Courtesy of Robbi Courtaway
Wetter than the Mississippi
The driest of times settled over Missouri on January 16, 1920, and before long the state was adrift in a sea of bootlegged booze. This month marks the seventy-ninth anniversary of the nationwide repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, which forbade the manufacture, transport, sale, import, and export of intoxicating beverages, or those with more than one-half percent alcohol, in the United States. The 1933 repeal restored a livelihood to the state’s legitimate brewers and provided a much-celebrated ending to an unsuccessful reform heralded by temperance groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
By the time of the repeal, Missouri was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Some Missouri communities had entered the depression a decade earlier when Prohibition shut down their local breweries, wineries, and distilleries. Before Prohibition, Missouri had been the seventh-largest state in the nation in beer production; its premier brewing city, St. Louis, boasted a $140-million beer industry ($1.9 billion today). Many German communities near the Missouri River also suffered: Missouri’s wine production had been twelfth in the nation, and Hermann’s Stone Hill Winery had been the third largest wine producer in the world.
Many grape farmers turned to general farming. During the early years of Prohibition, the bottom fell out of the post-World War I economic boom and cut by nearly two-thirds the prices farmers received for their goods. Some farmers lost their land, and the value of Missouri farm property dropped 40 percent by the late 1920s. “To supplement the family income, a lot of them turned to this moonshining and bootlegging,” notes Jefferson County historian Della Lang.
Breaking the law carried risks, especially out-state. In November 1924, after receiving a deluge of letters, Missouri Gov. Arthur M. Hyde ordered Sherman Tippett to be pardoned and released from the Stoddard County jail. Tippett had been sentenced to one year in jail and fined twelve hundred dollars for a first offense of making and selling whiskey. The fine cost him his farm, said to be one of the best in Stoddard County, and he was no help to his wife and family because he was in jail.
“I know of my own knowledge that this woman is without support for herself and five small children save her labor alone,” wrote Dr. J. M. Hindman of Advance. “This man has been amply punished and is thoroughly whipped.”
The sheer numbers of liquor violators soon exhausted the resources of police and federal Prohibition agents across Missouri. Despite inherent difficulties in enforcing the dry law, police did their best to keep up. At Union Station in downtown St. Louis, for example, they looked for signs of “whiskey grip” when travelers released their bags. “If the owner eases the grip or suitcase on the granitoid as he would if it contained eggs, that is a pretty good indication of bottles within,” a policeman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in February 1920. “Men are not so careful with grips that contain only clothing. … If it rattles, we nail it.”
Though some residents gave up liquor during Prohibition, many continued to drink. Even college professors at Columbia indulged in these illicit fruits of the Volstead Act. “The story is told of a university professor who received regular shipments of wines and liquor from another county under the label of ‘books,’ ” journalist Irene Taylor wrote in the Columbia Missourian in May 1968. “The freight agent of the railroad called him one day and said, ‘Your shipment of books is leaking. What shall I do with it?’ ”
Faced with a market of thirsty customers, the Italian-American residents of St. Louis’s Hill neighborhood took the Prohibition lemon and turned it into lemonade. Bootlegging helped them attain middle-class standing and build new homes and renovate existing ones. By the time of the repeal, powerful political and social organizations typified the community’s progress, says Gary R. Mormino, author of Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882-1982.
“Most of all was the nutty idea, they would claim, that the government was trying to enforce a really stupid law,” Mormino says. “They’re just not going to abide by this.” Some members of the Missouri Legislature in session at Jefferson City and students of the University of Missouri found an oasis at Westphalia, a little German community in Osage County, “which has shown but little evidence that the Eighteenth Amendment ever was on the statute books,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat noted in 1933. A Westphalian judge and banker, Ben Schauwecker, maintained his innocence after serving a year in prison for selling liquor from his home.
“I sold wine and beer and whiskey, yes, but that’s not wrong,” he told a reporter in 1931. “We don’t respect that Prohibition law.” Residents of many locales, including Cooper County, dabbled in home brewing.
“Much of the home product was a poor substitute for the real thing, often cloudy and with a considerable deposit of yeast on the bottom of the bottle,” resident Louis Geiger recalled in a paper, “In The Days of Prohibition, Cooper County (Mo.) 1919-1934.” He wrote: “Some was so ‘wild’ that the entire contents of a bottle would go up in a geyser of foam when uncapped. It was told of one Stony Point farmer who, trying to recapture the good old days when threshing crews were treated to a keg, that he served an entire crew of some twenty men out of a single foaming bottle.”
