By Andy Walker
For close to three decades, Reg Thompson has been taking his trusty tape recorder to homes and seniors residences across Prince Edward Island, preserving the memories of Islanders in their ‘golden years’.
Better known as ‘Dutch’, his work has been turned into both a long-standing series called Them Times on the local CBC radio station, and into a popular online audio archive by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation.
There is one topic he knows is sure to come up in just about every conversation: Moonshine.
“Some of the elderly ladies will mention a name and then whisper in my ear ‘he made moonshine you know’. Even all these years later, they still don’t want to talk about it,” he told The Macdonald Notebook. “While it has always long been an open secret, for many people it is simply not something that is discussed in polite company.”
Known to try a taste himself, Dutch admits he prefers talking to those who are more open to talking about the part moonshine has played in the economic and social life of the province. While he admits many of the tales could have become embellished over the years—“that tends to happen with a good story”—many of the moonshine tales he has chronicled have been told by more than one source.
One of his favourite is about a tinsmith in Montague by the last name of Hickebaum (“I never did learn his first name”) who perfected the art of building a still that could be folded up into a box.
“This was in the 1920s and 1930s and there was a bus service that went through the country dropping off mail and parcels and people used to get the stills delivered right to their door. I would imagine the bus driver knew full well what was in them.”
Dutch also recalls offering an orientation session to workers in the Island’s tourism industry a few years ago and the subject of moonshine came up just before the class took a scheduled break.
One lady cornered him quickly and begged: “don’t mention any names for God’s sake, there is an auxiliary RCMP officer in this class.” When the class resumed, the officer herself stood up and told about the seizure of moonshine and a still in a raid she had taken part in just a week before.
Even though those charged had yet to appear in course, Dutch chuckled when he recalled “she turned to the others in the course and said, “I bet you know who I am talking about don’t you’ and everybody just started nodding their head.”
Another one of his favourite stories from an interview subject involved a moonshiner who got advance warning the authorities were going to pay him a visit later that day. Dutch said the man buried the moonshine in his front yard, covered it over with two tractor tires and planted flowers inside the tires.
“When the Mounties arrived, he told them to search to their heart’s content,” Dutch said. “As they were getting ready to leave empty-handed, the man called them over to admire his wife’s new flower garden. He was obviously looking for a good story to tell later.”
Dutch has his own theory about why moonshine is so ingrained into the Island way of life—and it amounts to part history and part heritage. PEI was the first province to institute prohibition (1901) and the last to repeal the measure (1948). By contrast, prohibition in Nova Scotia only ran from 1921 until 1930.
“Alcohol was as readily available here so people just made their own,” he said. “People would take a lot of pride in their ’shine.”
The ‘heritage’ part of the equation comes from the Island’s large Irish and Scottish population. Thompson noted, “there is a long tradition of distilling in both those countries and people took that with them when they came to PEI.”
While the tradition has diminished somewhat, Dutch said many Islanders still know how to lay their hands on a drop or two and slipping out for a taste is still something that happens frequently at social events across the province. Just like back in ‘them times’, it is still not talked about much.