Bootleggers, Booze, Prohibition, and Pastimes

Attitudes to drinking have changed considerably over the past two centuries, from commonplace and accepted, to outright being frowned on and banned, to the height of cocktail parties amidst a “dry”  area, to today’s more laissez-faire views.

Metis and the surrounding area have had their fair share of bootleggers. “Bootlegger” means a person who sells alcohol illegally. The meaning of bootleg is any alcoholic beverage unlawfully made, sold, or transported, without registration or payment of taxes.  While some think ‘bootlegging’ came from the sale of illicit alcohol from the ‘boot’ or trunk of a car, the term predates cars.  It originally meant the part of a boot that covers the top part of your calf. The “bootleg” came into use around the 1880s, when men used literally to conceal a liquor flask in the top part of the boot (before and since, the bootleg was the place to secret knives and pistols).  And not just the boot!

Did you know… ?  Others have thought that a possible origin is reference to a tall beer glass (‘schuper’).  “The term “boot leg” applied to a very tall beer glass … may owe its origin to a misapprehension of the French touching on [an] old English drinking vessel. The black jack, a leather bottle sometimes lined with silver…According to a curious old book of the seventeenth century, when Frenchmen saw these vessels … they took back to France the story that the English drank out of their boots — N. Y. Sun, from The Iola Register (Iola, Kansas), January 26, 1894.

Did you know… ?  Many Canadians know and use the term “mickey” – a 12 oz. (375 ml) bottle of liquor.  The bottle is curved and so fits very well between the calf of your leg and your boot – mickeys were often bootleg and bootlegged, .  “Mickey,” however,  is actually one of several alcohol measurements that, along with “two four” (case of 24 beers), “twenty-sixer” (750 ml bottle of liquor) and a “40-pounder” (a 1.14-liter bottle), are all virtually unknown outside the Great White North.  We apparently even created a “Texas Mickey” –  a nod to our southern neighbour, it’s a very large bottle of hard liquor, holding 3,000 ml (106 imperial oz. or 101 US oz.), or, formerly, 133.3 oz.  And the choice of the word “mickey”?  perhaps, a reference to the Irish whisky that these small bottles may have held (the word ‘mick’ for an Irishman, possibly referring to Mc or Mac (‘son of’) that is the beginning of many Irish surnames.

In the early days, Metis, then called Little Metis, offered summer holiday accommodations to those who left the big cities because of the extreme heat. In 1875, there already were a few hotels in Metis, and at that time they offered their guests a family atmosphere, which included home-cooked meals and a homemade brew or liquor to quench one’s thirst.

Alexander Reford tells us that 

“With the creation and settlement of parishes adjacent to Metis, Ste-Flavie in 1829, St. Octave in 1855, and Ste-Angèle-de-Mérici in 1868 and Baie-des-Sables (Sandy Bay) in 1869, Metis was encircled by communities that were predominantly Catholic and French-speaking. In spite of profound differences in theology and occasional disputes over education and marriage, the curé of St. Octave and Presbyterian minister in Metis found common ground in the battle against drink. They used the pulpit to decry alcohol and formed (separate) temperance associations to encourage parishioners to take the pledge to refrain from drinking. They also encouraged government officials to clamp down on the trade in liquor and the ill behaviour that went with it.”

The bad behaviour was associated in particular with men working on the Intercontinental Railway being built in the 1870s.  Reford writes: 

“On m’assure que des désordres ne régnaient pas ici avant l’ouverture des travaux des Chemins de fer”, the Ste-Flavie curé reported in 1872. By the following year, the problem was worse. “Il y a deux hôtels non licenciés et dans l’un des quels on détaille des boissons fortes sans gêne et à tous les demandants… ensuite veillées, danses et réunions des jeunes gens des deux sexes surtout pendant l’hiver”. Alcohol was bad, but it was made worse by its association with much greater sins, like sex before marriage or cross[ing] the hard border that kept Catholics and Protestants from intermarrying.”

Around 1895 the fight against alcohol began in Metis. It started with a group of mainly religious women who joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Though this group was not in all Canadian provinces, these women exerted pressure on the Canadian government concerning “the evils of drink”.

On September 29, 1898, the WCTU forced a national referendum. Prime Minister Sir. Wilfred Laurier decided that the majority in favour was too small to enact a law, especially when the province of Quebec voted overwhelmingly against prohibition. The federal government passed the prohibition issue on to the provinces, and they in turn made prohibition a local option at the municipality level. The municipality, then, could give an alcohol license to any establishment if they wished

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In the latter part of the nineteenth century and a good part of the twentieth century more hotels were erected in the village of Metis. Most of the hotels at this time were what they called “dry”, meaning that they did not offer alcohol to their guests.  By 1918, the temperance movement had successfully obtained legislation across Canada to prohibit or limit the sale of spirits, wine and beer. Quebec proved to be the least enthusiastic province in legislating restrictions and finally created the Commission des liqueurs du Québec in 1921 to control the sale and distribution of alcohol as the province’s response to the prohibition movement.

Did you know… ? Several temperance advocates, including John Dougall, owner of the Montreal Witness, whose daily newspaper decried the evils of drink and promoted the temperance cause, summered in Metis.  There is some irony in the fact that there they would rub shoulders with at least three families tied to the manufacture of beer and alcohol, the Molsons (beer), Dawes (brewers of Black Horse ale in Lachine) and the Seagrams (distillers from Waterloo, Ontario).

