They Called It A Bar Because You Couldn’t Get A Drink

A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster

If you are an old geezer like me, the 1967 vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in the bars and restaurant of Orillia will be floating somewhere in the empty corridors of your mind along with the memory of your first kiss, your first… well maybe not that, but the plebiscite was quite heated, not unlike that first kiss and the other thing too come to think of it..

As you might expect the churches were involved in the wet/dry campaign since it seemed to be their job in the 60s to save us all from alcoholism, eternal damnation, and having a good time. Even that became controversial since CFOR, our local radio station at the time, cut the sermons of both Rev. R.F. LeDrew (First Baptist Church) and Rev. Alan McCuaig (St. Paul’s United) when they started to openly support the dry campaign. They were warned this could happen, but looking back I’m not sure the radio station had the right to do that.  I’m sure lawyers were involved.

The actual vote was close. The Wets needed a 60 percent majority to win and squeaked by with 61.8 percent. It sort of reminds me of the 2020 recount in the State of Georgia. I’m surprised a Trump Republican isn’t asking for the wet/dry results to be tossed out. If it is, Orillia will be back to bootleggers on every corner.

Within hours a person could legally buy a drink in Orillia. There was always something odd about the sale of booze in the Sunshine Town before that historic vote. A thirsty soul could always get a beer or a drink at the Legion, the Armouries, or the Golf and Curling Clubs as long as he or she was a member. I don’t think any of the drinking spots were legally licensed but they never seemed to get raided. Perhaps the cops being honorary members might have had something to do with it.

Let me drift for a minute. If you remember there were restaurants in Ontario where you could only buy a drink with food. I was in Parry Sound at a little Chinese Café called the Royal and ordered a beer: a cheese sandwich came along with it. I ate the sandwich. That caused a bit of a foofaraw since the sandwich was apparently only for show. No one was supposed to actually eat it. The restaurant then had to go to the expense of making another one. God knows how old the sandwich was that I ate; it’s a wonder I didn’t curl up and die on the spot.

But back to the Wet and Dry situation in Orillia: The Birchmere was one of the first hotels to get its liquor license and my Dad took us there for dinner. An interesting thing about that evening was one of the local service clubs was holding some sort of celebration in the next room and there was a free bar. I couldn’t help but notice that one of the first members lined up for a drink was a leader of the Dry Campaign. I mentioned it to my Dad. He said that what I didn’t understand was that Dries weren’t against drinking alcohol if someone else was paying for it.

There were some strange rules in bars and hotels back then that I never understood why the authorities felt were necessary. The hotels had beverage rooms for men, but another room had to be set aside for ladies with escorts. In Branch 34, ladies weren’t allowed in the Tri-Service Room (the main room) except for a special occasion like a dance or mixed darts. If a lady came in with her husband or boyfriend, she had to sit in the smaller room on the other side of the bar. But except for a few special occasions ladies weren’t allowed in the main room.

One Saturday night there was dance being held in the main room and two long-time members, full veterans as a matter of fact, refused to leave. They set their table right in the middle of the dance floor and began to play darts. I don’t remember the details but there was quite a set-to before they finally left. Later, they were hauled before the executive, which must have been interesting.

The Province eventually changed the Liquor Laws and ‘ladies and escort’ rooms are a thing of the past in Ontario. Whatever incident caused the LLBO to loosen up and change the rules must have been quite peaceful; I don’t remember any bra-burning incidents at the foot of Mississaga Street.

My infallible memory failed me on the big vote. I got a lot of information about it from Dave Town’s excellent article of the history of booze in Orillia. You can find it on the Orillia Museum of Arts and History website.

(Photo by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)

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