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The word “bootlegging” apparently came into general use in the American Midwest in the 1880s. It denoted the practice of concealing flasks of illicit liquor in boot tops when going to trade with Indians.

In the early days of settlement in the Gatineau Valley, the stopping places where weary travellers could pause for the night’s rest offered very basic accommodation, which included a meal and a drink to quench the thirst after a hard day on the road. But, in the latter part of the nineteenth century and a good chunk of the twentieth as often as not the stopping place would be “dry,” either by the persuasion of the owner or by dictates of the local municipality.

Chelsea and Old Chelsea had several licensed hotels in 1875 (among 11 licensed by the new municipal council of the West Part of the Township of Hull), as did Ironside, Wakefield and many of the other villages along the road up to Maniwaki. But the winds of change were blowing, with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union bringing pressure to bear on the Canadian government about “the evils of drink.”

In 1898 the WCTU forced a national referendum, and Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister of the day, showed himself to be very astute in dealing with its results. He decided that the majority of 13,687 in favour was too small to enact a law, especially when Quebec voted overwhelmingly against prohibition. The federal government acted by passing the buck to the provinces, and they in turn made prohibition a “local option” at the municipal level.

Chelsea had moved close to prohibition in 1893, when its Council reduced the number of drinking establishments in the municipality to just one, Dunn’s. In 1906 it agreed to hold a referendum, based on a petition signed by three local Protestant ministers and the Catholic parish priest, among others. The result, in 1907, was to ban all liquor sales in the municipality for decades, with a motel bar finally licensed (along with several grocery stores) only in 1967.

Wakefield beat Chelsea in getting on this particular bandwagon, however, as their township Council passed a prohibition bylaw on December 29, 1895, which terminated the liquor licenses of all establishments in its neck of the woods; it was not overturned for 54 years. Wakefield’s “drys,” led by Mayor A. J. Earle, businessman T. B. Sully and Dr. Harold Geggie, held the folk in their grip. When a hard-working man wanted a drink, he had to depend on bootleggers, who sometimes operated quite openly, as in the case of the Wakefield Inn.

Ed Newton, long-time owner of the Inn, once said that he “did a little bootlegging on the side,” with the hotel’s bar wide open. Shortly after he bought the Inn, he wanted to be able to serve alcoholic beverages, and applied in 1947 to have a local referendum to that effect. It was voted down, but in 1949 he managed to have the local council hold a second referendum, and the resulting vote allowed the sale of booze. “People wanted to see what I was doing illegally done legally,” was his interesting explanation for the change of heart, which carried by only nine votes.

Needless to say, the “dry” policies of the municipalities played into the hands of bootleggers, who in the case of Wakefield operated at both ends of the village. And in the middle too, if you knew the ropes! One establishment, at the east end, not far from the popular “Anchor Inn,” had room for about four tables. A raunchy form of “entertainment” was reported to take place late on Saturday night, after the boys had a “snout full” of either liquor or beer. A patron explained that they were so drunk that they really didn’t believe what they saw.

Another establishment operated on the site of the previous Seth Cates Temperance Hotel. It had a “special room” upstairs, where, if you were known to the management, you could be admitted to drink to your heart’s content. In later years, when the place was licensed, the hotel was the favourite target of cops who raided the place looking for underage drinkers.

There is a story of a local bootlegger who would to go to town in the 1940s and pick up his “supply” and pack it into duffel bags. As the tale goes, he once placed his booty on the bus but somehow it left without him. When he finally arrived by the next bus to the village, he found that the bus driver had unloaded his baggage, but, by the time he got there, the local “lads” had already emptied the duffel bags of their contents. He couldn’t very well complain to the police.

The Provincial Police had a special detachment that looked after the prosecution of liquor offences. One story illustrates the corruption of this squad. It appeared that the police had themselves a Saturday–night party lined up somewhere over in Masham but they didn’t have a supply of booze. So the story goes that they staged a raid on the “Club House,” a popular Wakefield dance hall of the 1920s and 1930s. Of course the Club itself was dry, but there were many bottles to be had from the trunks of the cars in the parking lot; the cops required each car owner to hand over his bottle.

It was quite a game, too, for the “Provincials” to stage raids on the bootleggers, but since most of the bootleggers had a “contact” in the Hull Police office, when a raid was due the telephone lines hummed with calls to the various establishments. It was pretty easy to hide the booze under the hay, or load it on a handy wagon or truck and move it out of the way. One local person said that he always enjoyed the raids, just to see the look on the policemen’s faces when they got to the village and found the patrons of some suspicious establishment sitting around drinking tea.

The story is told that when the Provincials wanted to stage a raid in Maniwaki, they had to go by train as the roads were not too good. The train engineer, who knew that the police were on board, had a prearranged whistle signal that he blew coming into Maniwaki, warning the bars to hide their booze. The Provincials apparently never made an arrest in the town, and they could never figure out why they couldn’t find the liquor.

It was not uncommon for the odd local grocery store to keep a supply of whiskey available for special customers. It is understood that they kept to the meaning of “bootlegger,” as they would be asked for a “pair of boots” to be included with the groceries, and, sure enough, the bottle was hidden in an empty shoe box.

By far the most popular item the bootlegger stocked was a “mickey,” a 12-oz. bottle of alcool, Geneva Gin or whiskey. Alcool, a pure grain alcohol of something in the range of 90 overproof, popular with the Irish, was easily mixed with anything and, needless to say, gave quite a wallop. Geneva Gin was the French Canadians’ favoured drink. Some said that it was best to hold your nose to drink it (the first snort, anyway), as it had a heavy perfume and a taste that lingered long. The going price for either of these beverages was 90 cents. But then there was “Golden Wedding,” a rye whiskey that sold for $1.50. It was well worth the price, as it was the “in” drink. “Old Parr” scotch whiskey seemed to be available only in the 26-ounce size—small wonder no one seems to remember its price! Beer was also available, but less favoured. It was harder to hide, and, of course, you needed to drink a lot of beer to get the same kick as you got with a few gulps from a mickey.

There was a general rule that there was no drinking in lumber camps, as it was too dangerous to be drunk with an axe (or saw) to hand, not to mention that the Irish temper was somewhat improved with few drinks. The occasional bootlegger who would turn up at the camps was usually told to leave and even helped on his way. This didn’t preclude some of the lumberjacks from tanking up on the long trip into the camps. As the shanties provided all the essentials of food and clothing (the cost of which was later deducted from wages), it was not uncommon for the lads to blow their spare change at the village bootlegger on a mickey that would keep them warm on the long way into the bush.

The noble or ignoble (depending if you drank or not) business of bootlegging started to decline after World War II, as the various municipalities began to change their laws to allow the sale of wine and other alcoholic drinks in stores, bars and restaurants. This dramatic change in policy was, of course, spurred on by the men and women returning from overseas, who had become accustomed to the civilized drinking laws in England and on the Continent.

None of the sources for this story can remember going to a bootlegger in Wakefield after 1950.
Quebec was especially progressive, allowing the sale of beer, and later wine, in grocery stores, even on Sunday, while just across the river in Ontario, beer was only available at Ontario government-run “beer stores.” Small wonder a lot of Ottawa folk made a beeline for Hull after their liquor outlets closed at 6:00 on a Saturday afternoon, to pick up their “supplies.” Many a Quebec dépanneur in Hull existed almost solely for the sale of beer.

So we bid farewell to the Gatineau Valley bootlegger, who fulfilled his place in the commerce of the day.