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Art Gignac–
The Gentleman Bootlegger

I adored my grandfather – even if he was a bootlegger.

by Tom Paré

Grandpa Art Gignac around 20

On a warm Sunday morning a Maxwell touring car headed out Sandwich Street past the Chappell House (the scene of the Babe Trumble killing of 1920) and then on toward the old Westwood Hotel before turning onto Seven Mile Road. The car sped up a bit as it was now past the city limits and on the open highway.

The driver was a tall handsome man sporting a gray fedora, a three-piece suit, complete with watch fob. The front passenger was his wife Marie, a diminutive redhead who stood only 4 feet 10 inches tall. She too was dressed for church with her high collar, cameo pendant, and size 1 black shoes. In the back sat three little girls all dressed up in their Sunday best.

Marie turned to the girls who were now jabbering giddily about little girl things and told them to quiet down. “Especially you, Emily.”

“It’s not only me, mum. Olive and Evangeline are teasing me,” Emily responded impishly.

The father glanced into the back seat.

“Everybody quiet down. We’re almost there.” And the big car turned into a lane just past the Chateau LaSalle and pulled up to a group of men waiting at a rickety wooden dock.

The girls were ushered out of the car and off to the side while the men lifted up the back cushion covers and removed ten cases of whisky that had served as the sisters’ seats and put it into a waiting boat. When the transfer was complete, the girls clambered back into the Maxwell while their dad had a short meeting with one of the men. He returned to the car and they headed back toward Windsor with little Emily still jabbering away.

“Isn’t this fun,” she said. “I like our rides. Don’t you?”

The two older sisters didn’t answer her. This is just one of the stories of Art Gignac and his bootlegging days. The little girl, Emily, is now the 87 year-old matriarch of the remaining Gignac family. She delights in telling stories about her popular dad, and her eyes light up when she is asked if she was the favourite daughter.

“Oh no,” she will answer.

“Well maybe, a little bit.”

And then the impishness comes out, just like in the rides out on Seven Mile Road.

Art Gignac wasn’t always a bootlegger. For a while he worked on the Great Lakes boats. He spent a number of years at the old Maxwell Automobile plant and at one time, with his brother-in-law Jack Renaud, he owned the famous (or perhaps infamous) Windsor Hotel at the corner of Pitt Street and Windsor Avenue. This establishment was not permitted to sell liquor during the Prohibition times but somehow it became a very popular watering hole for locals and Americans alike. Periodically, he would be notified of a coming raid and he and Renaud would pour their wares into the sewer. But once the raid was over, more liquor magically appeared.

Every so often, Windsor’s finest would escort him down the street to the station and he would have to post bail or pay a fine. And guess who brought the money down to the judge? It was none other than little Miss Emily who knew where the cash was kept in the house; she would run dutifully down the alley to the station, pay the bail or fine and bring her dad home.

These occurrences actually posed no problem because in his absence, Emily handled the business at the home at 479 Windsor Avenue. Not only was the money hidden, but many areas of the old Victorian house had false floors and secret places under the stair risers, which held the whiskey cache.

“Mother did not like the idea of people drinking in our house, so my dad mostly sold whiskey by the bottle or delivered to blind pigs and smugglers at the river,” Emily said. But there were occasions when customers came to the back door and drank in the kitchen. One such person was a Windsor policeman who was a daily visitor.

Grandpa with Aunt Emily on his lap, my mother, Olive, on the right, and Evangeline, my cousin Patti's mom, is at left.

“Every morning,” said Emily, “this policeman would knock at the back door and dad would let him in and put the bottle on the table for him. The guy was actually on his way to work at the station so we had to ration his drinks ‘cause he would have drank the whole damn thing if we let him.”

Art Gignac also owned a taxi company in Windsor and this proved an invaluable asset in the bootlegging business. He used the cabs for delivery vehicles or to pick up prospective customers. At a party for his grandson who had just returned from Korea, Art, after a few celebratory rye and cokes, was entertaining some admirers with some of his marketing ploys.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said in his slight French Canadian accent. “Those guys from the States are easy ones,” he laughed. “Sometimes I go over to the Tunnel exit and I can always pick out the goodtimers, eh? So I pick up a couple of guys who are looking for some whisky and I tell them I can get it for them.”

And now everyone is quiet. “So we negotiate the cost which is about twenty-five bucks a bottle, American, you know, and I take them over to my house. Now they stay in the car and the wife comes to the door and I wait out on the porch. She comes out with four bottles wrapped in newspapers and I bring it to the Yanks. They pay me a hundred bucks for the booze and tip me twenty-five. They don’t know it’s my own damn house. I drop them off at the Norton Palmer. They’re happy. I’m happy.” He laughed as loud as his listeners.

Emily was always fiercely proud of her dad, and remains so to this day.

“He was really a handsome man, and he was known as the black sheep of the family,” she says. “I guess it’s because he was a bootlegger and had a lot of somewhat shady friends, but in that business, you didn’t deal with angels. Now, his brother was a Papal Knight. You know, a Knight of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great. And he was president of Purity Dairy and founded Silvercup Bread. His name was Sir Harry Gignac. It’s kind of funny to have two brothers in totally different occupations.”

Me and Grandpa in front of his house 479 Windsor Ave – now a beer store.

The bootlegger’s first grandson idolized him. The boy was born in the old house on Windsor Avenue. And every morning for the few years that he lived with Art, the two would go for walks with the grandfather holding the boy’s hand. They sat on park benches, spoke about worldly things and talked to squirrels and blue jays. The grandfather told the boy that they understood us and that it was good to talk to them. He taught his grandson many things like how the streetlights turn on and off. He once told him that someday there would be radios with pictures and the boy believed it because this man knew everything. He was a fine grandfather.

Strangely enough, his grandfather’s bootlegging business created the circumstances that brought the boy into the world. A few years before, Art had hired a local blackjack dealer by the name of Walt Paré to haul whisky for him. The card shark married Art’s daughter and the boy was born in 1933. They all lived in the big house on Windsor Avenue for a few years. Walt liked to tell of the time the old house was torn down.

“Well, when they tore that place down, a couple of guys found a few cases of liquor in the old cellar. I guess Art had forgotten about that hiding place but when these guys started whooping it up, Art was fit to be tied,” laughed Paré. “He started yelling at them to hand it over and they didn’t know who in hell he was so they just kept it. I thought Art was going to have a heart attack right there. And you know, he probably paid about eight bucks a case for the whisky and now it was worth about a hundred and fifty each at least. And he could have used it because he was still selling booze at his new house over on McKay.”

Well, the old house is gone now, and so is Art Gignac – entrepreneur and “gentleman” bootlegger – along with his drivers and his smuggling associates. Things have changed considerably around the corner of Windsor and Wyandotte. But if you can forget for a moment that his back yard is now a Burger King, and all the great old houses are gone, and the old elm trees have long disappeared, and if you can listen very carefully, you might just hear the old player piano in the foyer and laughter in the big kitchen, while happy-time men tell stories, and smoke curls up from their Labatt’s ash trays. And leading them all could be old Art Gignac and his cronies and customers, or even an occasional policeman off duty, or a Detroit-Windsor customs official, or a couple of firemen from down the street. And you will probably see a kid under the table proudly leaning against his grandfather’s knee listening to them all.

Now, where the old house used to be – in what some could consider an almost abject testimony to the old days of romance and excitement – stands the provincial beer store. Art Gignac would have preferred his chosen profession… bootlegger and entrepreneur.

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