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COVER STORY: George C. Reifel: Beer baron, rumrunner, and conservationist
Beer baron, rumrunner, entertainment magnate, shrewd businessman, philanthropist and conservationist.
George C. Reifel was many things in his 65 years, and everything he did, he did on on a grandiose scale.
For many Deltans, Reifel’s name is synonymous with the conservation of wildlife as the namesake of the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island. Reifel was an avid outdoorsman and in the 1920s, he set to work reclaiming much of the northern tip of the island to be used as his own private hunting and wildlife reserve.
While the Sanctuary, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year, may be Reifel’s most enduring legacy locally, he and his family helped to shape not only Delta, but the entire Lower Mainland.
Born in 1893 in Nanaimo, Reifel was the eldest son of Henry Reifel, a German brewer who emigrated to the US at the age of 17. Henry Reifel’s brewing career began in Portland, Oregon, and in 1888 had moved north to B.C. to brew beer for the fledgling province.
George C. Reifel was sent to Milwaukee at the age of 16 to study at Hantke’s Brewers School and Labrotories, graduating in 1909, and entered the family business upon his return. He and his father opened their own brewery in Vancouver in 1910.
While prohibition put many brewers out of business, the Reifels profited greatly.
According to William H. Hagelund’s House of Suds: The History of Beer Brewing in Western Canada, the prohibition of alcohol in B.C. in 1917 prompted Reifel and his father to purchase B.C. Breweries for a reduced price. In the search for other markets for their products, they soon travelled to Japan to found the Anglo-Japanese Brewing Company, where Reifel developed a method for producing malt, a necessary component of beer, out of rice.
While Reifel was overseas, American thirst for Canadian contraband liquor began to grow. Alcohol sale and consumption was only temporarily banned in Canada, but its manufacture remained legal.
So after two years overseas, the Reifels sold their stake in their Japanese brewery and acquired a distillery in New Westminster, allowing the them to become major players in the entirely legal business of rumrunning.
The Reifels soon set up a supply network that fed most of the Western US thanks to their fleet of cargo ships, including the legendary rumrunning mother ship Malahat, a five-masted former First World War naval ship measuring 75 metres long, and capable of carrying 60,000 cases of liquor.
Reifel’s ships would sail down the US coast as far as Southern California, making sure to stay outside of US territorial waters. Smugglers in speed boats would rendezvous with the ships to pick up their liquor and head back in to the US.
While rumrunning was technically legal, and paid very well, it was still looked down upon by much of polite society.
Reifel’s grandson, also named George C. Reifel, says his grandfather kept a very low profile as a result.
“Even though it was legal, it was frowned upon and not seen as legitimate,” he said. “So he was a very private person.”
According to Fraser Miles’ memoir of the West Coast rumrunning days, Slow Boat on Rum Row, “rumrunners, as a group, made the Sphinx sound like a chatterbox.”
The low profile was good for business, as well. With such lucrative trade being done, competition was not encouraged, and many established liquor producers worked together to get their product to the American market, while shutting out upstarts, according Hagelund.
The remnants of Reifel’s rumrunning fleet still exist today. One of Reifel’s ships, Fleetwood, is currently being restored at the Britannia Heritage Shipyard in Richmond, while the Malahat lies in 20 metres of water off of Powell River, and is a popular scuba diving site.
During the 1920s, Reifel amassed a great fortune thanks to the legal liquor trade, and it was during this time he began to acquire a significant amount of property in and around Vancouver. Reifel saw Vancouver’s potential for growth and realized how well-positioned it was for trade, says his grandson.
Having ample capital to develop his properties, Reifel would build some of Vancouver’s most enduring landmarks.
Reifel’s first major landmark was the family home he built on Marine Drive, called Casa Mia. The 20,000-square-foot Spanish-inspired mansion was the largest residence in Vancouver at the time, and is still standing today. The home was recently sold for close to $10 million and is slated to become part of a proposed seniors’ care home. Shortly after Casa Mia was built, Reifel's brother Harry built a mansion called Rio Vista just down the street.
