Bootleggers In Pefferlaw….Who Would Have Thought?

By: Steve Barrett

Bootleggers In Pefferlaw….Who Would Have Thought?

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Pefferlaw History

From The Files of 'The Pefferlaw Post' September 24th., 2008 now 'The Georgina Post' 

    The Village of Pefferlaw has a story to tell.  For some, it is a chapter in our history best left untold. But for others, it is a story that documents our colourful past and legitimizes our heritage just as much as the railway, farming, the mills, the dam and ice fishing have done.
At one time and not so long ago, Pefferlaw had the reputation as “the bootlegging capital of Canada” and with good reason.  Some estimate that there were as many as 21 bootleggers in town at once and for a small town, that was a lot of hooch.  Residents could travel hundreds of miles away from home and as soon as they mentioned they were from Pefferlaw, people would comment on our bootlegging legacy.  So how did such a small inconspicuous town ever earn a status of such legendary proportions?  And why?  According to Melissa Matt at the Georgina Pioneer Village and Museum and Archives, our bootlegging activities have been captured in the annals of history as far back as our founder, Captain William Johnston who settled in Georgina Township in 1819 and founded Pefferlaw in 1823.  It seems that before Captain Johnson became president of the temperance society in 1841, he supplied one of his mill hands, William Chirnside, with second grade wheat which Mr. Chirnside used to make mash for his backyard still.
    Considered the most “genteel” of all crimes, Pefferlaw’s early foray into the liquor trade may have been one of the reasons why residents consistently passed a Local Options vote to allow local hotels to sell spirits. These included the Wright Hotel built in 1857 (current home of Kevin Fullbrook on Pefferlaw Road), the Morning Glory Hotel built in the 1860s (located where Morning Glory Public School now stands), the Winfield Hotel built in the 1860s (located at the river where Station Rd. meets Old Homestead) and the Belvedere Hotel built in 1884 (originally called the Mansion House).  Most agree that one of the reasons Pefferlaw became such a haven for bootlegging activities was because it was a “wet” community.  “Beaverton, Cannington, Woodville, Sunderland, Uxbridge and most communities north of Highway 7 were dry,” tells one resident.  “So people from these towns would come to Pefferlaw to drink and when the hotels closed for the night, they would go to a bootlegger to buy whiskey to take home.”  With Lindsay being the closest town available in which to purchase legal liquor for home consumption, the brisk hotel business in Pefferlaw had unintentionally created a ‘home market’ for illegal liquor that many Pefferlaw families could not resist.

    The manufacture of whiskey in a backyard still was not rocket science. It involved combining the raw material (in Pefferlaw’s case it was mostly wheat) with water and adding yeast to make a mash.  Once the concoction fermented, it was strained and the liquid was transferred into a copper vessel over an open fire. As the brew boiled, steam escaped into coiled copper tubing above and when the tubing was cooled with ice, the condensation that occurred dripped into a keg below. And voila, moonshine.

    The descendant of one family that owned a still said, “they did it to get by—that is how some people made their living.”  As much as it was an illegal activity, it could also be dangerous. If the ‘recipe’ for making bootleg liquor was not just right, a contaminant called ‘methanol’, also known as ‘wood alcohol’ could cause blindness, paralysis and even death.  To guard against such disastrous events, Pefferlaw bootleggers were known to take a flask of their home-made brew into a doctor in Sutton to have it tested. “And if there was no wood alcohol found in it, the bootlegger would always leave a bottle behind,” said one resident.

    Pefferlaw’s renowned reputation as a bootlegging community was not only due to the industrious still-owners and hooch manufacturers— it was also based on those entrepreneurial individuals who distributed liquor and beer from their homes. “You knew where those places were because there were always a dozen cars or so parked nearby,” recalls one resident.

    Bootlegging offences were traditionally handled by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and offenders could face fines of up to $1,000 or time in jail. According to Len Donner, a local police officer in Pefferlaw during our bootlegging heydays in the 1950s, it was also an offence to frequent illegal distributors.  “There was a law on the books called ‘found-ins’ and anyone caught in these establishments faced a ‘found-in’ charge,” he said.  Mr. Donner also said the RCMP had an informer fee which would pay an informer a percentage of the fine that was levied upon a convicted bootlegger.

    By the 1960s much of the still manufacturing had died off.  However, bootlegging “retail” whiskey and beer continued until the early 1970s when the LCBO installed a mobile trailer beside the old municipal offices on Pefferlaw Rd. for the legal purchase of beer, wine and liquor.  The bootlegging industry in Pefferlaw was over, but the memories and the stories live on.