Rum Running in New Brunswick

By Anne Marie Murphy
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The Thirties

"Make us a cup of tea, Maggie. My nerves are shot."

Such is the effect of being jerked back in time to a period of North American history that had a deadly affect on every person – the ‘30s. Today's generation is incapable of grasping the true concept of deprivation so severe that starvation and homelessness were factors facing very real people.

The Great Depression was a dramatic, world wide economic downturn beginning in some countries as early as 1928.

The beginning of the Great Depression in the United States is associated with the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday. Survivors of the Depression were rescued, if you will, by the onset of the war economy of the Second World War.

The Depression had devastating effects suffered equally by rich and poor. Shortly after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, optimism did persist in the face of adversity. John D. Rockefeller said, "These are days when many are discouraged. In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again."

Tell that to Frank.

The interviewee, "Frank" (a chosen pseudonym because the man has to live in this town) is an older gentleman who knows the ‘30s first hand. He lived them and is yet a long time resident of Woodstock, the seat of Carleton County.

Frank began the interview on an upbeat note, cheerful, pleasant, and welcoming. As the interview proceeded it began to take its toll on a man whose memory was all too sharp. He confessed readily that some of the things he talked about he hasn't thought about in over seven decades.

His story began as a member of a wealthy affluent Woodstock family. His family had done well in their line of business. The ‘founding father' had been an immigrant from the British Isles and with the enterprising fortitude shown by men and women who settled the wilds of New Brunswick almost four centuries ago, Frank's forefather had risen to become a prominent member of Carleton County industry.

But like others – it's a story told over and over – the business began to show a decline, probably an indirect off shoot of that Black Tuesday. That day had direct impact on the lives of every citizen in North America for the better part of the next decade.

The Depression made no distinctions.

"There was nobody had nothin'," Frank stated unequivocally. "I was a boy, what'd I be, six, seven years old. The people who lived out in the country, they had a cow or a pig , maybe a patch of garden. The people in town, they had nothin'."

Attempting to provide a background for his stories, Frank shared numerous hardships suffered by his family.

"They turned off the power. Nobody could pay, them days. See, there was a big water pump station in Woodstock. It was like a waterworks – generated power for itself, when the power went down."

It will be noted that in times of hardship and personal stress the common people will look at what belongs to large enterprises. Often the industry, a fuel-fed operation, depended on coal or wood. The rail yards were littered with coal. People saw this as an opportunity to collect, often fending off the rail company "bulls" whose job it was to protect the property.

Woodstock people, cold and hungry, saw the same opportunity. Mankind will do what he must do to survive.

"I can still remember," recalls Frank, "seein' them that went down over the hill. There was a woolen mill across from our house. I must've been, oh, maybe, nine, 10 years old and I'd see them going with a hand sled."

Frank's family did not give in to the great temptation to help themselves. As he explains, "Our family didn't steal coal because it was hard. But there was wood."

Sitting firmly ensconced in the 21st century it may be difficult to imagine a family composed of the nuclear family, the extended family and the in-law family, all living from the same house with no food, no clothing, no heat in the midst of a New Brunswick winter. Envision, if you can, to what means a family would go to survive.

"The pump station had four-foot-wood. We'd all go down with hand sleds, get maybe three or four sticks. We'd haul them up the hill. Had to saw them off with a hand saw."

"One day," Frank began and then stopped.

His eyes took on a rheumy, far away glaze as he remembered. Swallowing, he began again.

"One day, while I was just a kid, I was settin' there in the kitchen, on a high stool, with a ragged old blanket thrown across my lap. Bertie came first. She fell right over, collapsed, right at the foot of my stool. Then my other sister, Cassie, she came out and she too fell over, right in front of me."

The interview paused.

There was no sound in the kitchen while everyone waited for Frank to be able to continue. Frank gazed off into the distance, receiving unknown strength and picked up where he'd left off.

"You see , we couldn't get anything to eat. They shut off the power. Now, my father, he was a smart man. He could jump the wire. If we had power then Dad could work in his shop, make a few things to sell."

