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Bootlegging in the Swamp Ward

When I first started interviewing people in the Swamp Ward, I was a bit perplexed by all the bootlegging I heard about. To me, bootlegging was something from Kentucky, a “still down in the holler” sort of deal. In Kingston, it turns out, it was just as culturally vital, but it wasn’t so much about making booze outside the law: bootlegging here was usually selling booze outside the law — specifically, beyond the reach of the long arm of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. And whatever titillation the thought of “bootlegging” may provoke, “booze cans” weren’t particularly scandalous here: they were mostly just an ordinary part of how people in the Swamp Ward would unwind after a long day or a long week.

As historian Christine Sismondo explains, the LCBO was established in 1927 as a compromise between total prohibition and total freedom when it came to alcohol consumption. Prohibition had come about as a response to a combination of pressures: need for a disciplined workforce with increasing industrialization, fear of immigrants, women’s rights advocacy, religious anxiety, and so on. But it didn’t work. So in 1927, the LCBO said, OK, you can drink now, but only if you buy your booze from us in the prescribed times and quantities (and of course in the legendary brown paper bag), and if you do your drinking in private. But people like to drink together. In 1934 certain regulated drinking parlours were legalized, but they were drab: for example, music wasn’t allowed. Until 1947, a woman could only drink with a man in public if they entered together through the “ladies and escorts” door, and nobody was allowed to drink standing up (?!). Even after that, opening hours were short, and until the 1980s, on Sunday you couldn’t buy a drink without ordering food.

Hence the market for bootleggers: people who would provide alcohol with no strings attached, or better still, a place to drink it and to meet or make friends.

One of Kingston’s bootlegging hubs was in the centre of railway and port activity, on the land now occupied by Food Basics. As Ken Matthews told us, in the late 30s you could wet your whistle in several houses along Place d’Armes and around the King street end of the block:

Well there was Kirkwoods: bootleggers. Mrs. Kelly was the only one that didn’t bootleg. And then there was Mrs. O’Reilly, and then another O’Reilly, but he was always dressed up nice. I used to call them the sophisticated ones — he wore a tie — they did it quietly, but they were bootleggers — and the Harpells…. And then around the corner [on King], there was a little woman in there called Mrs. Ferguson, and in those days she must have been 80 when we were growin’ up. And the next house we called that Stone Jug, and the Norrises lived in there.

Nowadays, the LCBO has a monopoly on the liquor business in this area: I guess they had some good market analysts when they chose the location. For his part, Bill Hackett, who grew up on Ordnance Street before and during the war, remembers bootlegging on Montreal Street at the “Terraces” near Queen:

Friday night or Saturday night there would be a lot of action with fights and the police would come, with a wagon, it had a box on the back with barred window and door, we called it the Black Mariah. Everyone in my age category was scared of that, wondering what was in the back of it. It was always kind of a mysterious thing. When you saw it coming you knew there was trouble…we weren’t allowed out at night sometimes because my mother was scared there was something going on, and there was.

Not that the Swamp Ward had the lock on bootlegging. “Dollar Bill” got his hair cut at Wellington and Barrack, but he operated out of Barriefield: “he used to tie the beer and liquor with strings and put it in the water, that would be the cooler eh, and they never bothered lookin’ in the water,” Ken said. (Dollar Bill was famous for giving money to kids. He rode around town on a bicycle in a scruffy suit, went to all the Queen’s football games, and though everybody knew his profession, he never seemed to get caught.) Ace Potter’s father used to bootleg during the war out Johnson Street, trading liquor for shells, blankets, and boots from military supplies. Ace himself, before moving to the Swamp Ward and opening his Top Card restaurant, operated a “key club” in a barn “out the 38 highway.” He bought a hundred keys, and sold them for $5 a piece. With that startup money, he fixed up the barn and bought rye. You didn’t sell beer in a booze can, he said: too many empties to deal with. Besides, “a guy would sip on a beer for hours.” Ace had a “little light outside the barn door. If that was on you were open, and if it wasn’t on, it was closed.”

