19 minute read

"Practically Free from the Taint of the Bootlegger": A Closer Look at Prohibition in Southeastern Utah

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 57, 1989, No. 2

"Practically Free from the Taint of the Bootlegger'': A Closer Look at Prohibition in Southeastern Utah


UTAH, LIKE MANY WESTERN STATES, enjoys a colorful and exciting heritage from the Prohibition Era. While much of the illegal activity of making, selling, and consuming alcohol centered around the urban areas of the Wasatch Front, rural Utah had its own style of cops and robbers and moonshine traffic. This fact has often been ignored because of the problems of documenting covert operations, and, at the same time, those activities that were exposed often cut close to family ties and small town pride and so were swept under the carpet and forgotten. Southeastern Utah was no exception.

Nesded in the canyons, on the mesas, and near the mountains, rural towns like Moab, Monticello, LaSal, and Blanding dot the northern part of the Colorado Plateau. The connecting links that joined these mining and agricultural communities to each other and the outside world of the 1920s were hundreds of miles of dirt roads that fed into Green River and Price to the north, Cortez and Durango, Colorado, to the east, and the Navajo Reservation to the south. This isolation, coupled with a strong Mormon influence in many of these towns, leads one to assume that the issues of prohibition were slight, if not nonexistent, in this area. Indeed, Mathonihah Thomas, the federal prohibition director of Utah, stated in Moab's Times-Independent that "Although the liquor traffic in some of the larger centers of population is considerable, the rural districts are practically free from the taint of the bootlegger." Ironically, this statement, though said in earnest, appeared on April 1, 1920 —April Fools' Day.

The manufacture of alcohol knew no cultural, religious, or social bounds. Interviews indicate that Mormons and gentiles, miners and cowboys, farmers and businessmen, Mexicans and Navajos all trafficked in liquor in the Four Corners area. Many of these people came from cultural backgrounds that accepted alcohol as a part of social life and as a means of expressing friendship and camaraderie. Though official Latter-day Saint doctrine counseled abstinence, a fringe element found alcoholic restraint limited to Sunday meetings. The net result was a wide variety of people engaged in the manufacture, export, and consumption of illegal brew.

Prohibition raised a number of public issues, and after the Eighteenth Amendment was adopted its many flaws soon became apparent. Many critics felt that its major drawback was that it dealt with only one side of the liquor issue. Americans were free to buy and use alcohol and keep it in their homes without breaking the law. Since the amendment did not forbid the purchase of liquor, the buyer, who ran no risk at all, was not threatened by the fact that the seller could go to jail.

Law enforcement officials faced another basic conflict. The U.S. Constitution guaranteed citizens certain rights, such as the security of individuals, their homes, and property against unjustified search and seizure; speedy and impartial public trial; immunity from testifying against themselves in a court of law; and other fundamental liberties many people felt were violated by the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. Dry leaders realized that their only hope of keeping Americans from openly resisting prohibition was an enforcement law strong enough to accomplish the purpose without arousing the indignation of the public. This proved to be a fine line not easily drawn.

When Congress adopted the Volstead Act, a document outlining enforcement laws and procedures, it only increased the confusion of law officers with its seventy-three sections of complicated legal technicalities. Still, hope remained that the promise held up by drys would be fulfilled, and a gloriously happy, prosperous, and crime-free land would be the reward.

This Utopian dream was unrealistic and difficult to achieve in isolated rural areas where the topography actually encouraged development of the illegal industry. In the rugged terrain of southeastern Utah, ranches and river washes were favorite locations for operating stills and concealing equipment and supplies. The many canyons and ridges around the Monticello area made Cedar Point, Dodge Point, Lockerby, Upper Montezuma, and Boulder ideal places to moonshine in private. One bootlegger plied his trade in a dugout on Dodge Point where he hid his merchandise behind a mud-plastered door that opened into a secret room.^ Other locations were selected for their accessibility to water. At Whiskey Spring just west of the Colorado border on Cedar Point, for example, one "could smell the whiskey and about half-way taste it in the water."