Glenn Hensley learned about bootleggers while exploring an abandoned lightning rod factory with his buddies. The factory was in Stanberry, where Hensley and his parents lived for a time with his grandfather. “We had explored and found a basement window that could easily be swung open on long-unused hinges,” recalls Glenn, lives at Kirkwood. “So with our play clothes on, we inched that window open far enough we could crawl through it. A dark, moldy basement was empty of anything of interest, so we wandered up the steps … we ‘jackpotted’ up on the third floor.
“There before our eyes appeared what we thought might be a minidistillery. We saw a big iron pot full of gooey mash stuff, a batch of pipes, a burner, a flue, and a jumble of glass, gallon jugs. We didn’t really know what we’d found, but we figured we better get out of there fast. However, before departing, we left one small bit of devilment. We dumped into the vat of mash three dead mice we found on the floor. If it was a booze-making setup, we decided a little extra protein wouldn’t hurt it.”
A larger operation was located in the shadow of the Capitol. In May 1924, Prohibition agents used twenty sticks of dynamite to blow up a still seven miles southeast of Jefferson City. Run by a gasoline engine, pump, boiler, and water tank, the several-thousand-gallon mash operation was said to be the largest ever found in Missouri. penitentiary moonshine Gangsters and other criminals muscled in on the bootlegging action. These included Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who once made money in his home state of Oklahoma selling bootleg whiskey with his brother, Bradley. After he arrived at the Missouri Penitentiary on December 18, 1925, he used his moonshine-making skills to manufacture a potato-water concoction for fellow convicts. He was serving time for a twelve-thousand- dollar St. Louis payroll robbery.
“The potato room was not visible from my office, and while I was sure he was stealing potatoes, I couldn’t catch him at it, ” Harvey Hayes, former manager of the penitentiary cold-storage plant, recalled in an undated story in Somewhere In Time: 170 Years of Missouri Corrections (2004).
“Finally I saw him pick up a bag of potatoes, carry them out, and throw them in a wheelbarrow with a block of ice,” Hayes said, “Floyd saw me coming after him, dropped the wheelbarrow, and started running. He was rounded up in the yard. He acted insolent, and I batted his ears a few times.”
At Columbia, the staff of the University of Missouri botany department was forced by Prohibition to detail in excruciatingly bureaucratic fashion the types of alcohol—and the amounts—it used to preserve specimens or any other liquors that might be laying around the classroom. Outside class, enterprising students found there was money to be made.
“One group had the problem of making the green corn liquor they obtained fit to drink,” journalist Irene Taylor wrote. “They scouted around and found a traveling salesman who agreed to have a keg of the liquor strapped to the back of his roadster. When he returned to Columbia a month later the stuff was aged enough to consume. The traveling man was invited to the party and left a few days later with another keg. Some students worked their way through school by selling bootleg liquor, particularly during the football season.”
At the University of Missouri-Rolla, Prohibition couldn’t stop the beer that flowed during the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which had begun in 1908. Alcoholic drinks would remain illegal until April 1933 when Prohibition’s precursor, the Cullen-Harrison bill, amended the Prohibition Act to declare 3.2 percent beer non-intoxicating. In the interim, there was plenty of bootlegged booze to go around. repeal and revival
The passage of the Cullen-Harrison bill prompted celebrations across the state to welcome the return of 3.2 beer. Thousands of residents gathered at local breweries, held street parties, and in some instances, drank the neighborhood tavern dry. Full repeal of Prohibition followed on December 5, 1933, though Missouri still had its state bone-dry law on the books at the time and wasn’t legally able to celebrate until that law was repealed by the Missouri Legislature in January 1934.
Many Missourians had little respect for the Volstead Act, and bootleg booze had kept the state wetter than the Mississippi throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Residents welcomed the return of legal spirits, produced under sanitary conditions. The beer business bounced back after repeal: St. Louis brewers, for instance, paid approximately $115 million in salaries, taxes, and equipment from 1933 to 1938.
Many family-owned wineries remained closed after the repeal, and the revival of winemaking in Missouri did not begin in earnest until 1965, when farmers
Jim and Betty Held and their family purchased Hermann’s Stone Hill Winery. Lucian and Eva Dressel followed suit in 1966 with the Mount Pleasant Winery at Augusta, which in 1980 became the first region in the country to be designated an American Viticultural Area, or grape-growing region. Since then, the Missouri wine industry has grown to surpass its pre-Prohibition ranking. In 2007, it was the eleventh-largest wine-producing state in the nation, says Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine & Grape Board, with a statewide economic impact of $701 million.