Son of Luther bootlegger had distinguished Toronto career

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A decade ago this column ran a series on the career of Charles E. Romain, who was district inspector for the Department of Internal Revenue from 1868 until 1880.

Much of Romain’s activity involved shutting down the illicit distilling industry in Wellington County.

The illegal distilling industry of the 1860s and 1870s was concentrated in the north of the county, where the extensive forest made hiding a still easy. 

The output of those operations – a vile and unaged whiskey, known colloquially as “Maryborough Forty-Rod” among other names – often found its way to points south, displacing good quality liquor.

Romain had no use for the temperance movement. He did not care how much people drank, so long as the tax was paid on their booze.

Several times in the 1870s Romain crossed paths with a young fellow known as Sammy Duck, who was both a manufacturer of liquor and a retail vendor of it.

Fines and the value of equipment seized by the authorities certainly sopped up most of the profit from his activities, but Sammy persisted in the business for years.

“Sammy Duck,” not surprisingly, was a nickname. His real name was Samuel Duckworth, and he was born into a Methodist family in Ireland. His father, Robert Duckworth, emigrated to Canada when Samuel was yet a small boy. Eventually the family settled in the Grand Valley area, living on farms in both Garafraxa and Luther Townships.

Samuel was still in his teens when he began his career in the liquor business in the early 1870s. Settlers in that part of the county were probably the heaviest drinkers in Wellington at that time, and the presence of loggers, and then railway construction workers, only served to swell the potential customer base.

By 1880, Samuel Duckworth was married, to a woman named Ellen Bollen. His name no longer turns up in court records during the 1880s. It is not easy to reconstruct his activities during that time. It appears that he worked at times as a labourer in Luther Village, as Grand Valley was then known.

He seems also to have farmed for at least some of those years. Sam and his wife had only one child, a son born in 1881. They named him William.

Samuel did not abandon his liquor selling.

He merely became more discrete about it. One of his techniques was to operate a refreshment stand at fall fairs and other large public events in the northern part of Wellington County.

To those not in the know, his operation looked innocent and seemed to be operating legitimately. He sold tea, coffee, lemonade, and light snacks. For those he knew and trusted, there was a special shelf hidden inside the stand containing bottles of liquor. He sold to no one he did not know and trust, and got away with it for several years.

In late October of 1890, Sam hauled his booth and stock to Erin for the annual Fall Fair. Also attending was the county licence inspector, John McDonald of Elora, who had come for the day on the morning Canadian Pacific train. He had heard stories of liquor being sold at previous fairs, and had decided to sniff around.

McDonald soon noticed some unusual activity at Duckworth’s booth. Several men kept returning for a beverage, and after a time they seemed obviously inebriated.

McDonald also noticed what he called “a peculiar class of customers” hanging around the Duckworth booth.

McDonald went up to the stand and asked for whiskey. “We serve only temperance drinks here,” Duckworth insisted, maintaining his well-practiced poker face.

McDonald was not to be put off so easily. He persisted in his request, alternating pleas with threats. Eventually, and to his immediate regret, Duckworth let his guard down and handed McDonald a glass of whiskey.

McDonald immediately laid a charge against the stunned vendor, and ordered the stand closed. Later that day the local magistrate levied a fine of $50 against Duckworth. 

The fine was a hefty one, equal to 30 or 40 times as much in 2009 dollars. 

Duckworth’s friends and neighbours in Grand Valley got up a petition addressed to the county licence commissioners, asking that the fine be reduced substantially. Duckworth was a very poor man, the petition argued, and he would need to sell most of his possessions in order to raise the money.

The petition, alas, was futile. Even had they desired to do so, the county liquor commissioners had no power to alter penalties levied by the courts. Nevertheless, the petition aroused much controversy around the county. 

Temperance people were outraged, some suggesting that no penalty for a liquor offence was too high. Others claimed that the law should be enforced as it was written, and those caught in violation of liquor legislation were fully aware of the consequences. 

Presumably, Duckworth was able to raise the money. The fine appears to have been a sufficient deterrent to convince him to abandon the retail liquor business. At least, he was not caught again.

Son William seemed determined to rise above the poverty that had plagued his father’s life.

After attending the public school at Grand Valley and high school in Orangeville, he tried his hand at farming, but soon concluded that agriculture held no future for him. 

He moved to Toronto, and began what became a very successful career in the wholesale fresh produce business. Initially, he acted as an outlet for some of the products of farms in the area of his hometown.

In 1908, confident that his business was a success, William married Annie Taylor of Georgetown. 

In Toronto he took part in the Orange Order, then a huge and powerful organization in the Queen City. He probably first joined the Orangemen back in Grand Valley, where it was a very active organization at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Eventually he was drawn into political circles, and in the 1920s he served on Toronto city council.

Organizers for the provincial Conservative Party identified him as an attractive potential candidate. In 1934 he was elected to the provincial legislature for the riding of Dovercourt. 

The victory reflected his personal popularity: the Conservative Party was then in disarray, and the Liberals of Mitch Hepburn were swept into office.

William Duckworth retained the seat until his retirement in 1948, at the age of 67. He does not appear to have championed any causes, or to stand out as a front-bench member, but he was conscientious in the routine duties of a provincial member, and personally popular with his electorate.

In 1950 he attempted a comeback on city council, but lost in his old area of Ward 6, to the west of the downtown area, by about 300 votes. He died the following year.

During his 45 years in Toronto, William Duckworth never forgot his hometown. He maintained contacts with old friends, and tried to return to Grand Valley each year for the fall fair.

No doubt he frequently recalled his father’s notorious refreshment stand of a generation earlier, and his own rapid rise from a very modest background to the highest ranks in the province.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 14, 2009.

Thorning Revisited