Grampa–One of the Last “Old Florida” Rum Runners


Grampa was wealthy and old school.  School of hard knocks, that is.  He
(and my Dad and uncle) were bootleggers in Michigan during prohibition.
Grampa used to design, build and race speedboats on the Detroit River back
in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, presumably as an adjunct to the family liquor transporting
franchise.  After prohibition he got into rum running in Florida.  I found that
out many decades later, from a local chiropractor who told me his first job in high school was putting fake tax stamps on Grampa’s un-taxed liquor.

He used to take me surf fishing with him.  He was a lot of fun to be around.  People were scared of him though.  I never knew why but it was obvious.

When Grampa got too old for such frisky pursuits he diversified into
medical fraud.  His company sold a device invented by his aunt’s husband.
It had absolutely no medical value, but it was shiny and looked like it might.
Grampa and his aunt’s family also sold (by mail) a patented salve which was advertised to possess great healing properties.  Numerous charges of mail fraud were sprinkled throughout that aunt’s family resume.  My older brother told me they used to mix the salve up with a trowel on the table where they cleaned fish at Grampa’s local bait and tackle store.

The store was on the inland waterway, a stone’s throw from an inlet.
Presumably the location was chosen for that proximity–so useful for
bringing in contraband with only a short window of opportunity for law
enforcement to apprehend someone driving a fast boat.

Later on Grampa built a house on an island north of Palm Beach, near a more secluded inlet, on land he bought that fronted on both forks of the St. Lucie River.  This was probably even better for smuggling since he had more options for fast runs from the ocean up the river in a very sparsely populated (back in the day) area.

Grampa used go on business trips to Montreal.  It must have been to buy shipments of liquor and have it sent down to uninhabited cays and islands in the Bahamas.  Because, as far as I know, his bait and tackle store didn’t require anything from Montreal.  Then from the Bahamas Grampa, Dad and my uncle would bring it into Florida in fast boats on moonless nights.

That was until my Dad met and married my Mom, who was a strict Catholic
and had no tolerance for his family.  She expected Dad to work at real jobs.
He was madly in love with her and gave up his wild ways in favor of true
domestic bliss.

When I was young and read about the death of Franklin Roosevelt I
mentioned to Mom that just about everybody in the world was sad when he
died.  She replied–with the bemused, exasperated look that was reserved for
any mention of Grampa–“Not your grandfather. He got drunk to celebrate
and danced in the streets.”  Apparently Grampa detested Roosevelt for
rolling back prohibition and ruining the very profitable family business.

Since I was a little kid when I knew him it never occurred to me to wonder how
Grampa came to have so much money when his small bait and tackle store
couldn’t possibly have generated that level of income.  He did spend a lot of
time at the stock exchange in Palm Beach though and that was ostensibly
the source of his wealth.  Actually, looking back on it, that was probably
where he laundered his illegal profits.

I only learned about Grampa’s past when I was grown up and living in the
Caribbean.  One time I was visiting a friend and her guest happened to be
another Palm Beach County native.  We were talking about growing up
there.  All of a sudden she said “Wait a minute–you’re not related to old
man ____ and his two wild sons are you?”  (I write under a pen name
because my well off and very respectable extended family would not want
to be associated with our family history, or with a lot of the things I think
and say.)  And I said, yeah.  And she said “Your family is legendary in Palm
Beach County.”  Surprised I asked “For what?”.  And she said “smuggling”.
When I mentioned this to my Mom she said laconically, “I knew there had
to be a reason that old goat always carried a gun.”

It all made a lot of sense.  I remember Dad saying once, at the dinner table,
that the only time he’d ever been arrested was in high school–for
bootlegging.  Then he smiled at the memory and mentioned that he’d gotten
off because the judge was one of his customers.  My tiny Mom, without moving
a muscle or changing expression, shot him the freezing look women use
when they’re about to lower the boom.  Dad, who was a big and very manly guy, afraid of nothing, shut up and never mentioned it again.  His family was not an allowable topic for discussion in our home.

So, anyway, this woman who’d made the remark about smuggling asked me;
“Weren’t you always just wild and didn’t quite know why?  Didn’t you do
stuff that was considered way, way too outrageous for a girl?”

As it happens, I was always in trouble back in the day when girls were supposed to be submissive, quiet, and conduct themselves “like a lady”.   I learned to drive when I was 12, after an exasperated governess let me drive her car just to get me to behave.   By age 16 I sought to “tach it out” whenever  possible.  (The first time I got to drive alone, within an hour I was flying along at 95 mph on A1A, after promising Mom I’d be careful.  I was careful–by Grampa’s standards.)

When he was in his seventies, Grampa got arrested in Palm Beach for being
drunk and running red lights at excessive speeds. The officer who stopped
him happened to have a Slavic last name.  Grampa didn’t like that one little bit.  He detested “Polacks” (and lots of other groups too, including Catholics).  So he told the officer that he should “Go back where you came from you goddam foreigner.”  Which is how he came to be arrested in the middle of the night and my Dad had to go and bail him out of jail.  My nonplused Mom just said her rosary and kept quiet.

When it came time for Grampa to go to court on the charges, he was, as
usual, driving about 85 mph on A1A.  He wrapped his car around a tree.
The engine wound up in the back seat, but Grampa survived.  When he was
finally able to return home, although he was still bedridden, my Grandma refused to let him have a private nurse because she thought he’d be fooling around with her.  (And she was probably right.)

He built his own runabout speedboat in his garage not too long before that, and used to take us grandkids on wild, screaming, full open throttle (with twin Mercs)  rides up the treacherously shallow St. Lucie in it.   Totally dangerous.  And soooo fun!  Well, it was anyway, until Mom found out and put a stop to it that is.

My Mom once said to me that if I didn’t learn to control my temper I was
going to wind up “just like your grandfather”.   Yep, fast boats, fast cars, plenty of money, runnin’ red lights, speeding through Palm Beach at 80+ mph and smarting off to an authority figure.  I’m still wondering if that’s a good or bad thing.

Grampa was a real life tough guy, not like on TV.  One of the last “Old Florida” rum runners.  He was wealthy, successful and did exactly as he pleased, when he pleased.  Doesn’t sound so bad to me.

That’s the “Old Florida” I knew.

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