The story behind one of Calgary's early bootleggers
Every year, the Packwood Grand, a day of horse-racing, fashion, food and drink (Veuve Clicquot, anyone?) takes place in Calgary. The party is one of Calgary's biggest summer gatherings, and it's named in honour of George W. Packwood, one of Calgary's early businessmen.
(I admit that's not George Packwood in the pic. But it is a man inspecting a still, and, as no photos of George Packwood seem to exist, we have to improvise...)
The real George W. Packwood was a farmer by trade and an upstanding family man. He was close with his son; they worked together, in fact. He lived in a nice home in the upscale neighbourhood of Mount Royal in Southwest Calgary.
But nice and naughty sometimes go hand in hand.
And as it turns out, the nice George W. Packwood had a bit of a wild side. He wasn’t just a farmer, as he claimed. He was a man of many talents. A businessman of sorts. Someone who knew how to make money in all sorts of situations. A true Calgarian, the sort of fellow who could turn the ordinary into extraordinary.
You see, he had a rare talent for making fine whisky, the sort of moonshine tipplers from across the province clamoured to taste.
But his skills had to be hidden because most alcohol was illegal in Alberta in those days. Making and buying booze had been against the law since July 1, 1916, when the Alberta Liquor Act went into effect. Prohibition, it was called, a grim time in history for any winemaker, whisky lover or, indeed, anyone looking for a wee sip of something spirited.
But folks like Packwood did their best to make people happy. Newspapers of the time are full of stories about people like him, enterprising fellows who saw potential in every situation, and who seized an opportunity when it arose.
Much of Packwood’s story has been lost in time, notes Calgary historian Harry Sanders. But what we do know is this: He was born in Iowa, where he “worked on a farm,” according to the United States Federal Census in 1880. Eventually, he moved to Canada to pursue new opportunities. He brought his family with him, including his son, George A. Packwood, who had been born in Nebraska.
The police showed up at the Packwood residence on May 11, 1923. They’d heard rumours about Packwood Sr.’s many talents, rumours that involved illegal activities.
They decided to investigate.
It was a warm spring night. Calm. Peaceful. The lawn sprinklers were on, and young children could be heard getting themselves ready for bed.
“Say,” remarked one of the police to a Calgary Daily Herald reporter at the time. “This looks like a bum steer. This place doesn’t look like a moonshine stand. Look at the water running on the lawn and everything neat and tidy.”
But appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving. And when the police peeked in an uncovered corner of a basement window, they spotted the two Packwood men, father and son, sipping on their secret stash — and making plenty more. In fact, what the police had stumbled across was “the biggest moonshine factory ever unearthed in the province,” according to the Calgary Daily Herald the following day.
There’s no terrifying shootout to report. No blood-soaked battles. The Packwoods were arrested peacefully, and neither had much to say, except this:
“I’d vote for Prohibition and I’d vote for it again,” the elder Packwood told the Calgary Daily Herald that fateful night. “I’d gone broke farming.”
More than 100 people gathered to gawk as police spent more than two hours dismantling and hauling away the two stills, plus 75 gallons of pure alcohol and 35 gallons of aged whisky — estimated by the Morning Albertan newspaper at the time to be worth about $24 a gallon.
But money in the bottle isn’t necessarily money in hand. Neither Packwood could raise the $3,000 in bail money to get out of prison and they spent the weekend locked up.
Still, the raid on the Packwood residence marked the start of the end of Prohibition in Alberta, notes Sanders. Almost exactly a year after the Packwoods were arrested, the Alberta Liquor Act was amended on May 10, 1924, to favour government control of the liquor trade.
The Packwoods faded into obscurity, or maybe not. George W. Packwood’s name lives on at the annual Packwood Grand horse races and celebration in Calgary. And the rest, as the expression goes, is history.