Interviewer: During these last few weeks of 1977, there has been the usual talk about Christmas spirits or holiday spirits and it seems appropriate to go back to the time when Dawson Creek was called — what was it Mr. Newby?
Ray Newby: It was noted for its Christmas spirits, homemade and manufactured right in the Old Town.
Interviewer: And that was the basic for the name — what was it? Moonshine City?
Ray Newby: Moonshine Centre. At one time it was called Moonshine Centre. Quite a few times it was called Moonshine Centre. It was said that some of the best moonshine in the country was made right there in the Dawson Creek Valley.
Interviewer: There must have been some notable men in this area. Can you remember any of them? We won’t use any names, but have you any tales about notable manufacturers?
Ray Newby: There used to be one just a half a mile south and west of the Old Town. The still was set up at the old spring, on the place that Chris Smith has — the spring was the one they used to haul the water [for the town] from.
Interviewer: On Bear Mountain: That was beautiful water! We can use his name, for he is long gone. He was renowned for his “Birk’s [Burke’s ?]Irish”. And he made real fine whiskey, so his name was given to the product — Birk’s Irish. And that would bring a premium price I suppose.
Ray Newby: Well, if you were really hung up and needed a hair of the dog that bit you he’d never hold you up. He’d always bring you a drink.
Interviewer: Then he was a very ethical operator?
Ray Newby: Yes, a real good-living old chap as far as I knew. One of the nicest guys I can remember.
Interviewer: There seem to have been many operators in the Old Town. I remember one very old timer telling me that Tom Ray had a store there — a so-called store. He carried on business in a two-storey shack, and that he was raided many, many times and was never caught. His method of operating seems to have been to keep a few cans of snoose and a few pounds of sugar on the shelf. He never seemed to have any potatoes, but in the corner of his store was a bag depository, a high pile of bags, under which he kept the commodity that most men came for. The police would raid him, but never thought of looking under there. He was the person, he said, who gave his name to Tom’s Lake and Ray Lake. That’s the only one that I know about but I understand that there was one just up the Creek from the old town centre.
Ray Newby: Yes, Tom Ray had the little store there when we first came through there in 1921. Whether he had moonshine, I don’t know because I was just a kid. We went further west to Progress, and that’s where we were living. He was doing some trading with the Indians.
Interviewer: I understand his trap line went out around the Lakes.
Ray Newby: That could be and since he traded with the Indians, could be he had a little firewater.
Interviewer: According to the old timer, he made a lot of it, but never got caught.
Ray Newby: I don’t know about that, but I know two or three other ones who got caught!
Interviewer: I understand there were a couple of youngsters who helped to give away one of the operators. Wasn’t that the Goodrich kids?
Ray Newby: Yes. They were staying in the Old Town. The teacher had moved them up to supplement his class to keep the school operating. The school teacher, McDiarmid, lived at South Dawson. There was a faction that wanted the school closed. He was a canny Scotsman, and they weren’t going to close him up. So be brought these kids in and paid their board in town. Somehow or other they got the capper “worm” out of the still, had a string tied on it and were dragging it around in the street. They thought it was quite an invention. It would junp and buck when it hit a rock or rut. I imagine the coil was about eighteen inches deep about a six or eight inch coil, and the kids had a great time dragging it around. Somebody inquired where they got it, and they said, “Cy Smith”. Cy must have had a moonshine operation up there, somewhere. I don’t know just where.
Interviewer: How could he carry it on without being caught. I thought there always had to be a fire so there would be smoke to boil the mash.
Ray Newby: The did, in the wintertime everybody had a fire going, but in the summertime thick smoke at a shack or cabin would indicate that there was something wrong. So they used to do their cooking outside, on a coal oil stove. They could get a coal oil stove from Eaton’s and boil their mash outside, and there was no smoke. No smoke at all. All they had to have was a good supply of fresh cold water. There was no tell-tale smoke and the police come poking around — they couldn’t spot it from the smoke. Otherwise they’d go right to it, but with no smoke they couldn’t trace it.
Interviewer: Speaking of the police coming round — was it illegal to make the stuff or just to sell it.