H. E. Herbert, deputy sheriff of Westwater, near Moab, seized two stills found south of the Colorado River approximately ten miles from Cisco. They were housed in a dugout on the side of a wash where all of the paraphernalia for making the moonshine on a large scale was present, including water which was piped into the shack. The owners of this establishment were never apprehended, though Herbert kept the stills under surveillance for several weeks.

Water sources also affected the location of stills in southern San Juan County. Moonshiners in Montezuma Creek and Bluff made good use of the San Juan River. One man, convinced by an acquaintance that he had access to ideal equipment and location, constructed a still on the river just below Mexican Hat Rock" in plain sight of everybody" and successfully boodegged to the oil drillers. His luck ran out one night when a flood came down the river and put him out of business.

The product of these stills often reflected regional qualities. Bathtub gin, busthead, hooch, mountain dew, white lightning, white mule, bug juice —moonshine had as many names as it did recipes, and each endorsed its favorite ingredients. Blanding closet drinkers made malt beer and wine out of homegrown grapes. Peaches were a favorite in the Bluff area. On the Navajo Reservation any kind of available fruit was used, especially raisins. Monticello residents liked the chokecherries that grew on Blue Mountain, while the homesteaders in Easdand brewed their dry-farm crops of wheat and corn. So in each area there were those who looked forward to a seasonal harvest and a year of drinking and sales.

An unexpected boon to local grocers was the demand for sugar. Sugar whiskey was a favorite recipe because of the speed with which it could be produced. All that was required was a 100-pound bag of sugar, one sack of cornmeal, and yeast, which were mixed together. The concoction was then "boiled in a couple of fifty gallon drums 'til it quits bubbling and it's ready to run."

Other local businesses affected by prohibition laws were restaurants. A newspaper blurb encapsulated the legal confusion of the time by stating, "Uncle Sam says restaurants and hotels may use alcohol in baking and roasting, but a private individual can't get any for a 'stew'."

The quest to secure liquor in any form forced lawmakers to spell out in detail what constituted illegal alcohol. A "liquor" included practically any liquid or compound containing one-half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume. This definition was important for those who made apple cider. The law warned them that sugar or other substances that speeded fermentation should, under no circumstances, be added to the apple cider to increase alcoholic content.

The same concept extended to the use of extracts that were sold as intoxicants. An announcement distributed by Mathonihah Thomas urged all sheriffs, county attorneys, and county commissioners to see that the law was strictly enforced and that warnings be served at once upon all merchants to desist from selling extracts, substitutes, and imitations for beverage purposes.

Thus, amid confusion and forced restraint, the appeal of moonshine liquor to the general public spread. In southern Utah the trafficking increased to outlying areas from town to town, from northern areas to the Navajo Reservation and across the state line into Colorado and back again. Though Blanding was a crossroads between northern towns and the reservation, it was not generally associated with the transport of whiskey. Most of its production was in the home and made for private use. Those who aimed to profit from the venture lived closer to the Colorado border. The main targets for sales, in addition to the reservation, were the mining camps of Telluride and Durango, with some brew making its way as far as Gallup, New Mexico.

Border patrols kept busy investigating interstate smuggling, with many a profiteer coming to grief as a result. In one case, three men and a woman, all Italians, were suspected of running liquor into Grand Junction, Colorado, from Utah, but they were always able to foil the law officers. A report in the Grand Junction Sentinel explained:

For months past trips were made to Grand Junction and other western Colorado points by a party of Hquor runners. . . . Some weeks ago they were planning to deliver a considerable consignment of liquor to local purchasers. Local officers had been advised of their coming, but plans laid for their arrest after they had actually delivered liquor here, miscarried, and not only did the members of the party make their escape but they got away with the liquor as well.

Another publicized incident involved liquor running from Colorado into Utah. A boodegger had been making regular trips into Grand County during sheep shearing season. The renegade evaded several carefully laid plans of the sheriff to capture him before he was finally caught with the goods and arrested by a federal agent in Grand Junction.

