There are still people who haven’t heard of the Great Distillery Explosion of 1927, which happened deep in the woods just outside of Scotch Creek, British Columbia, nearly of a century.
An event shrouded in violence and mystery, it was the end result of a ruthless campaign by the US FBI to arrest legendary bootlegger and folk hero Shuswap Joe. It was the night our hero escaped Gatling gunfire by jumping into an empty hooch barrel, using a stick to guide himself as he made his way down the creek to safety. And it was this scene that was immortalized on the cover of the recently published tale The Ballad of Shuswap Joe by Maple Bay resident Will Johnson. It’s a project that stems from his time working as a whitewater rafting guide.
“Since I took over Adams River Rafting over two decades ago, we have always shared stories about Shuswap Joe with our customers during our daily bus chats. But I’m not a historian and at first I had no way to verify the information we shared. Then I had the great privilege of meeting Shuswap Joe Jr. Jr. years ago, shortly before his death, and it was through him that we learned of the incredible exploits of his great-grand- father 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 relevant newspaper articles in the Scotch Creek Archives, and at that point it seemed like the story was taking on a life of its own – much like a river does.
These two guides were Will Johnson and Ronan Redel, a journalist and historian who teamed up to bring Joe’s story to life through prose and painting. There were only a few photos of Joe left, a few weather-beaten newspaper articles about his dispute with the FBI, and a particularly profane drinking song with lyrics laden with historical clues. Johnson and Redel quickly learned that Shuswap Joe’s impact on the local community was still vividly felt nearly a century later. He arrived around 1918, became the owner of the River Eel Saloon in 1924, and survived the great distillery explosion of 1927. And it was this particular time in Shuswap Joe’s life that was captured in The Ballad of Shuswap Joe. Told in five parts, the tale follows the folk hero from birth to his ascent into the underworld of Scotch Creek.
For Johnson, this project was personal.
“At first, I was fascinated by Joe’s story simply because it had all the ingredients of a myth. When we first learned that he was discovered as a baby on the Adams River, like Moses, I almost couldn’t believe it. There’s a spiritual meaning to his story, and it’s sometimes hard to disentangle, but I think he makes a good model for all of us who value authenticity. He was himself, until the end,” Johnson said.
“Then we started going through his family history and discovered the unthinkable – I was actually a distant relative of Joe, through his son’s third child. We no longer had the same last name, but the resemblance was striking. He had broad shoulders and a tricolor beard, just like me, and an affinity for plaid. I remember when Ronan and I learned the truth. The look that passed over our faces said it all: it’s fate.
The Ballad of Shuswap Joe will be available for sale this summer for $20 a copy.
For more information visit adamsriverrafting.com andliterarygoon.tumblr.com