Whatever these families and their friends may have done within their homes, outside was dry. J. Arthur Mathewson, a Montreal lawyer and politician kept an eye on the community where his family had summered since the 1850s. He wrote in July 1931 to the mayor of Metis: “Cecil Turriff sublet the Blue Cottage to some visiting gentleman who are reputed to be engaged in the bootleg business. Of course, a stop has been put to that. I have just received a report that the situation has been dealt with in a satisfactory manner by the police.”

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lips that toucj liquor shall not touch ours

However, in the late 1920s to early 1940s there was an exception for one hotel, which was on the outskirts of the village (the Parkwood Hotel, destroyed by fire in 1940; located at what is now Domaine Annie-sur-Mer). The municipality allowed it a licence to serve liquor. Of course, no one could see this establishment. It did, however, get the nickname “the naughty house” and, in a small village like Metis, no God-fearing, law-abiding resident would ever be seen in a place like that!

In 1940, council denied an application from Mont-Joli entrepreneur Donat Falardeau to obtain a license from the Commission des Liqueurs to sell alcohol in his hotel at the entrance to the village –Chez Donat (later, Sunny Bay Hotel, and Petit Miami later still).

The Astle family, which owned several of the village’s hotels, also had their several requests for liquor licenses for the hotels’ dining rooms denied well into the 1960s.

Another story goes that in 1960 one of the hotel owners asked for a liquor licence in order to serve wine with guests’ meals. The owner wanted to progress into the modern age, so he asked for a liquor licence at the Metis Beach municipal office. Well, what a debate that caused! Not only was what he wanted to do in his hotel unheard of by the councillors at the municipal office, but it went through the village like wildfire. The end result was that the councillors voted it down:  so much for the owner trying to modernize and perhaps extending the life of the grand hotels and jobs along with them!

Needless to say, the “dry” policy of the municipality played into the hands of the bootleggers who had been operating in the village for many decades.

Storytelling has always been common in the village, especially in the early years among the men. Even with their many occupations during the day, they always seemed to find time to congregate somewhere after supper, and naturally they would tell a few tales. Most stories started with these words; “Say, did you hear…” or “Do you know…”? Wonderful stories would follow these first lines, and bootlegging stories were no exception. They made great tales.

“Say, did you hear about Johnny and his wife? He went out to pick up his cod last night, and when he came ashore, his wife was there – she’s never there – ah – but last night she was there, and she told Johnny that the cod looked like there were diamonds coming out of their mouths.” The men would laugh as they knew that the cod were full of illegal liquor bottles (on a clear night everything sparkles on the St. Lawrence River, even bottles in cod mouths). They knew the wife did not know what her husband was up to… and so the laughter would start and then the men would take the story up a notch, adding the piece about the wife who did not know.

Most bootlegging was done at night in the very early years (1880-1900s), and it would come via boats travelling up and down the mighty St. Lawrence River. One tale told was of a man who lived in the village and had a small home on the seashore. He would go out in his rowboat to meet a small ship and pick up his shipment of liquor. He was always very, very careful, first – not to get caught, and second – not to drown. He did this for years and years, until one fateful night he went out, and never returned. Sometimes there is a cost to being a bootlegger; his home was auctioned for unpaid taxes three years later.

There is another tale about a bootlegger who was well-liked and well-known in the village. He had a Harley Davidson 74 motorcycle. These bikes at the time were known to be the cream of the cream of motorcycles. They were quiet, had speed and a great suspension, and could carry fairly heavy loads – and in this case, illegal liquor in the saddle bags. It is said that this bootlegger was never caught since he could go places that the police could not and often he would be seen flying across a farmer’s field, or going down little lanes like a bolt of lightning, playing the game of “now you see me and now you don’t.” They all knew him in town and couldn’t wait to congregate after supper at the local hot spot to hear his story of the day. His life-style always seemed to be the foundation for dramatic tales of laughter and tears.

The end of the drought

The municipality finally let some hotel establishments have legal bars on their premises.  Hôtel Les Boules, or L’Hôtel du Village, owned by Henriot Boudreault, is recorded as the first to finally obtain a liquor license within the stretch between the west end of rue Beach to the east end of rue Principale.  A few other businesses followed suit.

Did you know… ?  Most provinces repealed their bans by 1929, although alcohol was illegal in Prince Edward Island until 1948.  And at the municipal level, Toronto’s The Junction area stayed dry (parched) until 2000, and dry areas still remain elsewhere today.

Of course, these now-licensed establishments were great places for young and old to go to. On Saturday night, there would be a live band and dancing. You have to understand that in the village in the 1960s, and even the early 1970s, there were radios, but no televisions, so having a live band during the summer months playing in these venues was like being in heaven for the young.

It was a well-known fact that a good number of the youth who went to these now-licensed establishments were under the legal drinking age. The owners knew, and on many a Saturday night they would tell the under-aged that the police were on their way and they should go outside without their drinks and wait until the “raid” was over. The police detachment would come looking for any under-aged drinkers, and, to their amazement, could never catch any. For these owners it was not what they knew, but who they knew— it makes you wonder though, who did they know?


By Pamela Andersson and Barb Amsden