Times Past: During Prohibition, nothing could stop the alcoholic tide

  • Men enjoy alcoholic beverages at a general store in 1920. During Prohibition, stores often sold illicit alcohol hidden in other containers. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Saturday, January 20, 2018

My brother told me that Grampy Brown owned a “still” and made bootleg whisky during Prohibition. This is embarrassing news, but not as shocking as you might think.

Grampy Brown died a long time ago. The Statue of Limitation has long since run out on this issue, so it is highly unlikely that the Federal government would try to make a case at this late date.

What is upsetting about this recent disclosure, however, is that my brother claimed he had inherited grandfather’s still with its making formulas, and actually operated as a rumrunner for a year or two before Prohibition ended.

My brother was the son with brains. He won the history prize at graduation, four square in principles and conduct, and never as far as we could see, deviated from the straight road.

Unfortunately, for us who lived a lifetime trusting in his bright and shining example, there is some indication that his claims to lawlessness can be supported. I have looked into this, and after some serious investigation, can publish an honest account of it.

I was just a very little boy when Grampy Brown was alive. He used to come at me with a pair of pliers, offering to pull out my loose teeth. I had a mouthful of them at the time and went to visit him in some dread that he might make good on his offer.

My mother used to say with considerable pride that her father was a metalsmith and toolmaker. I recall that he wore a soiled denim apron and smelled like a man who was used to working hard 12-hour days. He used to lock me up in one-arm strangle-holds, with pliers in his free hand, backing off only when I shrieked in protest.

My brother, several years older than I, stayed with our grandparents for a while before I was born. In playing around their house, he got into a closet where Grampy had his still.

It was no trick for the old man to turn out whisky. Bathtub gin and homebrew were common commodities throughout the Prohibition period, flowing like water into speakeasies and private homes. Nothing, no law, nor the police who worked to enforce the law, ever seemed stop the alcoholic tide.

Grampy Brown had no trouble in making his still in the first place. He knew how to put his tins and tubes together for cooking the stuff that’s good for what ails you. My brother says that the ice man and coal man loved making deliveries at the Brown’s house, always leaving with shining eyes and smiling faces.

Anyway, my brother found the old man’s still. He didn’t know what it was, but the discovery of it embarrassed his grandfather, who explained what the contraption was for and how it worked, promising that his grandson would eventually inherit it.

We’re going to approach this next segment of family history from an oblique point of view.

Prohibition died in 1933 after an anemic life of 14 years. It was an unpopular law and unsupportable law. Americans continued anyway to drink and get drunk, gangsters flourished and the seamy side of life got seamier and more sordid with each passing year.

Money talked: the government was losing millions of dollars annually in uncollectible revenue. People squawked, everyone wanted booze back.

I remember two events that occurred shortly after prohibition was lifted and liquor stores reopened. These events will show that my entire family may have had some expertise in the liquor line that, until now, never had any particular significance.

First, my dog Ben got distemper. He was really sick. It looked as though he was going to die.

One night when Ben took a turn for the worse, my mother sent me to the store to buy a pint of whisky. The clerk, of course, couldn’t sell whisky to a child, but when I explained our need of whisky for a dying dog, he took me and my dying dog, and my pint of whisky, home together.

Mother, a nurse, injected the whisky straight into Ben’s failing body and overnight he came around. Maybe it was the “shot” that did it. Next morning, Ben was back on his feet.

School children often caught the measles and their chums’ homes often wore quarantine signs when someone inside had scarlet fever. Mothers lived in dread of these scourges and took all manners of precaution to guard their children against them.

One doctor suggested it would be a good thing for my brother and sister and me to have a bit of a lift before going to sleep at night, something in the way of a cure for whatever might come along to all of us.

Ale it was, Pickwick Ale. I remember the wooden case it came in, 24 bottles of pale brown liquid that tingled our tongues and warmed all the way down our pipes and tubes until it bottomed out. Whether it warded off childhood disease, we do not know. Our maternal grandparents who thought ginger ale a risky business were not especially warm to the idea of treating children with anything that made them tipsy.

I’ve gotten off the original track in this. I’ve had time to rethink what I had intended to write about my brother. I’m not going to challenge that he operated at a time when Al “Scarface” Capone and Machinegun Kelly were on the loose.

Researching this, I had only to ask the first person I met coming out of a bar on Greenfield’s Main Street what Prohibition was, and he boasted what Nickle beer was — he was old enough to remember.

I suppose that now, in a modest way, those of us who have lived most of our lives in Gill can be somewhat authoritative on the subject of intoxicating beverages.