The batde of wits between federal prohibition officers and bootleg traffickers led to the development of some ingenious methods of concealing and transporting the moonshine. Boxes of liquor were secluded in hollowed out bales of hay or hidden on the side of a wash and sometimes buried in streambeds. Adults often used children to evade the law. At night liquor was stacked under quilts that were put inside cars for the bootlegger's children to sleep on. Frequently older children were either knowingly enlisted or unwittingly duped into becoming accomplices. Because of their age they were not usually suspected by the law, but an adult caught involving a minor was guilty of an even greater crime. Angeline Westcott recalled that as a young girl she was asked by a farmer to make several deliveries, but her older brother found out and warned her it was illegal. One fifteen-year-old boy who was helping to haul whiskey to Moab had his arm out the car window when another car hit him and broke it. He let the arm heal crookedly because he was afraid that if he went to a doctor he would be turned in to the authorities.

Originality in concealing the alcohol led the owner to profits and safety. One man who sold whiskey to the Navajos devised a hollow saddle. Made out of copper covered with leather, it had big swells on the seat and a litde spigot attached. He rode his horse around the reservation selling liquor by the cup. Building fake walls and underground tunnels was a common way of avoiding detection. East of Monticello "Old Man Long" mastered these techniques well enough that he never got caught even though he was a notorious bootlegger. He built his house, which was part log cabin, out of cases of beer cans that he stacked and covered on the outside and pasted over on the inside. This made a good thick wall and kept his house well insulated. Alfred Frost of Monticello reminisced about Long: "After he died a few years ago, I was out showing some people the place. We got to looking around. There were underground tunnels all under his place. They went clear out to the trails in the back and his chicken coop. There were long cross tunnels under the ground all over."

Getting large quantities of liquor to the reservation was a problem that required a unique solution. One bootlegger who traveled there to peddle his beverage received his pay but did not deliver until Montezuma Creek was running high. Then he threw a keg in the water, letting it travel downstream to the Indian customer who fished it out.

Any criminal activity creates a potential for violence, and bootlegging in southern Utah had its own versions. Seraphine Frost of Monticello remembered how two factions were fighting over their customers. One night when they were going home, one group ambushed the others and killed them. Another resident recalled how federal agents enlisted the aid of the local, temporary sheriff to help them raid a still at Coalbed on the Colorado/Utah state line. During the raid shots were fired, but fortunately no one was killed.

The inevitable chase scene also occurred. One of the locals in Monticello was peddling his whiskey in town when federal officers arrived. The boodegger speedily loaded his wares into his car and left. As he passed a small settlement called Boulder he took a shortcut that went from the main road to the schoolhouse. By a stroke of luck, he became high centered on the muddy, rutted roads, which saved him, because the officers went around on the regular road and lost him.

Though illegal, moonshining and boodegging found considerable tolerance in rural communities. A partial explanation lies in the unpopularity of the prohibition law. The controversial nature of the Eighteenth Amendment was mirrored in the ambiguous actions of the public. For example, a Monticello man turned in for selling gallons of whiskey was at the same time warned that the law had been notified and so was able to make a successful escape.

While tolerant of boodeg activity to an extent, many were troubled by thoughts of association with it. Some residents were afraid of being mistakenly turned in, especially those who accidentally found other people's stills on or near their property. Jack W. Corbin and Joseph L. Dubois of Moab were arrested and charged with manufacturing liquor when a still on their land was seized, although the sheriff found no alcohol in or near the apparatus. The defendants vigorously denied knowledge of the still and declared their innocence, showing that they had sold their ranch the day before the police raid. Other property owners south of Monticello became so concerned and angry about bootleggers using and crossing over their lands that they resorted to smearing pig manure on the gate handles and fence posts to deter these trespassers.

Opposition also came from women who fought ardendy against the influence of alcohol. For instance, Ozro and Myrde Hunt, who lived in Bluff during prohibition, exemplify what could happen when a wife opposed her husband's activities. It seems that for a few days Ozro had been happier than normal and so Myrde decided to investigate his frequent trips to the basement. There she found a freshly brewed batch of ripe mash, ready for straining. After delivering a sufficient tongue-lashing, she proceeded out to the back field and deposited the slop for the pigs, who were overjoyed. In a short time their glee was apparent to every child in town who watched with delight as the swine squealed and staggered about the field all that day and for the rest of the week until the residue was finished. Wives of men who slipped into bootlegging were known to stay mum about their own relatives but did not hesitate to turn in others. These women fought particularly hard to keep their children from being sucked into the underground activity. Bolstering the women's resolve were the local churches where many a sermon concerned the evils of imbibing. To the Mormons, bootlegging was considered a double offense, it being not only illegal but also immoral.

