Draconian measures employed during the anti-booze wars of the 1920s

This column has dealt several times with the increasingly draconian steps taken by the provincial government and the Ontario Provincial Police in stamping out illegal liquor sales in the early and mid-1920s.

The circumstances presented a curious situation from several points of view. The provincial government of G. Howard Ferguson was slowly attempting to bring back legal liquor sales under tight government control.

Ever stricter enforcement of the existing law seemed to run counter to that direction. Tighter enforcement tied up government resources, in the courts, the jails, and by police forces. The main efforts of the OPP was directed at capturing bootleggers, rather than enforcing traffic regulations.

The courts backed up the enforcement efforts with huge fines of $400, $500 and more. In the 1920s, when many wages hovered in the range of 20 cents per hour those were fortunes. Still, there was no shortage of men willing to try their chances at making a living selling, and sometimes making, illegal liquor.

The evidence suggests illegal stills were more prevalent in the north of Wellington County and the region to the north and west. That may have simply been the result of more diligent enforcement there. But that was also the area that had a tradition of illegal distilling going back to the 1860s through skills brought by Scottish Highland settlers.

In any case, there seems to have been no shortage of homemade liquor in the area in the 1920s.

Typical of the seizures was one made at Melancton Station, northwest of Orangeville, in the early hours of April 15, 1925. The proprietor had been using a the kitchen of a farmhouse as the site of a still. Those in charge, apparently, gave little consideration to security or secrecy. People visited the location at all hours of the day and night.

Not surprisingly, the OPP soon received reports of the unusual activity. Inspector Robinson of that force organized the raid, which involved most of the OPP force stationed at Orangeville. The officers found a number of people at the farm, including young men from Shelburne and Dundalk. They hauled many of them off to jail, and the case tied up the courts for several days as the authorities tried to sort out who was in charge of the operation.

As much as any illicit still could be described as typical, the one at Melancton fit the bill. The location was rural and somewhat isolated, but readily accessible in all directions by motor car. Liquor made there could be readily distributed across a wide area with a minimum of risk of interception. Police executed several raids similar to this one in the area in 1925, and they probably missed many more operated by people who put more emphasis on secrecy and discretion.

One they didn’t miss, also in early 1925, was a still near Kenilworth. Inspector John Grant and his squad of OPP officers paid a visit to the farmhouse in late March 1925. They discovered a three-burner oil stove in an upstairs room, producing rotgut whiskey. The room also contained some three gallons of distilled whiskey, and 60 gallons of mash ready for processing.

For some reason the young man running the operation was not identified by name in press accounts, but he was arrested and taken to Fergus to appear before Magistrate Hellyer. He pled guilty to the charges against him. He then had to figure out how to raise the money for the $400 worth of fines plus costs levied by Hellyer.

Raids such as these, by the OPP, were not the only liquor enforcement efforts in early 1925. During March and April an agent of the federal Department of Internal Revenue popped up here and there in north Wellington and adjacent areas of Grey and Bruce. He spent his time going through the records of drug stores, which could, on a prescription issued by a medical doctor, sell liquor to those who needed it for medicinal purposes.

Obviously, this system was open to all sorts of abuses. Some drug stores became little more than liquor stores, and there were doctors who wrote the special prescriptions by the hundreds.

The inspector was, it appears, familiar with every ruse. He took no one into his confidence, but spent hours going through the files, receipts and records in each store, sometimes verifying details with local doctors and with the customers.

Neither the storekeepers nor the public knew what to make of the man. He was polite and courteous to everyone, though he remained tight lipped about his activities. Locals, though, were fearful that he would uncover all sorts of irregularities, and that wholesale arrests might be in the offing. The level of fear and distrust that he aroused suggests that irregularities in the system were widespread and widely known.

As well as maintaining proper records of prescriptions and receipts for liquor sales, the stores also had to levy an excise tax of two cents on any bill in excess of $10. The revenue agent seemed as interested in those stamps as in the proper adherence to the liquor laws. It was a special measure imposed during World War I, but seven years after the war ended the government was as determined as ever to collect its revenue. Storekeepers feared they might have run afoul of the excise regulation through inadvertence.

The agent quietly moved on to new pastures, but for weeks local merchants and doctors feared they might be soon under arrest. In the end, there were no arrests, and fears gradually calmed down. His visit, no doubt, prompted many people to conduct themselves in future within the letter of the law.

Interestingly, local constables did not play a major role in these liquor cases, even though they all possessed knowledge important to the enforcement of the law. One exception was the Fergus constable, who possessed a keen nose for anything irregular.

At the end of March 1925 a late winter storm blew through the area, plugging many roads with drifts of wet snow. As was often the case, the road between Fergus and Arthur was one of the first casualties.

It was late on a Sunday night, but the occupants of a late model car headed north managed to arrange with a Fergus garage proprietor to look after their motor car. They then roused a liveryman and rented a horse and cutter, and headed north.

The constable got word of the strangers soon after they left town, and caught up with the cutter before it got as far as Cumnock. One of the two occupants headed for the fields, but the driver was quickly put under arrest, and some 65 bottles of liquor seized as evidence.

Back in Fergus, the motor car disgorged a further 35 bottles, secreted out of sight. Police seized both the hootch and the car. The driver faced an unpleasant session before hardnosed Magistrate Frederic Watt, who levied fines relieving him of $500 plus costs. As well, the authorities later sold his car at auction.

Liquor convictions could be very costly in the 1920s.

It is a mystery why so many people would risk the consequences, but many did, to their regret.


Stephen Thorning