thread also credits Pure Spring with introducing canned soft drinks and the twistcap to Canada.
Mervin, like his father, had a philanthropic streak. He was chosen to co-chair a public campaign to raise $4 million to help create the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in the early 1970s.
He was a one-time chairman of the Ottawa Food Bank, a pillar of the Jewish community and, with Barbara, considered a pioneer in building what became the Rockcliffe public library.
And, in this day and age, he had that rare quality: a plain dealer, as evidenced by this remark, reported in Common Thread.
“When I see a need for something or I see an opportunity,” Mr. Mirsky once said. “I don’t sit on my ass.”
Indeed. Nor, as I learned, pass up the right opportunity to kick one.
Mervin Mirsky, seen here in 1986, dove into the family business of Pure Spring, helping it recover from a Depression-era slump.