Women and religion were not successful deterrents, however, and law officers enlisted the aid of employers. Deputy Sheriff R. T. Edwards raided three moonshine outfits at the coal camp in Sego, whereupon the Grand County sheriffs and attorney's offices solicited the cooperation of the American Fuel Company. The business firm stated it planned to "send down the canyon any man who persists in dealing in the stuff, whether he sells it, buys it, or drinks it."

In another case, J. P. Miller, manager of the Utah Eastern Company and owner of pool hall property in Thompson, declared a lease on the hall forfeited after the proprietors were arrested for concealing and selling liquor. In later negotiations for the lease of the property, the owner requested a cash bond to guarantee there would be no future violations. The county commissioners also demanded proof that there would be no infractions of the law before granting a new license to the pool hall.

Another ploy used against property owners by law enforcement agents was to invoke the abatement proceedings commonly associated with "red light" cases. When law officers discovered evidence of bootlegging, they served notice to the property owners that if they continued to rent to lawbreakers, proceedings would be instigated to close their property for one year.

A different set of problems occurred on the reservation. Because the Navajos did not always have access to the necessary copper tubing, they sometimes used galvanized tin as part of their distiUing equipment. This resuked in the production of tainted liquor that caused sickness and occasionally death for those who drank it. According to one informant, improper cooking had similar effects:

My uncle worked in various places. He saw how the Anglos made moonshine, so he copied it when he got home. He got a wooden barrel and put corn, water, and sugar together. It spoiled with a lid on. He probably was unprepared, because he did not know of any copper tubing at that time. Then he taught his friends like a teacher would. A litde later people died of it. My uncle learned how to make the moonshine and he died by it. The ones who learned from him did not boil the moonshine, therefore the moonshine took its toll.

Liquor on the reservation concerned both local and federal officials, who sometimes enlisted Navajo offenders as underground agents. A letter from the Northern Navajo Agency in Shiprock, New Mexico, to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1928 enumerated some of the liquor traffic activities on the reservation. For example, the Indian police arrested Walter Jones for being drunk. When brought before the Indian court he pleaded guilty and said that he secured the liquor from "the blue-eyed Wheeler boy that lives near the Hogback." Since no liquor had been seized as evidence, the case was not sent to the U.S. court in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead, Jones served sixty days in the agency jail, after which he was furnished with funds and requested to visit once again the "blue-eyed Wheeler boy" and to bring the purchased liquor back to the superintendent. Jones was unable to secure the liquor, however, and the case was closed.

In another instance, Indian police arrested two Navajos near Sheep Springs and charged them with being drunk while driving a Ford in which were found two bottles of moonshine. Sophus Jensen, the agency stockman, took the liquor, opened the botdes, smelled the contents, resealed the containers, and placed them in his government car. When he turned his back on the prisoners to finish inspecting some sheep, the two men broke the botdes, spilling the contents on the ground. Jensen took the prisoners to the Shiprock Agency where they pled guilty to possession, explaining that they had purchased the liquor in Gallup from a "Jap" who operated a garage. Later, when a grand jury heard the case, Jensen testified that the bottles had contained intoxicating liquor. A juryman, however, countered that the bottles might have contained cold tea, which convinced the jury that this guess was more accurate than Jensen's sworn statement. The court dropped the case with a suggestion that better results could be obtained by handling such actions in local Indian courts.

The superintendent closed his report by noting that a few years before, abstinence from alcohol was "practically 100% perfect" but that with the advent of the automobile, 200 to 300 of which were now owned by Navajos, life on the reservation had changed. "Five years ago an Indian seldom went more than fifteen or twenty miles from home," he wrote. "Today, those who own cars find it convenient to make rather extended trips and to take their friends with them." This made alcohol more readily available and increased the clientele waiting at the bootlegger's door.

