One of the curiosities of the history of alcohol consumption is that illegal distilleries seemed to increase in number after the end of prohibition.
The Ontario provincial government began to phase out the ban on liquor in 1927 – four years before the end in the United States.
Illicit stills in Wellington County came to the attention of authorities sporadically during the prohibition years, but there seem to have been more after 1927 and into the 1930s. Perhaps the Great Depression was a factor, prompting out-of-work men to undertake illegal activity. Perhaps better enforcement was the reason. Policing methods improved greatly during the 1920s, and the government had an extra incentive to enforce the law because liquor was heavily taxed.
In any case, accounts of raids on stills were a regular newspaper topic during the early 1930s. And many of those operations were considerably bigger and more elaborate than those of a decade earlier. One of the more interesting of them took place on Sept. 12, 1933, when Sergeant Frank Samson of the RCMP, backed up with three constables, staged a lightning raid on a farm occupied by Herbert Hewer in Puslinch Township, near Aberfoyle.
Samson was acting on tips, and had spent several weeks in preliminary investigations. He and his men, with three cars, timed their raid for early in the afternoon, a time when they expected to find both the still and the men running it.
The federal men were flabbergasted by the size of the operation and the elaborate arrangements that Hewer had made. The production facilities were contained in secret rooms beneath the hay mow. A portion of the stable was closed off, and contained four giant wooden vats, bubbling over with fermenting mash. A large metal tank, hidden beneath hay in the upper part of the barn, provided water under pressure for the operation.
Access to the production facilities was through a trap door in the barn floor, and then down a ladder. The four officers proceeded stealthily into the underground chambers. There they surprised a man who was in the process of starting a fire in the boiler. He pushed passed the startled police and shot up the ladder. One of the constables followed, somewhat clumsily up the ladder, and gave chase, but he lost his suspect in a nearby swamp.
The officers then got to work dismantling the operation. The four big vats contained about 1,000 gallons each, according to Sergeant Samson, who had considerable experience shutting down illegal stills. They knocked the plugs out of the sides of the vats, and the mash spilled out onto the floor and down an opening in the floor.
Samson was impressed with the quality of the equipment, as he tried to pull it apart. It was a thoroughly professional job, and it would take some time to dismantle it and prepare it to be hauled away. Removing it all through the small trap door would take a great deal of work, and Samson decided to send another crew to undertake that task. His estimate of the capacity of the operation was 100 gallons of liquor per day, sufficient to supply a good portion of the consumption in the southern part of the county.
The Mounties also discovered more than 300 gallons of overproof whiskey, done up in one-gallon cans normally used for maple syrup. Samson seized them and added them to the list of material to be hauled away.
A couple of hours later, when the officers had completed their initial investigation, made an inventory of the equipment and disabled it, the officers heard some cattle bellowing strangely. Not too far from the barn was a creek, and a small herd of cattle were beside the stream and in it, some of them drinking.
Frank Samson immediately saw what had happened. When his men had dumped the vats in the barn, he thought it interesting that the liquid had drained away quickly through the hole in the floor. He now saw that the hole was connected to a pipe that drained to the edge of the creek.
The 400 gallons of mash had drained into the creek and had formed a pool there. Several of the cattle had been slaking their thirst with the mash, with the results that he and his men were observing.
One heifer threw back her head and bellowed continually, as if laughing. Another reared up on her hind legs, began jumping around, and then leapt right over a fence, light-footed as a deer. Others jostled one another, unsteady on their feet.
Some pigs also got into the mash. One of them had a great deal of difficulty in climbing the bank out of the creek. It eventually collapsed contentedly in the mud. Others zigzagged their way to dry ground.
By this time word of the raid had spread throughout the neighbourhood, perhaps spread by the unidentified escaped worker. A number of people stood around in the farm yard, observing what was going on. Many found great mirth in the antics of the drunken farm animals. Highlight of the show was the arrival of a flock of ducks. They began cavorting on the contaminated water, and within minutes they too were inebriated. One appeared to be trying to walk on the water, while the others bumped into logs and into one another as they swam through the pool.
Samson kept a man on the property until the 300 gallons of whiskey were hauled away to a safe storage facility at an undisclosed location. That evening, men hired by the Mounties dismantled the equipment and hauled it away.
Herbert Hewer had his day in court 15 days later. The trial was a quick one. He entered a guilty plea in a Guelph court room, and within minutes heard the sentence: a $200 fine plus court costs.
Considering the offence and the scale of the operation, that was a very light sentence. Little evidence came out in the court session, and that meant that much about the operation was not revealed.
Hewer’s operation was a major one. He may well have had partners in the illicit business, and certainly was acquainted with someone with a solid knowledge of distilling techniques. The man who fled was neither apprehended nor identified. There must have been other employees as well.
Equally important was the distribution of the product. Given the volume of production and the need for secrecy, the liquor must have entered an established and well organized network covering a wide geographic area, and perhaps even into the United States.
It is possible that the authorities considered Hewer a minor player, merely renting out his barn to others. He may also have turned informant, revealing all the details about others involved in the operation. The Mounties would certainly have been delighted to shut down a whole network of illegal booze distribution, rather than just the source.
In any case, Hewer’s operation ranks as the biggest distilling operation ever in Puslinch, legal or illegal, and it dated to the post-prohibition period, rather than to the era when liquor was banned in Ontario.