Story and photos by Alice Gerard
Grand Island was a perfect place for rum runners to store their stash of illegal bottles of alcohol during Prohibition, that began in 1920 and ended in 1933, said Mary Cooke of the Grand Island Historical Society.
“Grand Island didn’t have a lot of population, but it did have roads. One of the articles I read talked about how the roads were pretty deserted early in the morning, which allowed the Fix brothers and other rum runners to go to Canada, where they could produce alcohol and bring it to the Island. There were many places along the shoreline where it could be stowed. Then trucks could come and pick it up at these very secret places along these well-built roads that no one was on,” Cooke said.
Charles and Frank Fix were an elusive pair who were born in Tonawanda and spent much of their childhood in Texas – or they were born and raised on Grand Island. Finding information about these two brothers for a program at the Buffalo Launch Club, scheduled for Feb. 4 and 25, was a challenge. Presentations will be offered by speakers from both the Buffalo Launch Club and the Grand Island Historical Society.
“It’s an evening of stories about the Fix brothers, rum running on the river, as well as boat racing and the Buffalo Launch Club,” said Curt Nestark, president of the Grand Island Historical Society. “It’s the same show both nights. We picked two nights because, usually, these things had sold out. We set two dates so people would not be disappointed that they would not be able to see the show. It’s also on the radio, on WEBR. They are running 40 commercials for us. One minute long each. It’s about the show and the Fix brothers. The Heritage Room upstairs at the Launch Club will be open for tours. Usually, it’s just the members and invited guests, but it’s going to be open to the public to tour the Heritage Room, and that’s a beautiful room.”
Smoking was very much part of life in the 1920s. Part of the static display being prepared by the Grand Island Historical Society features the various smoking materials that were common at the time.
Grand Island Town Historian Jodi Robinson also worked on collecting information about the Fix brothers.
“My part is basically research,” she said. “I’ve been looking through files at the Town Historian’s office. I’ve been online, looking at newspaper articles and talking to the Grosvenor Library in downtown Buffalo. They have a history area there, so I was talking to them a little bit. The problem is, because it was illegal, there’s not a lot of information out there about Prohibition, the Fix brothers. There are tidbits here or there. I was looking for an action photo. Well, there aren’t any.
“The other thing is that the Fix brothers were very private. So, there wasn’t a lot of stuff out there, because they didn’t like having their pictures taken or they didn’t want to have anybody talking about them.”
“They (the Fix brothers) were fixtures on the river,” Nestark said. “They owned a score of ferry boats, as well as two World War I subchasers. When Prohibition hit, they seemed to have the market cornered on moving alcohol to the United States in Western New York on the river. Whether it was beer or liquor, it didn’t matter. Prohibition in Western New York was very vague. We don’t know where they were picking up and dropping off. People didn’t talk about it. People didn’t acknowledge that this was happening.”
What is known about the Fix brothers is that they were born in the 1890s in Western New York. By the time they were teenagers, they were orphans and they had to fend for themselves.
According to Nestark, the brothers “started working for a boat company. I can’t remember the name of the company. They were building boats. They saved enough money to buy their own first boat. From then, they started running excursions. Ferry Street, Amherst Street to the Island. In the 1920s, they purchased the Bedell House. They continued to run excursions, as well as to run the hotel and the annex bar until at least the 1930s, when the bridges opened. That kind of killed their ferry business. But they continued to run excursions around the Island and to and from different hotels and amusement parks.”
“The Bedell House was one of the places where you could allegedly get a drink,” Cooke explained. “Whatever you wanted. So, people (agents) would come under cover. Ironically, the Fix brothers owned the ferries, so they were bringing the agents to do the raids. One time, the agents were screaming at the Fix brothers. Stupidly, the Feds shouted at them before they docked the boats, ‘We have warrants for your arrest!’ The Fix brothers turned the boat around and went the other way.”
Charles X. Schwab, who was mayor of Buffalo, had been elected as a member of an anti-Prohibition party called the Wet Party.
“He had to enforce the law,” Cooke said. “What he said to his officers was concentrate on the speakeasies that have gambling and vice. They didn’t say prostitution, but that’s what they meant. If it’s just a speakeasy where they are just drinking alcohol, there are other things that are more important.
“It was an interesting time, and he was a brewer. You had the Wet Party, and you had politicians who were clearly not into enforcement. Buffalo was rated the second-most Prohibition-evasive city in the United States.”
Women’s fashion changed dramatically in the 1920s. In addition to four mannequins, which display women’s clothing styles during Prohibition, there are other things, such as hatpins, that were common for women to possess in the 1920s.
Another exhibit of women’s clothing styles in the 1920s.
Another place where Prohibition was considered to be optional was the White House in Washington, D.C.
“Warren G. Harding was president then. The alcohol flowed freely in the White House. It flowed when they had their card games, and his wife, Florence, was mixing the drinks for their friends and cronies,” Nestark said.
In addition to the presentation, members of the Grand Island Historical Society put together a static exhibit, which will be on display for both nights of the presentation in the Captain’s Quarters. It depicts life in the 1920s, through the things that people might have owned, such as cigarette holders, lighters, shoes, dresses, makeup, bottles and police badges.
“There’s going to be a tea set on display, as well, because, when you went to a speakeasy, you were served your drink … your tea … in a teapot with small teacups. So, we’re going to have a teapot with teacups on display, as well. So, that’s our project, to set up that static display,” Nestark said.
Next time: Boat races and the Buffalo Launch Club in the 1920s.