“The Rumrunners – a prohibition scrapbook”
by C. H. (Marty) Gervais, 1980
condensed by Laryssa Landale
designed look-out windows
roaring twenties in the Border Cities. An era when men wore floppy
tweed caps, slicked their hair back like Valentino, wore spates,
smoked Omar cigarettes or Player’s Navy Cut and carried
revolvers. An age of kiss curl ladies, chiffons, printed art crepes
and hats with vagabond crowns.
age when parents washed their children with Lifebouy soap and their
clothes with Rinso “the cold water washer, then sped to the
roadhouses for a night out to take in a little Bye Bye Blackbird,
the Charleston, jazz band; and, of course, to roll the dice and
shoreline of the Detroit River was like a diamond-studded bracelet,
each glittering jewel a roadhouse. Americans nightly traversed the
mile-wide river to moor their yachts till the first glimpses of
came to the Canadian shoreline to feast upon the hearty seafood
and chicken dinners, soak up the lush, elaborate speakeasies and
toss away easy-come, easy-go money in long, bustling, upstairs rooms
crammed with gambling table sand flappers.
those nights, music filtered out from wide verandas and gingerbread
barrooms of fabulous roadhouses. Everyone within was caught in amid
whirl of music and dancing, safe in the knowledge that although
it was illegal to guzzle and gamble, trusty beady-eyes “spotters”
stationed in second-storey windows or makeshift towers were ready
to sound the alarm, warning of a police raid.
if the law successfully got wind of the illicit gambling and liquor,
it was only a matter of minutes before the booze was stashed behind
false walls or into hideaway cupboards along with the gambling paraphernalia.
All that remained on view were the huge steaming platters of perch,
frog legs and chicken, hastily carried out to bored customers accustomed
to such interruptions.
of these roadhouses exist today. In the west of Windsor, the Chappell
House was the dominating roadhouse. Built within a few feet of Sandwich
Street, it had a sign over the entrance, which read: “At All
Hours.” There were accompanying signs on the railings advertising
frog legs, chicken and fish dinners. This roadhouse, with its prominent
veranda, was actually the second Chappell House. It was built by
two brothers – Henry and Harley Chappell. They opened their
first in 1865 on the Canadian Steel Corporation property in nearby
sold this and bought the Mineral Springs Hotel in Sandwich, then
in 1897 opened up the second Chappell House. Later it would become
The Lido Tavern, RumRunners Bar and at present is The President’s
Chappells ran the roadhouse until it was taken over by the Trumble
family. But even before the Trumbles bought it, the roadhouse gained
a reputation for its sumptuous meals. The Trumbles ran the hotel
the east were Abars Island View, Edgewater Thomas Inn, the Rendezvous,
and others. Michael Vuicic, one-time general manager of the Rendezvous,
said the food may have been good in the twenties…but the meals
were really “a front” for gambling and drinking.
Edgewater Thomas Inn: a high-class
in Riverside – secret passageways and hidden wine cellars.
could eat all the perch you wanted downstairs for fifty cents…and
upstairs there was gambling and booze.”
the old bar was removed and replaced many years ago, the simple,
but reliable, old buzzer system was torn out. “This place
was wired in with four other roadhouses – the Edgewater Thomas
Inn, Abars Island View, the Golden House and Tecumseh Tavern. One
would buzz that the police were on the way and all stuff would be
said bottles were often flung from the second-storey windows into
a moat fronting the building. It was also from this second floor
that spotters were situated to watch the movements of the police.
Old photographs of the Rendezvous reveal just how deliberate the
builders of the roadhouse were in the placement of the windows;
they face east and west to watch the road. If a raiding party was
spotted, the buzzer would sound to warn other hotels that a raid
was about to occur.
only surviving hotel wired to the Rendezvous is Abars Island View.
The name is derived from the Hebert family, the original owners.
