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The Way it Was: Alcohol still flowed during America's experiment with Prohibition

by John Straka Published: August 15, 2016 11:16 AM

I was born in 1917 and a law prohibiting the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol and alcoholic beverages was enacted in 1920. By 1933, when I was 16, that law was repealed.

Prohibition was a very controversial issue, and voters who wanted the law repealed were faced with the confusing wording on the ballot. The issue was not prohibition itself, but whether or not prohibition law was to be repealed. The most active citizens opposed to the law were the wives of the men who did all the drinking. When these wives read the ballot, many of them voted "no," thinking it meant they wanted "no alcohol," when actually what they were voting for was "no prohibition."

During the 13 years in which prohibition was the law of the land, organized crime flourished. There were gangsters and mobs engaged in related criminal activities, such as gambling and bribery. Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and others were kept busy evading federal authorities. Eliot Ness was their arch enemy. Capone ended up in prison, not for all of his prohibition related crimes, but for income tax evasion.

Speakeasys were created as a means to evade prohibition laws. They were set up as private clubs for "members only." To get into a speakeasy, you needed to know somebody who would verify that you were not a federal agent. Passwords were used. It became popular throughout the country to use the phrase "Joe sent me." This was because in many cases, all you needed to get in was the name of someone high in the operation of the speakeasy.

Alcohol was pouring into the country by the boatload. "Rum runners" using boats that were fast enough to outrun anything the federal agents had would bring alcohol into the US from Canada. Federal raiders would smash and empty barrels of liquor into the curbstone sewers. Rival gangs settled their differences with Tommy guns that brutally executed their competitors.

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The gangsters would bribe a city's entire police force in order to operate their illegal business. "Bagmen" were paid to do nothing more than go around and collect these bribes. Rival gangs squabbled over control of "territories." If an ordinary businessman refused to pay for "protection," his business might be burned to the ground, or he or someone in his family would be injured.

All of the above resulted in the creation of another business. Ordinary law abiding citizens began "making their own." It might have been beer, wine or whiskey, but every neighborhood had several of those "home breweries." I remember seeing piles of "mash" in backyards, to be used as garden fertilizer after having served their purpose in the brewing process. In another neighborhood, there would be piles of crated grapes intended to produce homemade wine.

Making whiskey was more complicated and involved a still. Distilling means boiling off the alcohol produced in the process. Beer and wine need only to be allowed to ferment. Small stills would be placed in attics or basements. Kids whose fathers were cooking hootch were very much afraid that their daddies would be arrested and imprisoned. They worried for nothing, because the local police knew what was going on and looked the other way -- especially in wintertime, when the roof of every house was covered with snow, except the ones with a still in the attic.

In an attempt to improve the quality of homemade liquor, three brothers decided to bury a keg of whiskey under the basement floor and let it age for a whole year. During that year, they were looking forward to the day when they would taste some really good "stuff." When they dug it up there was nothing there but a crushed keg and a wet hole in the ground.

The federal agents were not interested in these small operations. Their products were not sold on a commercial basis. In many cases, families had no other source of income except selling a few bottles of home brew.

I remember a family on our street running a 24-hour-a-day operation. That attracted the attention of the authorities. They raided the place, cut off communication and waited for the second shift workers to report for work. Their arrests ended that particular business.

Drugstores used grain alcohol in the preparation of many of their prescriptions. In some cases, the prescribed remedy did nothing more than make the patient feel better after a swig of alcoholic medication. In other cases, your family doctor could legally prescribe grain alcohol for certain health conditions. Our family doctor happened to be my father's cousin and my dad had a respiratory disease. That's how my dad got a bottle of grain alcohol from the drugstore. He would dip the corner of a slice of seeded rye bread in sugar and set fire to it. The melted sugar would drip into the bottle and make it look and taste like Bohemian kminka (that's Czech for rye whiskey).

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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