The Gentleman Bootlegger
adored my grandfather – even if he was a bootlegger.
by Tom Paré
Grandpa Art Gignac around
a warm Sunday morning a Maxwell touring car headed out Sandwich
Street past the Chappell House (the scene of the Babe Trumble killing
of 1920) and then on toward the old Westwood Hotel before turning
onto Seven Mile Road. The car sped up a bit as it was now past the
city limits and on the open highway.
driver was a tall handsome man sporting a gray fedora, a three-piece
suit, complete with watch fob. The front passenger was his wife
Marie, a diminutive redhead who stood only 4 feet 10 inches tall.
She too was dressed for church with her high collar, cameo pendant,
and size 1 black shoes. In the back sat three little girls all dressed
up in their Sunday best.
turned to the girls who were now jabbering giddily about little
girl things and told them to quiet down. “Especially you,
not only me, mum. Olive and Evangeline are teasing me,” Emily
father glanced into the back seat.
quiet down. We’re almost there.” And the big car turned
into a lane just past the Chateau LaSalle and pulled up to a group
of men waiting at a rickety wooden dock.
girls were ushered out of the car and off to the side while the
men lifted up the back cushion covers and removed ten cases of whisky
that had served as the sisters’ seats and put it into a waiting
boat. When the transfer was complete, the girls clambered back into
the Maxwell while their dad had a short meeting with one of the
men. He returned to the car and they headed back toward Windsor
with little Emily still jabbering away.
this fun,” she said. “I like our rides. Don’t
two older sisters didn’t answer her. This is just one of the
stories of Art Gignac and his bootlegging days. The little girl,
Emily, is now the 87 year-old matriarch of the remaining Gignac
family. She delights in telling stories about her popular dad, and
her eyes light up when she is asked if she was the favourite daughter.
“Oh no,” she will answer.
maybe, a little bit.”
then the impishness comes out, just like in the rides out on Seven
Gignac wasn’t always a bootlegger. For a while he worked on
the Great Lakes boats. He spent a number of years at the old Maxwell
Automobile plant and at one time, with his brother-in-law Jack Renaud,
he owned the famous (or perhaps infamous) Windsor Hotel at the corner
of Pitt Street and Windsor Avenue. This establishment was not permitted
to sell liquor during the Prohibition times but somehow it became
a very popular watering hole for locals and Americans alike. Periodically,
he would be notified of a coming raid and he and Renaud would pour
their wares into the sewer. But once the raid was over, more liquor
so often, Windsor’s finest would escort him down the street
to the station and he would have to post bail or pay a fine. And
guess who brought the money down to the judge? It was none other
than little Miss Emily who knew where the cash was kept in the house;
she would run dutifully down the alley to the station, pay the bail
or fine and bring her dad home.
occurrences actually posed no problem because in his absence, Emily
handled the business at the home at 479 Windsor Avenue. Not only
was the money hidden, but many areas of the old Victorian house
had false floors and secret places under the stair risers, which
held the whiskey cache.
did not like the idea of people drinking in our house, so my dad
mostly sold whiskey by the bottle or delivered to blind pigs and
smugglers at the river,” Emily said. But there were occasions
when customers came to the back door and drank in the kitchen. One
such person was a Windsor policeman who was a daily visitor.
Grandpa with Aunt Emily on his lap,
my mother, Olive, on the right, and Evangeline, my cousin
Patti's mom, is at left.
morning,” said Emily, “this policeman would knock at
the back door and dad would let him in and put the bottle on the
table for him. The guy was actually on his way to work at the station
so we had to ration his drinks ‘cause he would have drank
the whole damn thing if we let him.”
Art Gignac also owned a taxi company in Windsor and this proved
an invaluable asset in the bootlegging business. He used the cabs
for delivery vehicles or to pick up prospective customers. At a
party for his grandson who had just returned from Korea, Art, after
a few celebratory rye and cokes, was entertaining some admirers
with some of his marketing ploys.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said in his slight
French Canadian accent. “Those guys from the States are easy
ones,” he laughed. “Sometimes I go over to the Tunnel
exit and I can always pick out the goodtimers, eh? So I pick up
a couple of guys who are looking for some whisky and I tell them
I can get it for them.”
And now everyone is quiet. “So we negotiate the cost which
is about twenty-five bucks a bottle, American, you know, and I take
them over to my house. Now they stay in the car and the wife comes
to the door and I wait out on the porch. She comes out with four
bottles wrapped in newspapers and I bring it to the Yanks. They
pay me a hundred bucks for the booze and tip me twenty-five. They
don’t know it’s my own damn house. I drop them off at
the Norton Palmer. They’re happy. I’m happy.”
He laughed as loud as his listeners.
Emily was always fiercely proud of her dad, and remains so to this
“He was really a handsome man, and he was known as the black
sheep of the family,” she says. “I guess it’s
because he was a bootlegger and had a lot of somewhat shady friends,
but in that business, you didn’t deal with angels. Now, his
brother was a Papal Knight. You know, a Knight of the Order of Saint
Gregory the Great. And he was president of Purity Dairy and founded
Silvercup Bread. His name was Sir Harry Gignac. It’s kind
of funny to have two brothers in totally different occupations.”
Me and Grandpa in front
of his house 479 Windsor Ave – now a beer store.
bootlegger’s first grandson idolized him. The boy was born
in the old house on Windsor Avenue. And every morning for the few
years that he lived with Art, the two would go for walks with the
grandfather holding the boy’s hand. They sat on park benches,
spoke about worldly things and talked to squirrels and blue jays.
The grandfather told the boy that they understood us and that it
was good to talk to them. He taught his grandson many things like
how the streetlights turn on and off. He once told him that someday
there would be radios with pictures and the boy believed it because
this man knew everything. He was a fine grandfather.
enough, his grandfather’s bootlegging business created the
circumstances that brought the boy into the world. A few years before,
Art had hired a local blackjack dealer by the name of Walt Paré
to haul whisky for him. The card shark married Art’s daughter
and the boy was born in 1933. They all lived in the big house on
Windsor Avenue for a few years. Walt liked to tell of the time the
old house was torn down.
when they tore that place down, a couple of guys found a few cases
of liquor in the old cellar. I guess Art had forgotten about that
hiding place but when these guys started whooping it up, Art was
fit to be tied,” laughed Paré. “He started yelling
at them to hand it over and they didn’t know who in hell he
was so they just kept it. I thought Art was going to have a heart
attack right there. And you know, he probably paid about eight bucks
a case for the whisky and now it was worth about a hundred and fifty
each at least. And he could have used it because he was still selling
booze at his new house over on McKay.”
the old house is gone now, and so is Art Gignac – entrepreneur
and “gentleman” bootlegger – along with his drivers
and his smuggling associates. Things have changed considerably around
the corner of Windsor and Wyandotte. But if you can forget for a
moment that his back yard is now a Burger King, and all the great
old houses are gone, and the old elm trees have long disappeared,
and if you can listen very carefully, you might just hear the old
player piano in the foyer and laughter in the big kitchen, while
happy-time men tell stories, and smoke curls up from their Labatt’s
ash trays. And leading them all could be old Art Gignac and his
cronies and customers, or even an occasional policeman off duty,
or a Detroit-Windsor customs official, or a couple of firemen from
down the street. And you will probably see a kid under the table
proudly leaning against his grandfather’s knee listening to
where the old house used to be – in what some could consider
an almost abject testimony to the old days of romance and excitement
– stands the provincial beer store. Art Gignac would have
preferred his chosen profession… bootlegger and entrepreneur.
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