Will Johnson and Ronan Redel have published ‘The Ballad of Shuswap Joe’. (Cover art)

Will Johnson and Ronan Redel have published ‘The Ballad of Shuswap Joe’. (Cover art)

Maple Bay author digs into history of folklore bootlegger in new book

Great Distillery Explosion of 1927

By Will Johnson

There are still some people who haven’t heard about the Great Distillery Explosion of 1927, which happened deep in the woods just outside of Scotch Creek, B.C. nearly a century ago.

An event shrouded in violence and mystery, it was the end result of a ruthless campaign by the American FBI to arrest legendary bootlegger and folklore hero Shuswap Joe. That was the night our hero escaped Gatling gun fire by jumping into an empty hooch barrel, using a stick for guidance as he bobbed down the creek to safety. And it’s that scene that’s been immortalized on the cover of newly published tall tale The Ballad of Shuswap Joe by Maple Bay resident Will Johnson. It’s a project that stemmed from his time working as a whitewater rafting guide.

“Since I took over Adams River Rafting over two decades ago, we’ve always told stories about Shuswap Joe with our clients during our daily bus talks. But I’m not a historian and at first I didn’t have any way to verify the information we were sharing. Then I had the great privilege of meeting Shuswap Joe Jr. Jr. years ago, shortly before he died, and it’s through him that we learned about his great grandfather’s amazing exploits at the River Eel Saloon during the Prohibition era,” said Clif Garcia, owner of Adams River Rafting.

“Then in 2018, two of my guides became interested in learning more about Shuswap Joe and I didn’t have the answers they were looking for. I was eventually able to connect them with some of Joe’s remaining relatives, and guide them to some relevant newspaper articles in the Scotch Creek archives, and at that point, it seemed like the story took on a life of its own — kind of like a river does.”

Those two guides were Will Johnson and Ronan Redel, a journalist and a historian who teamed up to resurrect Joe’s story through prose and painting. There were scant surviving photos of Joe, a few weather-beaten newspaper articles about his conflict with the FBI, and a particularly profane drinking song with lyrics laden with historical hints. Johnson and Redel quickly learned that Shuswap Joe’s impact on the local community is still keenly felt nearly a century later. He arrived sometime around 1918, became the proprietor of the River Eel Saloon in 1924 and survived the Great Distillery Explosion of 1927. And it’s this particular era of Shuswap Joe’s life that has been captured in The Ballad of Shuswap Joe. Told in five parts, the narrative follows the folk hero right from birth through to his ascendancy in the Scotch Creek underworld.

“I think the thing that fascinated us most about Shuswap Joe is all the contradictions. He was a benevolent, caring giant but somehow became the sole proprietor of the largest bootlegging operation the community has ever seen. He hated guns, but he was perfectly happy to break someone’s fingers in a bar fight if they looked at him the wrong way. I got the sense right away that we were dealing with a tortured soul, someone who really struggled to find his purpose in life,” said Redel, who illustrated the cover based on an archival photo published by the Scotch Creek Miner in early 1928.

“In a way, through this process I think we all came to fall in love with him a little bit. He was hilariously ill-suited for human society, yet he had the deepest reservoir of love for the people in his life who mattered. Really, I don’t think he ever fully emotionally recovered from what the FBI put him and the Scotch Creek community through all those years ago. But he kept going, which is all you can do in life. That’s the message his life has for me.”

For Johnson, this project was personal.

“At first I was fascinated by Joe’s story simply because it had all the makings of myth. When we first learned that he’d been discovered as a baby on the Adams River like Moses, I almost couldn’t believe it. There’s a spiritual significance to his story, and it’s difficult to tease out at times, but I think he makes a good role model for all of us who value authenticity. He was himself, right to the end,” said Johnson.

“Then we started going through his family history, and discovered the unthinkable — I was actually distantly related to Joe, through his son’s third child. We didn’t have the same last name anymore, but the resemblance was striking. He had broad shoulders and a tri-coloured beard, just like me, and an affinity for plaid. I remember the moment when Ronan and I learned the truth. The look that passed over our faces said it all: this is fate.”

The Ballad of Shuswap Joe will be available for sale this summer for $20 a copy.

For more information, visit adamsriverrafting.com and literarygoon.tumblr.com

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