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The Winter of the Rum: l'Ardoise - Cape Breton

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Originally compiled by Paul Pâté

Source: Tranquil A. "Tom" Berthier - July 1981, l’Ardoise, NS

To the people of this area, it was known as The Winter of the Rum.

It occurred in the 1930s-1940s, so this is told to us by Thomas Berthier.

We landed rum for Wilfred Costain. Went out one Sunday night about 12 o’clock, 20-25 miles off Point LeRouge. We brought in about 300 kegs.

When we came back, we shipped 66 kegs to Sydney. Charlie - in a couple of months time - went to pilot the rum runners from Belbouy Islands. We landed them and stored them in one of the government sheds at the breakwater.

There were 500 kegs. Someone told us that two men were out hunting ducks near the breakwater and smelled the rum. They broke the lock to find the 500 kegs of rum. They took as many as they could carry. The kegs held 5 gallons of a type of rum called Demerara. It was undiluted and, when watered down, would produce 15 gallons per keg and equal in strength to the concoctions legitimately dispensed today. It was as thick and black as molasses.

While the news spread about the find, we had heard nothing, and a couple of nights after that, we saw Herbie Burkey with a 5-gallon keg on his back on Burkey’s Pond. We asked where he had found it, and he said the shed is full. We went and started hauling it into our store. While we were doing this, they were stealing it and going the other way. When we arrived back, there were just over 200 [kegs] left.

We went after and loaded the horses. It was snowing so bad that night that my wife had a hard time opening the door for me when I returned. We hid 100 barrels in the bushes on Salmon RIver Rd and 100 barrels on Wilfred Mombourquette’s land on MacIsaac’s Lake.

A couple of nights later, we saw horses and men loading our rum on the lake. We could not say anything or we would be caught. One fellow took a load with his horse below Isaac Richard’s and hid it in the woods. When he returned, it was all gone, and when he went to his hiding place it was all gone.

In the spring, a local man had some hidden in a manure pile. When he confessed to the priest, he was told to return it. We dug it up and took it up to MacLean’s land on Salmon RIver Road and hid it. Some were missing when we returned to get it to sell in Sydney.

People knew we were in business and dropped 3 kegs on each of our gates. Taylors, Berthiers, and another man. We dug a hole about 5 feet deep in the snow and buried the casks. I told my father who was living in the backlands, and he said to bring it up.

We started for his house, and we met a man, Alex Sampson. He passed us, and we continued on and hid the kegs in my father’s basement. The next morning, Wilfred got a call to take the rum to be sold. Wilfred was coming in one door with the news about the call, and my father was coming in the other door saying someone had broken into his basement and stolen the rum. All we got for our trouble was $25.

Most of the families in l’Ardoise had at least one keg or shared it with a neighbor. Father Boudreau found out about the rum and informed the RCMP. The constable came from Sydney and was driven by Jack MacDonald to St. Peter’s.

Some men approached Father Keith and asked if it was a sin to have the rum. He said it was not a sin as Father Boudreau had said, but if they would sell some of the rum. They would have to share the profit with the poor.

Father Boudreau said there was too much free rum around and therefore everyone had some. There was no need for people to come to church because they were disobeying the laws of the church. So, Father Boudreau closed the church with a huge lock, and this continued even through lent.

*In addition to the information received from Tom Berthier, we also would like to thank Mr. Con Mombourquette and Mr. Helaine Martell

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