Gambling, Guns, and Games

Gambling, Guns, and Games

Author: Connie Carson

Connie is a well-known local story-teller and professional who has a passion for the history of the City of Belleville, in particular, the downtown streets.

This story is one of five included in our Historic Patio Project, encouraging those passing through the streets of Downtown Belleville to learn more about its history.

The original small nondescript 150-year-old building at 182 Front Street in downtown Belleville started off as a fur trader outpost and general store. 

In 1955 it was torn down and rebuilt. Still, the original foundation’s colourful history hides many long-forgotten secrets and stories from days gone by.

For over 50 years, Eddy Thomas and his son Don made money running a popular smoke shop selling everything from fresh buttermilk to live bait. However, the really big money was collected in the smoke-filled back room where the high-stakes poker games were held. 

The 1920s saw rowdy poker games and heated gambling discussions that sometimes led to fisticuffs at the infamous smoke shop. For some long-lost reason, that could be why the upstairs room was known as the ‘Bucket of Blood.’ 

Back then, the cost to play poker was 50¢ from each player in return for using the dark, smoke-filled room. A more casual afternoon game had a 2¢ ante, and evening games upped the ante to 25¢. No drinking was allowed, but since gambling was illegal back then, local police sometimes turned a blind eye to the goings-on. 

There was a huge twelve-seat table for the regular players and a smaller one for the big money players. Steely-eyed gents arrived by train and flashy motor cars from Toronto and Montreal on Friday afternoon went out for a nice dinner and played from 8 pm that night until Sunday afternoon.

It was a rowdy, no holds barred type of crowd, and Ed kept an old pistol under the counter on top of the safe to deter any would-be robbers. Locals said the gun was so rusty it would have been more dangerous to discharge it than worry about any robbery.

The Irish and Jamaican sweepstake tickets they sold were illegal to BUY at the time and considered a form of gambling, but you could legally WIN the $250,000 sweepstake prize. 

Every payday, the local railway workers lined up all the way to the 4 corners to get their cheques cashed. Don and Ed were happy to cash the cheques because the brothers handed over the paper money and kept the change. 

They were a really excellent father and son duo, and neither of them ever smoked or drank. They were avid supporters of our community and even bought the old arena when it fell on hard times.  The 1950s was a great time to be a budding entrepreneur in downtown Belleville. This writer took full advantage of every opportunity presented.

 At nine years of age, the first rung on my career ladder was a paper route in downtown Belleville for The Intelligencer. I would finish deliveries every afternoon around 5 pm and drop my last paper of the day next door to Ed Thomas Cigar Store. 

Ed and Don Thomas greeted me every afternoon with a big hello and a delicious ice cream cone followed by a chewy licorice cigar. I literally had a cigar hanging out of my mouth my whole paper route career. 

The smells that still bring back memories for me are a heady mixture of newsprint, pipe tobacco, candy,  and sawdust, combined with a pungent fishy smell from a minnow tank perched at the end of the long wooden bar.

Don and Eddy handed me a brand new rolled-up magazine wrapped in string and a 25 cent tip every Friday afternoon. 

Sitting on my leftover newspapers at the end of the bar and listening to the never-ending stories from the locals who dropped by, was my favourite time of day! However, when a joke was a bit off-colour, I would inevitably hear the phrase “little pitchers have big ears” from Don or Ed.  The conversation level would immediately drop significantly. 

I soaked up every story, tall tale and epic adventure like a sponge, and never did get to see the mysterious room at the top of the stairs. My life was personally influenced by their cheerful good humour and kindness, and I treasure every moment spent with these special guys who showed such kindness to a curious little pig tailed girl.

The Export Grill at 182 Front Street stands where Belleville’s biggest smoke shop and mini-casinos stood for decades.

If you would like to read more of Connie’s work about Belleville’s history, check out The Tin Box Memories series.