Opinion Column

The rum runners were the bad effect of prohibition

By Don Pelechaty, Special to The Graphic

Shown are Corporal R.S. Pyne (left) and Corporal M.F. Lindsay, both long retired. (Submitted photo)

Shown are Corporal R.S. Pyne (left) and Corporal M.F. Lindsay, both long retired. (Submitted photo)

During the Canadian prohibition the RCMP were forced to spend too much time searching for a seizure of the many illegal stills spirited away in the back quarter anywhere around Portage la Prairie. A jug full, including the crockery jug could be purchsed from under a load of hay for a mere $1.25. Ironically the jug alone now is worth $45.

In this Saskatchewan Archive photo, the Carlyle detachment is shown with a freshly seized still in the Moose Mountain area north of Arcola. Beside the fact of illegality, the brew turned out by these “brewmasters” was often of frightful quality, but if you hankered for turpentine and lead in your cocktail then this was your blend! Shown in the photo are Corp. R.S. Pyne (left) and Corp. M.F Lindsay, both of course long retired.

Rum runners, under the not too watchful eyes of the Winnipeg Police, would take trips south of the border loaded with spirits brewed in Winnipeg. The drivers of the Studebaker touring sedans known as the “Whiskey Six” were all guaranteed $200 per trip whether they made it over the border or not. Most drivers made three trips a week giving them in those days an enormous take of $600 a week! Most of the trips south were uneventful; in fact the drivers often complained that they didn’t even have the fun of a good chase!

There were times though when the trip was anything but uneventful. Sporadically the police patrols would actually connect with these dusky dealers in illicit spirits. Then the chase was on! One of the favorite methods to get the patrol car off their trail was to drop a thirty foot chain and drag it along in the dust forcing the pursuer to at least slow down. If apprehended on a night trip a bright spot light could be focused into the front window of the following car effectively blinding the driver. These side mounted spot lights as you recall were banned due to their frequent misuse.

At that time Manitobans could only purchase a weak beer of two percent strength, but it could be purchased at grocery stores all over the city. It was a much stronger beer, twelve percent, that was sold illegally by the “runners” taking it across the border.

Portage in that period had a number of strong hotels owned by the big Winnipeg breweries. Hotels here were also serving illegal beer in the most out of the way room they could find on the premises, at the top of the hotel or deep in the back of the basement behind a maze of false walls. Thus when they were occasionally raided by the local police it would take at least a few minutes for the law to get to them and their presence in the hotel was always warned of by a bell system from the front! Portage in those days had their own private police force paid for by the tax-payers. You could well imagine such a system was open to cronyism.

Corruption and pay-offs abounded! Although this cash business was good, the odds were also good that you would see the inside of a cell. But those were cash poor days and the daring figured that if they could get away with it for five years they would have a fortune.

But don’t get the idea that it was only the hard scrabble farmers around Portage that were turning their copper boilers into stills .Even druggists were answering the needs for alcohol by inventing cough syrups that were really hooch with a medicinal name. Once you got a prescription for cough syrup you could get a refill every day and it was legal! As a student I lived on Middlegate in a former well knownWinnipeg doctors home. He too had a still in his basement attached to the fireplace chimney. Today some of Canada’s richest families work very hard to help us to forget that their original fortunes came from their rum-running days across the Manitoba and Saskatchewan borders into the United States. Among those modern day pirates was none other than Alphonse Capone.

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