Henri Hebert, a local fisherman, registered the name “Abars,”
in 1893 because he thought the French pronunciation of his name
was more familiar in its anglicized spelling. The hotel remained
in the family for three generations, and the name became a symbol
of fine cuisine.
to serve the stagecoach lines, the hitching rail at the front entrance
remained long after automobiles made their appearance. At the turn
of the century, the roadhouse became a leading nightspot on the
waterfront and lured high society visitors from Detroit. Formal
dress was the order and local patrons were sometimes discouraged
from dining there.
The Rendezvous Bar, wired into
roadhouses to alert them about police raids.
the entrance sat the flamboyant Mrs. Hebert, dressed in jewels and
furs, to greet her guests – the Fishers, the Dodges, the Fords,
Jack Dempsey, Al Capone. Or members of the Detroit Tigers and New
York Yankees who yachted to Abars because regulations forbade them
to be seen in Detroit speakeasies. They directed their launches
into Abars’ docks at the mouth of the Detroit River, with
its magnificent view of the Detroit skyline.
of all the inns and roadhouses the Edge-water Thomas Inn was the
most fashionable eating and drinking spot in the area. Owned by
the eccentric Bertha Thomas, she was considered “a pioneer”
in the restaurant and roadhouse business in the Detroit-Windsor
former Bertha Haf of Detroit, she came to Windsor as a widow and
purchased a small three-room Riverside eatery. She cooked meals
and waited on customers until she could afford both additional space
the twenties, the Edgewater Thomas Inn with its gingerbread entrances,
mahogany-panelled walls, its fabulous “shore dinners,”
the hideaway gambling and plush interior, became a favourite haunt
business increased and her popularity as a hostess grew, Bertha
added more space. At the time of her death in 1955, Bertha operated
one of the most widely known and patronized dining and partying
establishments in the area.
Bertha Thomas: eccentric
it was in the roaring twenties that Bertha earned her reputation.
Thomas’ inn was equipped with secret passageways and hidden
wine cellars. During prohibition it only took the “tip of
a stick” and the bottles of liquor slid down a chute. Moments
later soft drinks would magically appeared in their place.
Thomas’ inn was the target of a raid, musicians had duties
too. Their task was to rush to customers’ tables and dump
glasses of liquor on to the well-padded carpets.
one occasion when a band member missed the rug and booze splashed
all over the dance floor, it was mopped up by the raiding party
– with charges laid against Bertha. But the clever roadhouse
owner wasn’t to be outdone. She proved that the dance floor
had been recently varnished and the varnish contained, curiously
parking attendants also had double duties. Louis Baillargeon was
officially employed to park patron’s cars, but in fact was
used as a “spotter.” He was hired as a young boy by
Bertha, who felt Louis lacked the proper homelife and advantages
of other children. She paid for his schooling and kept him at work.
Before directing him to park cars, she sequestered Louis in a strategic
window location of the hotel where he was duty bound to do his homework
and keep his eye on the movements of the police.
would often try to bribe police during a raid. One legendary tale
recounts how she placed ten-dollar bills on the floor in a trail
leading from the entrance of the hotel to the back door exit. The
police simply followed the path strewn with money – and left
the inn without charging her.
wealth was made during the twenties, and throughout the years following
prohibition she dispensed it generously to the community. She often
helped struggling friends by paying their mortgages. In later years,
she threw fabulous Halloween parties for children in Riverside.
she didn’t like you, you were in trouble,” remembers
a former Riverside police officer, who added, “if she fancied
you, then you were OK.”
officer added although many believed Thomas’ inn was a fashionable
nightspot, it really was “a high class blind pig,” and,
when it caught fire in 1970, the legendary hidden rooms were revealed.
had all kinds of places to hide the booze, and there were buzzers
all over the place, outside under the window sills or in the little
shack they had for the parking boys. There were buzzers inside near
the bar and in various other rooms…and there were false walls
that would open up…she had it all figured out.”
he recalls too, was “a real show girl,” One time, a
Detroiter fell into the river near one of the docks behind the roadhouse.
“Bertha jumped in after her, and of course, the police then
had the task of saving them both.”
matter how many time the Edgewater Thomas Inn was raided by the
police during the twenties, it was always back in business in less
than ten minutes. “A fine was nothing to her,” another
policeman said. “It was just part of the operating expenses
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