Ray Newby: I think it was illegal to make it, where it was distilled, as well as illegal to sell it. I think you could always make wine up to a certain [amount] without running afoul of the law, but if you distilled it, it was a different deal altogether. You had to have a license, or otherwise the government wasn’t getting any tax out of the white mule that was made out in bush. Ninety percent of the price in the vendor’s is tax.
Interviewer: Oh, that’s why the police were interested.
Ray Newby: They were very interested.
Interviewer: Not to speak of the fact that they were able to confiscate, and from what I have heard and read, the police were supposed to destroy it after the fine had been paid. There was one way of destroying it, which I heard, was quite frequently used.
Ray Newby: That’s what I understood, too. The evidence just naturally disappeared, and it didn’t go down the drain either.
Interviewer: Well, you didn’t have sinks. That would be a handicap. Wasn’t there a provincial policeman? It seems to me that I heard he had a nice little business.
Ray Newby: I couldn’t comment on that — I don’t remember.
Interviewer: That was in 1943 or ‘44. There was a lot of people around here then and stories might have multiplied.
Ray Newby: I know there was one who liked to drink, and he wasn’t fussy whether it was government liquor. As long as it was drinking liquor. As long as it was drinking liquor, he was quite happy.
Interviewer: I think that later on there was a gentleman of another uniform who was making moonshine. With a clerical collar? Wasn’t there a preacher who was reputed to be making liquor in that house you had recently vacated. You went back. Didn’t you tell me about that one time? I heard that somewhere.
Ray Newby: It wasn’t a preacher, as far as I know. I don’t know who it was. After I started driving truck, hauling bridge timbers and what-not after I left the homestead, the wife and I went up one time just to have a look around. The old cabin was just lined up with mash barrels and a stack of sugar — bottles all over the place. Two hundred pounds of cornmeal. I don’t know what that was for unless he was making a little corn liquor too. The little shack was right alongside the dugout, and they must have had quite an operation there. There were at least six oak barrels on a rack in the house.
One of the neighbours up there told me that they couldn’t figure out why the police had been driving up there — straight south of the old South Dawson Hall. They get up on the flat and keep watching my old house with glasses from the road — east of that in the bush. They were trying to catch whoever it was that was making the moonshine up there. I never found out who it was, and to the best of my knowledge they never caught the guy. But they knew it was set up there.
Interviewer: I’m quite certain that it wasn’t any of the regular clergy that I heard of, but there were lay preachers. And if there were any truth in the tale at all, this might have been the basis of the tale, or it might have been somebody just making up a story.
Ray Newby: I don’t remember any preacher’s name. I did hear a name afterwards but it wasn’t a preacher.
Interviewer: Now about the name of the product. We’ve called it moonshine here, but when we first came I heard it called moose milk for the first time, and got laughed at heartily for not knowing what it was. What else was it called?
Ray Newby: Oh, white mule, white lightning. It had many different names.
Interviewer: Wasn’t there one like white hen or white chicken or …
Ray Newby: Yes, there was one that was made on the other side of the Cutbank. They called it Chicken Whisky. They said, “One drink of that and you layed.” It was potent stuff. They didn’t think they were doing too good a job distilling it. It was real potent. That’s why they called it Chicken Whisky.
Interviewer: In other words you went down after drinking it, not so much from the liquor as from the impurities in the brew.
Ray Newby: That’s the idea.
Interviewer: I’m sure there were other names. I heard about one wedding dance here. In fact the town was very quiet on the day after the dance. We weren’t very long here, and not well acquainted so we didn’t go. I understand that nearly everybody came. A wash boiler was set out and whatever anybody brought it was dumped in there and stirred up. The mixture was rather potent. It was mentioned that somebody brought along some lemon extract. Wasn’t that a rather common drink.
Ray Newby: The Indians used to use it, and I imagine some of the white men too. Vanilla and lemon extract would be one of your more important imports. Those and raisins, I gather.
Interviewer: Wasn’t there a story about the importation of raisins?
Ray Newby: The police were looking at one place in Spirit River. He had a real stock of them – in cases. He’d hauled them from Spirit River. The police asked what he was going to do with them. “Oh,” he says, “I like it. Lotsa pie and cake, ” he says. Sgt. Duncan — well there was nothing he could do about it. It was the guy’s word against his. He couldn’t eat that much pie and cake but he couldn’t contest it.