Enforcing prohibition both on and off the reservation was at best a difficult proposition. If the law caught a moonshiner with his goods, there was not much the offender could do but to go peaceably; but if the equipment was found and not the culprit, the stills and merchandise were merely destroyed. Donald Adams, San Juan County attorney during prohibition recalled, "I was going day and night in those bootleg days. I went out with the sheriff looking for stills. When we found them we would dump the stuff out and burn them up." Officials often made a public exhibition of destroying the seized stills and paraphernalia. Carrying out an order issued by Judge Dilworth Woolley of the District Court, Sheriff Herbert Murphy and County Attorney J. N. Corbin staged a moonshine party in the rear of the Grand County Courthouse in Moab. Armed with shovel, axe, and other implements of destruction, they consigned a quantity of white mule to the thirsty ground and then ceremoniously junked a copper still while a crowd of curious citizens watched.

The making or trafficking of alcohol was a federal crime, but a first offense came under local jurisdiction while second or subsequent prosecutions were handled by higher courts. Given a choice, local defendants usually preferred to be tried in state courts rather than prosecuted in the federal court in Salt Lake City, since penalties were less severe. Cases of a more flagrant nature, however, were automatically sent to the federal court. Federal judges complained that most of their time was taken up with bootleg cases and that federal courts were nothing more than police courts with shyster lawyers practicing in them. They believed that many lawyers who at one time "struggled along with hardly enough practice to make a living, and not enough brains to help it" were obtaining excellent fees from defending bootleggers.

In less populated regions justice was handled more quickly. Early one morning at Westwater near Moab, Sheriff W. J. Bliss and Deputy Sheriff H. E. Herbert raided the section house occupied by Santos Muos, a Mexican, where they found a still in operation. Muos was taken to Sego and given a hearing before Justice Miller. The Mexican pleaded guilty and was convicted and fined $150.00 which he paid. The strength of the juice coming from his still was demonstrated by County Attorney J. N. Corbin who set fire to some of it in the courtroom. This case showed speedy work on the part of law officers who found the still in operation at 7:30 a.m., arrested Muos, and took him forty-eight miles to the nearest court where he was found guilty at 5:30 p.m. the same day.

Other cases were not as easy. The Moab sheriff charged Dominick Perry with selling liquor to a Mexican railroad worker. Perry, an Italian and section foreman at Thompson, argued that the charge was part of a plan by the Mexicans to get his job. The state produced a number of Mexican witnesses who related the circumstances of the alleged sale, after which the defendant's attorney introduced evidence that supported the conspiracy theory. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Carl Odenwalder and D. C. Miller of the Salt Lake City office of the Internal Revenue Service made probably the biggest bust involving the bootlegging brotherhood of southeastern Utah following an extensive undercover operation prior to the raids. They stormed two establishments reported to have been the most notorious locations in the area for dispensing booze. The "blind pig" operations focused on the Bartolo Jaramillo place near Monticello and the pool hall at Thompson.

The Monticello raid netted a large still, two barrels of mash in the process of fermentation, and a big supply of bottled alcohol, all of which was confiscated. The police arrested Jaramillo and his accomplice, Tanstino Enriquez, and bound them over to the county court for an offense punishable by a fine of not more than $299.00 and not more than six months in jail or both.

At the Thompson pool hall the officers made a thorough search and were about to give up when one of them noticed that a partition between the pool room and an adjoining room looked suspicious. He investigated and without difficulty removed a wall board concealing twenty-six pint bottles of white mule in a space about three or four inches wide inside the partition. Proprietor James Papacostas pleaded guilty to a charge of having liquor in his possession and was fined $150.00. His partner, Mike Laefas, pleaded not guilty and had to appear before district court since he had been previously convicted of liquor violations in Carbon County. The Thompson pool hall also had its license revoked.

