Pure Spring was in ev­ery fridge

Mervin Mirsky fiercely pro­tected the fam­ily busi­ness

Ottawa Citizen - - CITY - KELLY EGAN

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.

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