Reifel was also responsible for building the Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street, completed in 1929. The live music venue featured an innovative sprung dance floor and has played host to some of the most important music artists of the past century.
The Vogue Theatre was also one of Reifel’s creations, and the completion of the Sunset Beach Park between Stanley Park and the Burrard Street Bridge was made possible after he handed over his waterfront property along Beach Avenue to create the Sunset Beach portion of the shoreline park. Reifel’s father Henry donated the land to the City of Vancouver for the original Vancouver Art Gallery, which was situated at 1145 West Georgia Street from 1931 to 1983.
Reifel focused on the domestic beer and liquor market in the 1930s and 40s after prohibition ended in the US, and restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in Canada were eased somewhat.
When his father died in 1945, Reifel sold his distilling and brewing holdings to Seagrams, Carlings and others.
But Reifel’s first love was always the outdoors, and he would spend much of his later years in the paradise he created for himself on Westham Island in Delta.
In 1929, Reifel embarked on his ambitious plan to reclaim much of the north end of Westham Island in order to create his own private hunting retreat.
Six earthen dams were built, creating three small lakes to attract waterfowl to the 200-hectare property.
With the Massey Tunnel still many years away, access to the island retreat was by ferry to Ladner from Woodward’s Landing in Richmond.
“Everything that came in, came by barge,” says Reifel’s grandson.
While Reifel spent nearly every fall and winter weekend at his hunting retreat, it was never enough. When Reifel was not at Westham Island, he would be big game hunting elsewhere in BC, salmon fishing aboard his 112' yacht, 'Casa Mia', or trout fishing from his island at Harrison Lake.
Reifel was once offered the opportunity to buy Annacis Island, to which he allegedly quipped, “Why do I need another island, when I already have one I can’t get to?”
According to an oral history by Reifel’s son, George H. Reifel, recorded in 1981, his father took it upon himself to band many of the ducks that passed through his hunting estate. Over a 3 year period, Reifel banded over 20,000 ducks. If a hunter shot one of the banded ducks, they would send the small aluminum band back to Reifel so he could track where the birds had migrated. “Some of the birds made it as far away as Venezuela,” said his son.
Feeding the birds was never an issue. Should the the distillery in New Westminster receive a shipment of grain that had spoiled in transit from the Prairies, Reifel would use it to feed the geese and ducks at Westham Island.
Reifel’s son received a degree in agriculture from UBC, and farmed the Westham Island property for decades. During the Second World War, Reifel’s innovative farming techniques made him one of the leading sugar beet producers in Canada at the time.
Reifel passed away in 1958, but left a legacy his children and grandchildren have worked hard to preserve. Reifel left the Westham Island property to his son, and in 1963, George H. Reifel leased a portion of the property to create a wildlife sanctuary in his father’s honour.
By 1972, the entire farm was transferred to the federal Crown to create the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, as well as the adjacent Alaksen National Wildlife Area.
In 1987, the Sanctuary was designated a Wetland of International Significance under the Ramsar Convention, as the largest migratory bird wintering area in Canada, and the largest estuarine habitat on the Pacific coast of Canada.
“The biggest thing he instilled in us was a strong sense of conservation,” says the younger George C. Reifel of his grandfather. “He was an avid sportsman and loved to be in nature… and he believed very strongly that you should leave more than you take.”
The younger Reifel and his siblings grew up on Westham Island, and has carried on those values as a Director of the B.C. Waterfowl Society, which manages the Sanctuary. He also served as a national director of Ducks Unlimited Canada for more than 30 years, serving as its president in the 1990s.
Today, the more than 300 hectares of protected wetlands that bear George C. Reifel’s name serve as a fitting tribute to a man who cared deeply about preserving wildlife, and leaving more than he took.
“None of us had any idea how the Sanctuary would evolve over its first 50 years,” says his grandson. “We think our forebears would share our pride in what the Sanctuary has become.”