Steven Byrne’s Tale of Prohibition Windsor
Story by Ryan Percy
Sometimes the darkest of life can lead to some of the brightest outcomes.
When Steve Byrne was given his cancer diagnosis and only a few months later his own brother passed away from illness, he was in a dark place. Unable to leave his home due to the pandemic, he needed something to put his mind to and thought back on his family’s experiences with the Walkerville area and living in its history.
“When we were kids, the playground in our neighbourhood was Willistead Manor, three blocks away,” Steve says of hanging around places in Windsor with a deep connection to prohibition and the rum running business. “I was always fascinated by this mansion with all the hidden stairways and compartments. As a kid it would just light up the imagination.”
Part of what got Byrne interested, especially in the prohibition period, was his own Great Grandfather (a character in his story) who worked as the Ontario Liquor Control Inspector keeping tabs on the rum running trade.
While he was a kid wandering around with his friends across the old footbridges and places of local historical significance, he started to grow a love for history. It was one thing to have it pushed into your head via rote memorization, it was another to learn it first hand, experience it with your own eyes. Something he took with him into becoming a teacher.
“When I taught history in high school I vowed never to teach in a rote way,” Steve says of his time teaching at St. Anne’s Catholic High School and at other schools. “I took students on local history trips to Willistead and Hiram Walkers as well as to Europe for World War trips. We did research projects about local veterans who died during the wars.”
That all came to an end in November of 2018 with his own diagnosis which forced him to take time away from the classroom. However, he did not want cancer to be what kept him away from doing what he loved, teaching.
“So, I went back to the classroom in September of 2019. I didn’t want to retire after 30 plus years because I was sick and I wanted to retire from the classroom,” Byrne says. “Then in February of 2020 my brother died and we all got told to stay at home because of COVID.”
It was a seminal moment, with a dark cloud and a plethora of emotions hanging over him. So, with nowhere to go, he looked to what we could do to start to chip away at his bucket list. It began with writing his memoirs which took several months.
“I’m not the type of person to sit down for hours at a time and do something,” Byrne says of being stuck inside and needing some way to find a creative outlet to beat the boredom. “I was forced to sit down and write away, because what else was I supposed to do at home in February? I was stuck inside. I couldn’t go anywhere. So, it was somewhat of a positive for me since it forced me to do something I’d been thinking about doing.”
What that writing eventually led to was Skim: Milk, Money and Murder, a prohibition tale of a man coming back from the Great War to find himself in a world that had changed without him.
Maurice Ducharme, though most called him ‘Moose’ since he is a large, muscular and imposing individual, returns from the Great War to find industry has changed and the job market is not as inviting.
“Business owners found out during the war they could pay women a lot less to do the same job,” Steve says of the situation Moose finds himself coming back to after having shed blood, sweat and tears to keep world peace. “So, when he comes back his job is taken. He has to find something else and make do with what he has.”
Moose ends up delivering milk, using his large frame to carry those glass bottles around town.
But this is Ford City and Walkerville. During prohibition.
While America may have been finding themselves under the thumb of a government that wanted to keep their states dry, Hiram Walkers was busier than ever.
With a wife and two children at home, one being a sweet angel struggling with blindness, Moose finds himself at an impasse.
He’s not paid enough while he’s worked to the bone and all he can see are others getting rich and fat off a certain amber liquid and illicit trade.
“He takes his milk bottles and paints them white and fills them with whisky,” Byrne says of how Moose goes about taking his first steps into the illicit rum runner trade.
In Moose’s actions Skim has a double meaning—it’s both a play on the milkman origins of Moose’s little racket and the act of him using his position to skim money off the top of his legal job through illicit actions.
But the action does not stop there. With one crooked act and then another, Moose is pulled deeper and deeper into the underworld where he and others dragged along with him end up rubbing elbows with some of the most notorious members of the area’s rum running scene.
The novel reads almost like a movie, and Byrne is considering writing a screenplay adaptation of it.
While it’s not set in England and we follow a man who doesn’t revel in his wicked acts, I personally can’t help but keep envisioning something akin to Peaky Blinders reading through Skim.
One scene in particular near the end of the first half of the book had me gripping it with almost white knuckles. Of all the crime thrillers I’ve read through, there are few that have kept me on my seat and so eager to devour the second half of the book because of the twists and turns.
Had this been a two season television series, social media would be on fire with speculations and discussions on how far and real the story will push.
You are not going to predict where the story goes.
Much like the whisky that Moose, his friend Scotty and his son Jack end up selling, the book Skim is pure delicious gold that leaves you wanting more. But unlike alcohol, there is no downside to gluttonously consuming this rum running tale.
If you want to get your hands on one of the smoothest crime thrillers set in our beloved city, you can pick up Skim: Milk, Money and Murder at Biblioasis in Walkerville, River Bookshop in Amherstburg,
Storyteller Bookshop on Ottawa Street as well as at the Wolfhead Distillery gift shop. The book is also available via Amazon.
You can reach the author personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.