Ace’s Top Card on Rideau at Ordnance was a different sort of operation: a diner from before dawn until 2 p.m., and a licensed bar after that. Ace presided with big sideburns and cowboy boots (to make him taller, he said). “It wasn’t a restaurant with table cloths,” but it had a great name and it sure was popular. Ric Barr remembers that on Sundays, as a nod to the food requirement for serving alcohol, “they’d pass a ham sandwich from table to table, so you could drink.” Seems like that wouldn’t fool a cop, but then the whole neighbourhood was often involved in watching out for those, so busts weren’t common. Laverne Cochrane, who grew up in the family grocery at Bay and Bagot, remembers that

There was a gentleman down the street, his name, I called him Popeye. My Dad used to give me a bag and he’d put two rolls of toilet paper in it. He would tell me to go down to Popeye’s and tell him that the police are watching him. I would just go knock on the door and say “you got visitors up the street.” And you wouldn’t believe the people coming out of there.

We’ve often heard it said that cops, judges, and city councillors were well represented among the customers of bootleggers.

As a young man, Charlie Forte loved cars and liquor, often together. One night he’d been at a bootlegger’s place “right across from the Plaza Hotel,” but when he got in his car and went around the corner, he “got pinched”:

The cruiser pulled me over…and the one cop, Bob Nesbit, said to me, “Charlie, you’ve been drinkin’ haven’t you? You won’t be driving any more tonight…I’ll drive ya home.” Next morning he phoned me and said “Chuck, your car’s in St. Remy’s” [where Charlie worked]. He was Chief then. He knew me from ball and that. All it cost me was fi’ dollars for the car, otherwise it could’ve cost me hundred and fifty.

But Charlie knew drinking wasn’t all fun and games:

People don’t realize how hard it was them days, especially if you weren’t loaded. That’s why all em guys that come back from the World War, they were all drunks. They had nothing to do, and all they knew how to do was drink. And the army did that to them. Like my best buddy, he was in the navy, never drank, and when he got home he was nothing but a drunk… the government never did nothing for them. And I lost two cousins [in World War Two]… one was a Lieutenant and the other one got sunk in the gulf of the St Lawrence… my uncle was drunk, ever since… never moved, just drank himself to death.

Charlie’s wife Winnie told us that he quit drinking himself when one day she put the baby in the stroller, took her son by the hand, and walked out. They both remember the day very clearly.

How many years ago did I quit drinking? Fifty?… My wife said, “If you don’t quit, I’m leavin you.” And I said, “I won’t drink no more.” I just quit, just like that, “cold turkeyed” it. I says, that’s stronger than me. I just threw it out.

Charlie and Winnie have now been married 67 years, and Charlie never went back to drinking.

Offering both costs and benefits, unlicensed drinking places continued to attract customers for years. Maybe even up to today; I’ve certainly heard rumours. Looking back from 2017, Ace Potter was a bit resentful about the changes to liquor laws that allowed licensed drinking for longer hours: “You couldn’t bootleg today because things are open till early in the morning! They sure cut the bootleggers out… 1 o’clock at night till 6 in the morning you’d have people.” But then, Ace was also happy to recall his 27 years frying eggs and bacon at the diner for his loyal customers. He loaned money to many with no expectation of return, and he took Canadian Tire money at par. Sometimes he did “a little business on the side… and if you got in a little bit of trouble, everyone came to see how you made out.” He never charged to play pool, and he never bulked his hamburger patties up with breadcrumbs.

R.I.P. Ace Potter, 1936-2018.

— Laura Murray

Interview credits: Scott Rutherford (Laverne Cochrane, Bill Hackett), Ella Mackay Singh (Ace Potter).

1 Comment

  1. Ken

    I lived in an apartment over the Top Card I rented from ace in the mid 80’s. It was a pretty good restaurant, lots of City and Hydro workers in for breakfast every day. Cheap drinks at night (though the clientele tended to get seedier as the night progressed). As I recall there were regular fights but most of the old guys were so drunk they couldn’t throw a punch.

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