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Portage Bootleggers

January 16 marked the first day of American prohibition. It seemed like the necessary experiment to return America to its former God-fearing ways but whether that way had ever existed was debatable, but the sure result was that one hundred million Americans suddenly went thirsty for alcohol.

Necessity is the mother of invention and before long enterprising Manitobans were doing their best to quench their American neighbours thirst.

Within a few months of the passing of the bill making America dry a regular rum running service was established between Winnipeg and Minneapolis/Chicago. Because it was bulky it was shipped by railway car or truck. When by rail the beer was openly loaded at the brewery (for at that time a Canadian buyer could access the brew) at the loading platform at the rear of the brewery between Sutherland and the Canadian Pacific railway tracks. That building was around for years as the Walter Woods Wholesale. Each rail car held 2000 twenty four bottle cases. To protect the beer each three cases was placed in a cotton sugar bag; the bags were stacked to the ceiling at each end of the rail car. However the bill of lading on these beer shipments would read lath (thin, narrow strips of wood) or bags of sawdust. The bill of lading would then be approved and the beer moved off to be shipped to agents in Minneapolis or Chicago.

The deliveries of this illegal beer went out to country hotels in a red speed wagon. This one and a half ton truck could travel 50 or 60 mph and move over seventy cases of beer.

The manufacture of pure grain alcohol became big business in Winnipeg, but in outlying areas entrepreneurs did their best with crudely constructed stills to answer the local market. Many a root cellar or old shack south of Portage was actually a thriving little booze factory!

In Winnipeg the Blue Ribbon Oil Company located between Arlington and McPhillips on Logan Avenue was the front for the biggest still in the City! Part of that old building is still there. It could not be better, for just across the street Pat Burn's slaughterhouse operated and those ripe fumes from rendering overcame the pungent fumes of cooking mash. Here thousands of gallons of alcohol were brewed for shipment to the U.S.A. For years the the company led a charmed life without legal problems Refusal to pay a request for money led to its closure. Two labourers, working on a blocked sewer noticed that there was mash in the sewer. Cash register bells went off for the two and they demanded $500 for everlasting silence! Still nothing is forever! The guys in charge at the distillery were not talking to the politicians and laughed off the sewer workers! “Get out and keep your mouths shut or else”! Bitter at this shattering of their dreams of wealth they went to talk to the police. It wasn't long before the distillery doors were nailed shut. The booze business was over, at least from that location!

Alcohol was shipped mostly by car and the sleek seven passenger Studebaker sedan known as the “Whiskey Six” was the favourite. Powerful and reliable it had a top speed of 80 mph the fastest on the road. It was the favourite of the rum-runners. With the back seat removed 50 gallons of alcohol could be transported. A rubber hose was carried that could be fitted to the engine to provide power to blow up the tire in case an emergency arose. The route south was dusty but was the best way using side roads to Steinbach, then on to Piney, just outside the Canadian border. Shortly before that the booze was dropped into a field where it was picked up by an American driver. As an unspoken reward the customs man would be surprised to find a few gallons had fallen off the truck into his backyard! How we were doing in Portage is for next time.


Photo: May 1930, all set to assuage our American friends thirst. Here is the CPR yards in Winnipeg. A shipment of booze worth $100,000 heads off to La Salle, Michigan and the docks on the Detroit River.

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