Wednesday 15 September 2010

Requiem for a Bootlegger

I've never been farther east than Montreal, so I've certainly never been to the Red Shed. But it sounds like it was quite the place. Until the provincial government killed it.
Sprinkled amid the ordinary folks were some politicians. The mayor of Charlottetown, a few members of city council, even a provincial Cabinet minister had come to pay his respects to Prince Edward Island’s most beloved bootlegger.

“I guess, back when Gordie got started, that he decided that he wanted to keep the family tradition alive,” Mr. Kitson says.

Bootlegging, or selling alcohol without a liquor licence, and the Dunn clan go a long way back. Gordie’s grandparents were bootleggers. Their daughter — Gordie’s mom — was a bootlegger even though her husband went to work each day as an engineer with the provincial government.

Little Gordie, who would succumb to cancer at age 69, broke into the family racket about 30 years ago. At first, he started small, in a house next door to the house on Chestnut Street where he grew up.

As the money came in, the one-time streetcar operator in faraway Toronto expanded the business. He bought another house, a red house, at 57 Chestnut St., on the opposite side of the family homestead.

Gordie renovated the place, turning the upstairs into a private apartment and the downstairs into an icon everyone in Charlottetown knew as The Red House, including the cops, who would occasionally raid the joint.

The Red House was a bar, an illegal (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) bootlegging bar, with a couple of sitting rooms, a men’s — and a ladies washroom — a pool table, a patio, a basement for the overflow and even a place where the local fellow who didn’t make it so big, but had a guitar, could sit and play a few songs.

It was like Cheers, the old sitcom: It was the place where everybody knew your name. And if they didn’t, they would not let you in the door.


Mitchell Tweel grew up around the corner from The Red House. His family has known the Dunns for generations. Mr. Tweel is a city councilor now, and he isn’t much of a drinker, and he wasn’t ever a regular at The Red House.

But he understands what Gordie’s booze can meant to his community.

“Gordie was a kind soul, a gentle soul, and if you came to him for something he’d help you out,” Mr. Tweel says. “He wasn’t just trying to reap the benefits. He helped a lot of people, and it was not something you’d ever see on the front of a newspaper.”

The bootlegger sponsored minor hockey teams, bought new playground equipment for a neighbourhood elementary school, cooked for and fed people on Christmas and made those who did not have any family to go home to feel as though they always did.

Gordie, see, could not walk three blocks without handing someone $20. He put nieces and nephews through college, bought plane tickets, paid for hotel rooms and won a Governor-General’s medal for heroism for pulling two people from a burning house.

But he never once asked to be thanked. And he never talked about the things he did. It was not his way.

On New Year’s, he would open his doors for an annual levee, a come-one-welcome-all Maritime tradition where revellers were greeted with a bowl of chowder and a cold beer. Politicians would pop by, and the police might even pop in to The Red House — to share in the merriment, not shut the place down.

But eventually, they did shut Gordie down, though bootlegging and booze cans were an Island tradition, a holdover from a time long before Gordie’s time.

Fire codes and safety standards turned the illegal bars into political dynamite and, after a rancorous debate in 2004, then-premier Pat Binns’ government blew away the illegal bars for good by increasing bootlegging fines and empowering police to seize a bootlegger’s assets in a bust.

It was the last call for The Red House.

“Gordie’s whole life changed after that,” Mr. Kitson says. “He basically went downhill. Once they shut them down, they shut part of Gordie down, too.”

He would try being a customer, being a guy on the other side of the bar. And, for a time, he even contemplated buying a legitimate establishment.

But it was not the same. Things could never be the same as The Red House. The death of an Island tradition killed something inside the bootlegger with the gentle soul.

“Gordie was Chestnut Street,” Teddy Kitson says. “At the end of his life, when he was in the hospital and would not be going home again, I think he gave up.
From the National Post.

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