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Breakfast with Marty

Laryssa Landale discovers the story behind Marty Gervais’ book: “The Rumrunners: a prohibition scrapbook.”

“... when I asked them for their stories, they said,
“what do I get out of it?”

He’s an accomplished author, poet, play-wright, and columnist; founder of The Black Moss Press (Windsor’s first publishing company); managing editor of The Windsor Review; University of Windsor’s Resident Writing Professional. His list of literary pieces includes several collections of poetry, a children’s book, a history of policing in Windsor, a play, and most recently, a history of the Italian Men’s Choir in Windsor. Perhaps Marty Gervais’ most renowned feat however, is the 1980 publication “The Rumrunners: a prohibition scrapbook.”

Ironically, as the title suggests, this book is literally a compilation of leftovers.

I met with Marty one foggy March morning for breakfast at The Lumberjack in Windsor to discuss his fascination with this subject. I left with a full stomach and a brain packed with interesting details about this bygone era.

Marty originally began researching local prohibition stories in search of a plot for the play he had been commissioned to write for the University of Windsor drama department’s showcase production. He thought a play on the prohibition era would be interesting, but wasn’t sure what angle to take. During his investigation Marty came across the story of J.O.L. Spracklin and “Babe” Trumble.

Their feud represents “the epitome of prohibition” says Marty. Spracklin was a local Methodist minister chosen by the Ontario government to enforce prohibition in the Windsor area. Trumble was saloonkeeper of The Chappell House (appropriately renamed “Rum Runners” bar for a while.) The two had known each other since childhood, and there was no love lost between them by being on opposite sides of the prohibition issue. Marty saw Spracklin as representing “the forces of good…[in] excess.” He paints the picture of Spracklin as a pistol-packing Methodist minister, “marching up and down the Detroit River…like Wyatt Erpp.” Babe Trumble, on the other hand, “represented the excess of prohibition.” One fateful night in November 1920, Spracklin confronted Trumble and then shot him, claiming the other man had flashed a gun. The details of this circumstance were intricate and intriguing.

Marty’s investigative efforts culminated in the production of the play “The Fighting Parson.” But the scraps left over – all the other stories and information on prohibition that he had collected – became the makings of “The Rumrunners: a prohibition scrapbook.”

Marty’s research experience itself would make a good book. It seems, even in the late 70s, many of those involved in rum running were still hesitant to speak of it – nearly fifty years after prohibition had ended. “These people lived through it,” he comments, “some of these people didn’t want these stories told again…when you live through something you don’t think of it as history.”

Marty came across several stories that no one was willing to talk to him about. There are stories that should be in the book, but aren’t because he was not given permission to print them. Many of the old-timers feared being arrested or “having the income tax department hit them up for money,” he says. “However,” Marty continues, “when the book came out it suddenly made it okay. So now people are saying, “well, you don’t have my story” or “why didn’t you print my story?” Well, because you didn’t let me.” Their attitudes were that they had been keeping these secrets for most of their lives, and weren’t about to let them out now. Apparently Marty has hours and hours of taped interviews that never made it into the book. Do I smell a sequel?

Marty then explains the manner in which he was able to obtain as many stories as he did. “These guys aren’t stupid…[they] made money during prohibition era…So when I asked them for their stories, they said, “what do I get out of it?” So I had to make deals with these people.”

King Canada seemed the least demanding with his request for five copies of the finished book. Two weeks after the King received them he contacted Marty to request ten more books for relatives in Florida. Not long after that, the King was asking for more. Marty soon discovered that he was selling them in Belle River. “He was still making money from the rum running days!”

A Roaring
Twenties Glossary

Baptized: diluted liquor

Barrel house:
a place where liquor is sold illegally.

Barrel house bum:
a drunkard.

Beerage:
prominent people whose wealth has come from the manufacture and sale of beer.
Beerocracy: People who have made fortunes by the sale and manufacture of beer. A member of this group is a beerocrat.

Blind-pig or Blind tiger:
a place where liquor is sold illegally. Term originated from the practice of a shrewd Yankee who evaded law against the sale of liquor by placing a blind pig on a box inside of a tented enclosure and announced, “See the blind pig. Ten cents a look.” With each payment he gave a way a drink of rye or bourbon.

Bootleggers:
one who sold liquor illegally. Term originally applied to one who hid liquor in his bootleg.

Flapper:
Young female of the 1920s. Term signified young woman with a cynical attitude; an interest in daring fashions and indifferent morals.

Gin mill:
A low dive; a saloon.

Heeby-jeebies:
Delirium tremens.

Hooch, Moonshine, Red Eye, Monkey Swill, Moon:
intoxicating liquor.

Short-circuit:
booze that was to be exported from Canada to “Cuba, Bermuda or Mexico” but came back into the country, ending up in roadhouses and Blind-pigs.

Speak easy or speak:
A place where liquor was sold illegally or after legal hours. Term first used in the nineteenth century to mean, “speak softly when ordering illicit liquor.”

Squirrel:
whisky

source: Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties, Philip Mason, Wayne State
University Press, 1995.

Walter Goodchild was another interesting character. He had a goldmine of rum running photos – many taken in broad daylight – which had been sought after by other media personnel. Goodchild had been put off by the pretentious attitude of other journalists that had an interest in his information. They had come to the house for a television interview and begun rearranging everything without permission. Goodchild kicked them out.

King Canada seemed the least demanding with his request for five copies of the finished book. Two weeks after the King received them he contacted Marty to request ten more books for relatives in Florida. Not long after that, the King was asking for more. Marty soon discovered that he was selling them in Belle River. “He was still making money from the rum running days!”

When Marty contacted him in regards to these pictures Walter told him “yeah, I’ve got pictures…but I’m not going to give ‘em to you.”

Marty went out anyway. Their first two visits consisted of much conversation – about everything but prohibition. The third time Marty went out to see Goodchild he brought a forty-ouncer of Canadian Club whisky. That opened up a door, and Marty was successful in getting not only Walter’s story but the copyright to his pictures, as well.

One of the other guys who had agreed to talk to Marty had him drive out to his home in Belle River. When Marty arrived the old man was waiting with his coat on at the front door. He jumped in the car and said, “Lets go.” Marty was intrigued. He figured they were off to see some of the old rum running haunts.

They ended up at the relatively new Gordon’s grocery store. At that point Marty says he “began thinking okay, this must be the site of…” so he [the rum runner] said, “Come on.” So I go inside the grocery store. He grabs a shopping cart. Starts going up and down the aisles filling the shopping cart.

So I said, “what are we doing here.” He said, “well I needed a ride to the grocery store. I usually take a taxi, because you know …I’m a pensioner…and you want a story for the rumrunners.” “Yeah, well where do I fit in?” “Well, you’ve got the car. You’ve driven me over here, so I’m going shopping and I’ll talk to you while I shop.”

“The Rumrunners” book was, without question, the definitive work on local prohibition. It created an appetite in area residents that has yet to be satiated. The book became a best seller (it is currently out of print, but Marty has been toying with the idea of a second run.)

We still crave details about the cultural anomaly known as the Roaring Twenties. The era was full of irony and paradox. Marty makes one final observation of the prohibition circumstance: “The irony [is]…that this area voted overwhelmingly against prohibition. Turns out that this area of the country [Windsor] made more money from prohibition than any other area.”

Prohibition certainly was a colourful era, filled with characters and stories the likes of which we may never see again. If not for Marty Gervais’ research into the phenomenon that was prohibition, many of these stories would have faded with the memories of their leading players.

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