Some years ago, genealogical research led me to the knowledge that ships such as the Mayflower in 1620 carried a great amount of beer because it remained more pure and drinkable than water on long …
Some years ago, genealogical research led me to the knowledge that ships such as the Mayflower in 1620 carried a great amount of beer because it remained more pure and drinkable than water on long voyages. Aha, I thought, perhaps that explains the death of the first wife of my eminent ancestor William Bradford, Mayflower passenger and first governor of Plymouth Colony. Descent, however, was not via his first wife but via his second one, Alice Carpenter, who came over from England in 1623.
Had not Bradford’s first wife died a shocking, untimely death, and her replacement subsequently arrived from England to give birth in 1624 to William Bradford Jr., there would have been—four generations later—no Cynthia Bradford to marry my great, great, great, great grandfather Ira Camfield.
Immediately after the Mayflower anchored in Plymouth Harbor, following 64 days at sea, the men set out to explore the surrounding country. During their absence, Bradford's wife, Dorothy May, fell overboard and drowned.
As I read this, the thought crossed my mind that the death of poor Dorothy, could have been due to a fondness for beer, causing her to stagger overboard during some sort of making-landfall party—a celebration that perhaps featured tapping into the remaining beer supply.
However, that turned out to be unlikely as I delved further into the matter. First, “ship’s beer” apparently was not overly strong; couldn’t hold a candle to a decent ale. And second, it was in short supply, which was one of the main reasons the Mayflower anchored short of its intended destination further south. Search for a fresh-water supply seemed in order. "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December" (“Mourt's Relation,” 1622, commonly attributed to colonists William Bradford and Edward Winslow).
My 2005 source, Cecil Adams at straightdope.com, observed: “The Mayflower colonists decided to settle at Plymouth because they were running low on beer. In an age when so many have lost their moral compass, it's comforting to know that people in the old days had their priorities straight.”
In more “modern” times, I’ve wondered just how my grandfather and father weathered Prohibition (1920-33). I know that earlier on his homestead ranch in nowhere Alberta prior to World War I, my grandfather could at least fall back occasionally on his brother-in-law John Custer. John sold beer at his pool hall in the nearby one-horse frontier town of Meeting Creek.
My parents and I lived next to my grandparents in 1933 out on 22nd St., when repeal of Prohibition came as a god-send to hard-working men such as my father and grandfather. I was 4 years old when Repeal was voted in, and I have a recollection of the occasion and the celebratory mood of my father and a couple of his friends. They were out in front of the house next to someone’s early-model car, singing “Happy Days are Here Again!” My father was 26, my grandfather 59; both worked at the local mill.
Then there was the Irish side of my family, the Calhouns. My mother’s father worked for Olympia beer at the brewery in Tumwater. He was in cleaning a vat one day when he was severely scalded by the untimely release of some sort of hot liquid. That ended his work career and shortened his life. In moments of dark humor I used to think how ironic and appropriate it might have been had he been brewed and bottled.
As the oldest son, I carried on family tradition to the best of my ability. I uncovered a bit of local history when I discovered as a teenager that some of the town’s early Italian families had kept on making red wine on down through the years. My wayward high school friends and I made a call on someone’s family friend one night and left with a full gallon of very fine wine then described as “(racial-slur) red.” The late “Casty” Castellano, friend and one-time neighbor, would know what I’m talkin’ about, although he was in no way involved in that particular episode.
We had a benevolent beer-oriented “gang” in high school. A relatively small but dedicated group. Two of us mainstays remain alive these 72 years later. I will be making the PTHS alumni reunion June 8. My fellow survivor Frank Weir won’t be making it from out of town, but he’ll be attending in spirit.