Temperance and Temptation: Museum of Dufferin Brings the Prohibition Era to Life

Posted : August 20, 2020

Our blog is chock full of great ideas for fun things to see and do in York Durham and Headwaters. We are always adding new content and updating old posts, but sometimes you might stumble upon something from our vault. If this article has inspired you to hit the road, be sure to double-check that the featured stops in this post are still welcoming visitors.

If you happened across our Hidden Gems series on our YDH blog, then you are bound to remember reading all about the Museum of Dufferin. Here, the local history of rural Dufferin County is not only preserved, it is showcased in a state-of-the-art facility which encourages visitors to interact with exhibits and programs. Let us bring you back to MoD, and take you on an in-depth journey into one of the museum’s wonderfully immersive exhibits. We hope you’re thirsty, because the Museum of Dufferin will whet your whistle with its take on Prohibition in Temperance and Temptation.

Temperance Temptation
MOD Haunted

The Prohibition Era in Ontario is an extraordinary time period, where an emerging temperance movement actively sought to ban alcohol. Naturally, lovers of fine spirits and brews were tempted to find creative—and illegal—means of producing and imbibing. “Juice joints” served up all kinds of “hooch” to a thirsty public, and were always on the lookout for the “Bull.” Different parts of Ontario have a different history depending on where you are, since not every region went dry all at once. Compared to our southern neighbours, where literature like The Great Gatsby and the exploits of legendary crime bosses such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran colour our perception of the era, the history of Canadian Prohibition is notably different.

“When they think of temperance and Prohibition, a lot of people tend to think about the American version of the story,” says Sarah Robinson, Curator for the Museum of Dufferin. “In Ontario, we had what were called ‘local options.’ So, in different regions, and in our case here in Dufferin County, we had a collection of townships which each voted whether or not they wanted to go dry. It made for a really interesting history.” As an example, Amaranth Township went dry in 1894. But East Garafraxa did not follow suit until the next year, and Grand Valley chose not to go dry until 1914. Clearly, thirsty Amaranthians who could not imbibe in their own region didn’t have to venture far to find a drink.

Today, the Temperance and Temptation exhibit brings the secret stills and stories from Dufferin County’s past into the present, and invites guests to come on a journey through Prohibition Era in the region. The idea for the exhibit was sparked when, during a full-day event at MoD which included a public talk about temperance in Dufferin County, museum staff realized that the topic was quite popular and had generated significant interest. When York Durham Headwaters approached the Museum of Dufferin about turning this interest into a tourism product, complete with pan-regional tours and events, MoD jumped on board. “We thought that was fantastic, because we had so many newspaper articles, local archival pieces and photographs, as well as artifacts that go along with that theme,” Sarah says. “We decided that we could convert one of the historic buildings within the museum into a pub.”

Temperance pub
Museum Artifacts
Museum of Dufferin

Thus, the Hotel Alexandra Tavern was born—a recreation based on a historic photograph from 1804 of an actual location within Dufferin County. As fate would have it, MoD already had within its collection the original bar from that tavern. “We discovered this connection as we were researching for this exhibit,” Sarah explains. “The bar was a part of the hotel building until the 1980s, when the building was demolished. It was most likely put up for auction at that time, and resided in a private home for a while before it was eventually donated to the museum in the 1990s.” Of course, when the item was received, MoD did not recognize its particular significance right away, other than that it was an artifact of local history. But upon examining a photograph of the original Hotel Alexandra, museum staff pieced together the connection and were able to determine that the bar in their collection was, in fact, the bar in the photograph.

Outside of the museum’s Hotel Alexandra Tavern exhibit is Bob Cook’s Shack, which is a recreated alcohol still based on local lore. “Bob Cook was an actual person,” Sarah says, “and he had an illegal still in a place called Mud Lake in East Garafraxa Township. Although the lore and the stories surrounding him may not be entirely true, he was quite a character, and his exploits are illuminated both by oral history and by the local newspaper articles that followed his escapades.” These escapades include being wanted for many crimes, escaping jail multiple times, and being the focus of a significant effort by local liquor licence inspectors to find his illegal still in the 1920s and 30s.

Naturally, secrecy is a large feature of the Prohibition Era, and for historians today this can present a unique challenge—after all, speakeasies and bootleggers weren’t the most meticulous of record keepers given the illicit nature of their operations. “When you’re talking about things like illegal stills, for example, it is not something that people wrote down or boasted about. To find archival records on it is pretty difficult,” Sarah admits. However, MoD does have a special collection of available records and possesses more locally-based resources than the average museum. This made the process of creating the exhibit quite exciting for its staff. “We would find things in the records about Bob Cook and think, ‘This can’t be real, can it?’” Sarah says. “The process involved a bit of detective work, too. You’d get a little bit of information, and then you’d have to dig deeper, reach out to sources, and see if neighbouring counties had any information. We were really piecing together the clues to recreate the larger story.”

Dufferin County Museum

Walking through the doors of the Hotel Alexandra Tavern is truly like stepping back in time. Have a seat at the pub table in front of a glass of whiskey, or read an article from a newspaper of the time on Prohibition as it was happening. “People will get a kick out of the temperance side of it, too,” Sarah adds. “Those citizens who didn’t want alcohol available were actively picketing and walking the streets as part of temperance society. Our visitors enjoy learning about these events and about the timelines of temperance and Prohibition in Ontario. It’s such a fun, quirky exhibit.”

Temperance Temptation drink

The Museum of Dufferin is currently closed due to COVID-19, but is aiming to reopen at the end of September. A firm opening date, hours of operations, and the health and safety regulations required at MoD will be posted as soon as they are known. For more information, be sure to check the website regularly at www.dufferinmuseum.com, or call (519) 941-1114.

Museum of Dufferin 936029 Airport Road 
Mulmur, ON L9V 0L3

Story by Katherine Ryalen

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