In San Juan County federal agents arrested Clarence Copeland who sported "a great big bushy beard and long hair, the most ragged looking old fellow you ever did see." Before appearing in front of the judge in Salt Lake he shaved, got a haircut, and put on a new suit. In court the arresting agent was unable to pick him out of a line-up because the defendant's appearance had changed so drastically, and so Copeland returned home a free man.

Not everyone arrested was as fortunate. J. E. Wellington was prosecuted and sent to Alcatraz for selling liquor to the Indians on the reservation. When he returned home to Monticello his friends greeted him with "Where you been Jay?" "Oh, I spent a few years in California," he replied.

Dealing in white mule may have been a serious crime, but on the lighter side it produced some memorable characters. Cloyd Johnson, a rancher from the Eastland area, recalled his friend Floyd Dalton:

One time we went over to Cedar Point to a dance. He was selling whiskey and everybody got all lit up. He fell off the car and injured the side of his head. When he'd blink his eyes one eye wouldn't move. He got in a lot of fights because guys would think that he was winking at their wives."

At one point Floyd decided to go into moonshining for himself. He did not own a still, but his friend Fritz Winters had one in Eastland. He went out to Fritz's place with two pack horses and tied them near the still. Then he galloped in and hollered, "Fritz! Fritz! Get out of here, fast! The sheriff is right behind me!" They split up, going separate ways. But while Fritz kept traveling, Floyd circled back, loaded the still on his two pack horses, and escaped. He opened his operation in lower Verdure where he made whiskey for quite some time, even selling it to his friend Fritz.

Marion Hunt was another personality in whiskey folklore. This incident reportedly took place while he and a dentist were partying together in Bluff. Marion developed a toothache, so the dentist, having no tools with him, decided to help his distressed client and friend by wielding a pair of pliers. "Marion showed him which tooth it was and the doctor extracted it. Then Marion told him that he got the wrong one. It still hurt. They were both drunk, and the dentist kept pulling his teeth. He pulled all of them. It was the bloodiest mess that you ever saw in your life."

Even in court a lighter side sometimes slipped in. According to one informant. Bob Wise, a fellow from the Bluff area, was arrested several times for selling liquor to the Indians. At court in Monticello he denied the charges. Finally, because of the lack of evidence, the judge said, "Well, I guess we will just have to let you go, but you better stay clean." Wise inadvertently admitted his guilt by answering, "Well, thank you Judge, and I won't do that anymore. "

The concern over illegal consumption of alcohol even touched physicians and pharmacists. Liquor prescriptions by doctors were limited to one-half pint per individual not more than every ten days; the number of prescriptions any physician could issue was limited to 100 every three months. This created hardship for southern Utah residents during the influenza epidemic. The dry laws prevented many citizens from securing the whiskey they believed would combat the contagion. A number of telegrams from county officials, ministers, and local doctors in Moab requested permission from Gov. Simon Bamberger to ship alcohol for medicinal purposes. County Attorney C. A. Robertson promised to be personally responsible for the safekeeping of the whiskey to be issued on doctor's orders.^^ Swayed by the frantic appeals, in spite of the criminality of shipping liquor in Utah, the governor hesitantly acquiesced.

Obviously the grand experiment of prohibition did not succeed as planned; the feelings of southeastern Utahns reflected the attitudes of the nation. One person remembered a big celebration when alcoholic beverages became legal again, and no one attending lacked something to drink. Once the fervor died down, people bought liquor much as they had before prohibition started. Another stated, "They [drinkers] were not as bad when they could get it legally as they were during prohibition. It is human nature that when you tell somebody they can't have something, they will find a way to get it."

As prohibition came to an end the towns and counties in Utah cast their votes for or against legalizing the sale of alcohol. In November 1933 San Juan County residents generally voted against ending prohibition. The major force in this drive came from Blanding, "throwing almost the entire town's strength" against repeal, while half the town of Monticello voted "wet." Moab in Grand County and other towns readily accepted the reintroduction of legal Hquor, thus giving the impression that where the Mormon influence was weakest and where bootleggers had been the most active, alcohol was acceptable. Whatever the rationale, 1933 signaled a new attitude toward liquor consumption, closing a colorful period that was far from being "free from the taint of the bootlegger."

For full citations and images please view this article on a desktop.