There is an interesting and colorful connection between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the many “entrepreneurs” of the day who turned to making moonshine to feed their family and entertain themselves during those depressive times. Later, we’ll get to the interesting part—what this story is mainly about the moonshine story. But, first, …
Let’s start with Canada and the “Dirty Thirties,” as they were referred to. They were called the Dirty Thirties because, along with the Great Depression that plagued the world at the time, the Prairies were also stricken by very dry and dusty weather conditions.
Let’s start with Canada and the “Dirty Thirties,” that plagued farmers at the same time the depression hit. The Canadian and American mid-west was experiencing a severe drought with accompanying sinister dust storms that gave the area its sarcastically descriptive name, The Dirty Thirties, or The Dust Bowl.
In the United States, they called it “The Great Depression.” The stock market lost close to 90% of its value. Approximately 11,000 banks failed, wiping out many depositor investments. Unemployment rose to 25% and average household wages dropped by 40%.[ii]
In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States and not only promised but pushed through 15 major laws during the first 100 days he was in office, the Social Security Act being one of the best-known ones, and he also founded the March of Dimes program. Route 66 became a popular route for Americans traveling west to California in hopes of a better future.
In Canada, it was a common sight to see empty railroad box cars filled with men traveling from Ontario to Alberta and British Columbia in search of work. I grew up on a farm in Southern Saskatchewan near an east-west cross-country rail line, and it was not unusual to have “migrant travelers” leave the empty rail cars and visit our farm, offering to work for a meal.
Like everyone else in the community, we had little money, and could offer no pay for labour, but we always had plenty of vegetables from our large garden and meat from butchered cattle and poultry, so we were happy to feed these hungry migrant travellers, and while they were eating, they would tell us interesting stories about depressive times in Ontario.
As can be imagined, an event like the Great Depression had an enormous effect on the mental, emotional, and physical lives of the people caught up in this trauma. Desperate times often called for desperate measures. Entertainment played a vital role in their lives, for it offered a means of escape—even if only temporarily, from the dreariness and pain of life. Dancing, moviegoing and social gatherings were especially popular, being the cheapest form of entertainment available and easiest to organize.
The price to buy liquor to ‘supplement’ the buoyancy of a party from a regular government vendor was out of reach for most partygoers, so people innovated: they made their own liquor; moonshine!
The government really hated moonshiners! It could be safely said that the government was more concerned about the loss of excise revenue from its normal imposed tax on the sale of liquor than it was in the welfare of its citizens. They doled heavy fines out to those unfortunate enough to get caught in possession of an illegal distillery, or ‘still,’ as they were more commonly referred to. To make it even more enticing for ‘snitchers,’ to inform on their neighbors, the government offered rewards of up to $200 to anyone reporting their neighbor to “Government Revenuers” who would then come and raid the distillery shutting it down. Remember, in those days, an average man’s non-unionized wage was $30 and $40 a month.[iii] A two-hundred-dollar reward for just picking up the phone and snitch on a neighbor was an attractive incentive! To make it even worse for the moonshiner, the police kept names of the snitchers a closely guarded secret so you could snitch in confidence and know that your neighbor would never find out who the ‘judas’ was.
The police targets were mostly farmers. Farmers had more ingenious methods of hiding liquor from snooping government revenuers than their city cousins did. One farmer I knew hid his ‘stash’ in a cattle manure dump next to his barn. Surely, no ‘revenuer’ would think of digging into a manure pile to look for illegal liquor! Good idea! And it worked for quite a while until, unfortunately, the neighbor who ‘squealed’ on the guy, also got to know of the hiding place, so part of his ‘information to the police’ included the location of the moonshine. Bragging to your ‘friends’ about how smart you are at fooling the cops wasn’t the best of ideas!
Lesson learned. Never brag, publicly, about how ‘smart’ you are. But it seems like many of us are slow in learning that lesson, because here’s another example of what not to do.
Whenever the police pulled into this farmer’s yard, the farmer would quickly hide the moonshine under the blankets in his daughter’s bed. The daughter would play sick for the occasion. When the police approached the bed, the farmer would, in an anxious tone, beg that the revenuers not disturb the girl since she was very sick and should not be disturbed. The police compassionately backed away from searching that area. This trick worked for several times until, again, the farmer was stupid enough to brag about how he fooled the “revenuers.” Naturally, the next time the police ‘called’ with a search warrant; they did ‘disturb’ the ‘sick’ daughter!
However, sometimes knowing the psychology of how police conduct their search—and what they don’t search, can prove helpful. This farmer really knew how to hide moonshine in the open, in plain sight of the police! He simply hide his ‘stash’ in the farmhouse attic among his wife’s empty Gem canning jars. As any connoisseur of good moonshine knows, 100 percent pure moonshine is crystal clear and, naturally, blends in perfectly among the clear, empty canning jars. Either it just didn’t dawn on the police how brazenly open, something could be hidden right in front of their noses, or they just didn’t want to bother to, singularly, examine every canning jar in the attic.
What a frustration! The police knew that this guy was one of the biggest moonshine distributors in the area, but even after several frustrating raids, each time they had to leave, mission unfulfilled! Although I knew all along where this farmer was stashing his moonshine, he never revealed to me where he was hiding his distiller, a very important piece of equipment in the making of moonshine. And not being able to locate the distillery was especially baffling and frustrating to the police. However, like his moonshine, I’m sure his distillery was also hidden in plain sight!