Everyone was affected by the Depression and everyone played a part in surviving. Royce Nixon, a writer in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia has transcribed stories told to him by older residents, often referred to as ‘ole fellers'.

They weren't born old. Once upon a time they were young and strong and eager to do their part to allay the devastation in which they found themselves and their families. Children were inducted in to the business of finding and selling whatever would bring a potato to the table.

Nixon tells of the story of bootleggers hiding their booze along the brooks and streams of the country. Children, finding them stashed in the cool depths, stole the bottles and drained the contents. They then filled the bottles with tea and sold them back to the bootlegger at ten cents a bottle.

Parents were expected to pay for their children's education and as the depression was on a great number of children never got the opportunity to fulfill their potential and some were quite bitter and passed this attitude on to their friends.

It was not uncommon for kids, and half-grown teens to work for bootleggers. Again Nixon tells the story of two kids delivering booze for a bootlegger. One kid drank a daily dose of the deliverable booze. Then he added water to the rum left in the bottle and delivered it to the customer. Eventually, the customer complained. The bootlegger hearing the complaints, went to the local drug store, purchased a quantity of gallops, a pharmaceutical product of the time. Over the next few days the bootlegger added the contents to the bottles to be distributed by his delivery boy . The delivery lad, suffering a series of messed pants, learned fast, and experienced a remarkable cure of his sampling habit. The bootlegger may have done more for the lad's long-term addiction than he will ever know.

One of the jobs still prevalent was the delivery of milk. In agricultural Carleton County cows still ate grass and gave milk. For some there was still the luxury of home milk delivery. Story teller Nixon retells the humourous tale of the milk man. Milk was delivered by horse and buggy and the milkman was not above making his deliveries show a better profit.

The ‘30s produced creative people who utilized subtle lucrative methods for survival. In Nixon's story, one milkman painted milk bottles white and filled them with liquor. He then delivered the painted bottles on his regular milk run to his special customers.

For Frank's family, little by little, things began to improve. For one, Frank's dad obtained regular employment, an event that would turn on the lights, put food on the table and heat the house the following winter. Frank regains strength in his voice and continues: "After awhile, Dad got a job over in Grafton. There was a farm over there that hired him. He used to take a boat over the Saint John River."

He tells of a father that was clever with wood, a craftsman.

"Dad built a fancy wagon for the farmer to peddle his stuff over to Woodstock. Guy Lawson drove the wagon. By this time our family had a few garden things – apples and potatoes – times were a little better."

In much of what has been written about the Depression, and in some actual cases the Depression has been romanticized. More than one writer is eager to expound on the generosity, and the hospitality extended to one's fellow man in hard times.

Frank disagrees adamantly as he reflects on the strain that existed in his family at that time.

"The Depression brought out the worst in people. Mother and Dad was fightin', times were hard. A lot of people were runnin around on their spouses. Didn't bring out much good in people, brought out a lot of the worst."

The worst, it may have been. However, the tough, hardy stock of the people of New Brunswick survived and, to utilize an old cliché, lived to tell the tale.

By 1933 the terrible pall that had hung over the country had lifted somewhat and conditions were relieved. Prohibition in the U.S. was lifted by the fall of 1933 and though the coffers of bootleggers, rum runners and moonshiners were somewhat reduced they continued to flourish as America's demands remained steady.

There are many stories in Carleton County. The stories are in the nursing homes, the retirement communities, the bars and the back kitchens of farm houses. They are found in all walks of life: men who drink and men who have never drank, men who are on welfare and cheap wine, and men who attend church on a regular basis – they all have a story to tell. These men are a wealth of resources eager to be tapped into. This series will attempt to tell some of these stories from the western counties of New Brunswick. If you have a story to share, write the author at: annemariebeattie@sympatico.ca.

Anne Marie Murphy wishes to thank all people interviewed for this series. Without you, this series would not have come to fruition. Thank you for your candid remarks and in return I shall put into print what I promised you: I will protect and preserve your anonymity. In particular, for this installment, a huge debt of gratitude goes to "Frank and Maggie," two Woodstock senior citizens.

Next...Memories of Carleton County
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©Anne Marie Murphy 2009