Interviewer: I think we had quite a colony of people around here who hailed from a part of Europe where there was lots of wine made. It was quite good quality.
Ray Newby: It was mostly whisky around here and around Dawson it was all good quality.
Interviewer: How much would you have to pay for a bottle of bootleg?
Ray Newby: They used to put it up in pint beer bottles, mostly. It was seventy-five cents or a dollar.
Interviewer: In that day’s currency, seventy-five cents or a dollar would be how much now? Four of five dollars?
Ray Newby: That’s right! There were so many times back in them days, you had no change and you couldn’t get any change. If you had a dollar bill you spent it. If even the small fry went to the store and wanted to buy a candy, he hadn’t any change – he had to buy a dollar’s worth because they hadn’t any change.
Interviewer: So it was a flexible price. How much would it cost to get a legal bottle, or could you get a legal bottle?
Ray Newby: Not at that time. There was no government vendor here. The vendors came in later. George Hart took it over in Pouce Coupe. He was the first liquor vendor then. It was in the Hart Hotel first.
Interviewer: I remember in the 1940’s the only liquor vendor was in Pouce Coupe. That’s what kept the road open to Pouce Coupe — the fact that coupons were given out. It was rationed, and anyone who wanted to cash in his coupon had to go to Pouce Coupe.
Ray Newby: You are right! They had to line up to get into the liquor vendor’s — especially at this time of year. (Christmas) When the American army was here you could sell it as fast as you could get it and the price was a dollar an ounce. Twenty-six dollars for a twenty-six bottle.
Interviewer: And that, in today’s prices would be over fifty dollars now. Liquor was rationed I know. I had charge of the food rationing, but another lady had charge of the liquor coupons. People used to storm into my office and demand their liquor ration books back. When I inquired what had happened to them they’d say, “Oh, they’d been employed by so-so, and he’d taken their liquor ration books away from them and was allegedly using them to barter with the American army for scarce articles of food or machinery on the black market.” When he ceased to be employed, some of the employers didn’t give the books back. In this way, I think I could have compiled a list of the people who were carrying on black marketing. Almost all of it was done on the basis of liquor ration coupons.
Ray Newby: I know for a fact that oodles of people who had never bought liquor before had a ration card.
Interviewer: Mrs Rattray was the liquor ration officer. I think she did as much work in her office on the liquor alone as I did on all of the food coupons. She was a very busy lady.
Ray Newby: Some of the people who went in there would have a big sheaf of tickets.
Interviewer: Some of the big employers would have a stack of them. Washing machines that came into the American PX and ball bearings and pieces of machinery, bolts etc. were all exchanged for [them]. We had a barter system here, run mostly on the basis of liquor rations.
Ray Newby: A lot of things were exchanged on the liquor rations!
Interviewer: There wasn’t enough food allowed to us that we could do very much black marketing on the food coupons, but as you say, the people who didn’t drink had liquor ration books and could profit from them.
Ray Newby: We didn’t have any trouble with the food rationing. I was hauling on the highway then. There were no rations in the Yukon.
Interviewer: Nor in the camps either.
Ray Newby: We could go to the Hudson’s Bay or in the stores in Whitehorse or at Teslin Lake etc. We could buy sugar, syrup, jam, butter, coffee — no ration cards at all. We could buy anything.
Interviewer: But no liquor!
Ray Newby: No. You could buy liquor in Whitehorse but you had to have a ration card. Most all of the truckers had ration cards in both B.C. and Yukon. You could go into a store in Lower Post and buy a bag of sugar. There was no restriction on rice. Rice was nearly a priority here.
Interviewer: Wasn’t wheat used here too.
Ray Newby: To make moonshine, yes. I think wheat was the main ingredient. Wheat, sugar and some raisins.
Interviewer: It looks as if the moonshine business — making it, drinking it and bartering it — was one of the main businesses in the country. In fact, one man has told me that making moonshine and selling it was his only cash crop for his first two years in the country. As simple as that!
Ray Newby: I think it was in 1915-16, from what I heard from old timers. When they were building the railroad, they built it to the B.C. border and lots of whisky went to those workers. Of course they had ties laid and high bridges there, at Rat Creek and Cache One; they were big bridges there – high bridges.
Interviewer: When you took cattle over there was it legal and possible to bring liquor back? Did you do much importing from Alberta?
Ray Newby: No, there were groceries etc. brought back because it was cheaper. You saved the freight on them, because it was all horse drawn freight at that time. When we first came we used to have to go to Grande Prairie to get stocked up on practically a year’s supply of groceries at a time. We went with a wagon in the summertime.
Interviewer: And a lot of that would be raisins and sugar. I imagine in some cases it was.
Ray Newby: With us it was strictly groceries, because there was my uncle and his wife and his partner and his wife and mother and us four kids. It took a lot of flour and syrup and sugar and stuff. We never made any moonshine. We were out west there. There may have been some but I never seen it used to any extent when I was young.
Interviewer: Are there any other good stories about this topic that I haven’t heard yet?
Ray Newby: There was one interesting one an old Frenchman told me. He was visiting with Burke across the creek there from the old town. They’d been on quite a bender for three or four days. They decided it was about time they slowed down and got something to eat. So they went over to the butcher shop and got some meat — put a good big stew on the stove and then the policeman drove up. They’d run out of coal oil, so they didn’t have a coal oil lamp and just had candles in saucers on the table. They had a bottle of moonshine on the table. The old Frenchman, when they heard the team drive up — he took the candle and stuck it in the neck of the moonshine bottle. The wax melted naturally and ran down over the neck of the moonshine bottle. Policeman came in. They searched the woodshed first where they kept the wood. They could hear them going through the wood. Then he banged the door and came in, looked around the house and never found a thing — not a drop of moonshine. And that bottle on the table was two-thirds full all the time he was searching, with the candle burning on it. The boys got quite a kick out of that. The old Frenchman, Old Stanley told me about it.
Interviewer: Speaking of cooling the moonshine, I’ve heard that the good water was used to cool beer in the summertime. Isn’t there a story about that? One about Billy Burrows, that turned out to be a near tragedy.
Ray Newby: I don’t think it was nearly a tragedy. It was sure amusing at the time. We’d been working hard. It was at stampede time in the Old Town. I was riding pick-up with Billy Burrows. Bud Lineham was judging and a friend of ours, Charlie Hoover. We went to the creek to get some beer. We used to get beer from the government vendor. Quart bottles – Cascade beer. Billy had put it in the creek to keep it cool. In order to get the beer, Billy had to lean ‘way over the bank and put his arm right in to the shoulder to get the beer from the bottom. Bud Lineham had his arm hooked around a poplar tree, and I had a hold of Bud’s hand and he had a hold of Billy’s hand. Billy was laying right out, over the water with his feet on the bank. He was fishing around on the bottom and Charlie was counting them as he brought them up. He counted “One, two. Then three.” He looked back and counted Bud and myself and said “Three” and let go of Burrows. He went flat out into the creek. If he’d walked in he wouldn’t have got as wet! But he was laying flat over the water and down he went. When he came up from the bottom he had his own bottle. Everything was ‘kopi-setic’. Everything was hunky dory. Burrows was all wet but it never bothered him. It was a very hot day and he dried off in a very short time.
Interviewer: I also heard another story that could have turned out to be a tragedy. The man who was peddling the moonshine had intimations of mortality. Wasn’t that one of our respected citizens from south of town who met the policeman.
Ray Newby: Yes. There was a trappers’ reunion. The trappers used to come in and after they sold their fur there was always a big poker game — a drinking session and poker. It was being held at Fynn’s Corner. At Jim Brown’s cabin. That’s the guy that homesteaded that quarter, Old Jim Brown. The big poker session was going to be a long one so they sent word to the guy at South Dawson that they needed more whisky. This was late in the evening.
So he got two gallon jugs and he rode a white horse straight down the road allowance there to Jim Brown’s corner. But somehow the police got wind of this and was waiting for him in the bush. When the policeman stepped out he didn’t know who was bringing the moonshine or who he had caught when he stepped out. According to the gentleman he had his gun pulled out, and he said when he looked into it, it was pretty near as big around as a water barrel. He was fined three hundred dollars and costs, that time. But looking in the gun barrel was the worst of it!
Interviewer: So there were serious moments in the story of our moonshine centre. On that note we’ll end our interview. Mr. Ray Newby has been telling us about the old days. Thank you very much.
Ray Newby: You are very welcome.