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Moonshiners and bootleggers

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Today’s Echo of Our Past concerns one of the more colorful traditions of the Minden and Webster Parish area, bootlegging or moonshining. Now if you have knowledge that some of your ancestors participated in this age-old practice, don’t fear that your family secrets are about to be revealed. The names have been removed to protect the guilty. But keep in mind, the old newspapers are still around and some of the names you find on the court dockets in those pages are quite surprising.

The legal sale of alcoholic beverages had ended in Minden on December 31, 1894, following a public referendum held on August 7, 1894. Eventually all of Webster Parish became dry after Dubberly closed its saloon in 1899. However, in the years following this change, law enforcement did not always take an active or aggressive attitude toward the enforcement of the liquor laws. Areas of the parish once again made the sale of liquor legal. In the rural areas just outside Minden, dozens of stills were in operation and quite a few individuals made a profitable living from their “white lightning” sales, even though it remained illegal. On occasion, local officials stepped up enforcement.

District Attorney John N. Sandlin and Sheriff B. F. Griffith made a concerted effort to stamp out illegal liquor sales during the first decade of this century. The ease of acquiring of liquor in those days is exemplified by one action Sheriff Griffith was forced to take at the beginning of his second term in 1904. One of his deputies from the first term seemed to have a “taste” for intoxicating beverages. Before Griffith hired him as a deputy for the second term, he forced the man to sign a contract. Under the terms of this contract, in order to retain his position of deputy, the man had to pledge that he would not drink any intoxicating liquors during his term of service. Griffith required the deputy to place a cash bond as security against the pledge. So, while Sandlin and Griffith conducted their fight against liquor, I’m sure that at least one deputy didn’t have his “heart in it” as he destroyed the stills.

Through the intervening years, after Sandlin became a Judge and Griffith left office, enforcement was sporadic at best. It seemed that things would change in 1919 when the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, or Prohibition, came into effect. Unfortunately, a unique aspect of that law made little change in enforcement locally. While production and sale of liquor was now against Federal law, there were no enforceable state laws prohibiting the practice. Therefore, anyone arrested for bootlegging had to be turned over to Federal officials and prosecuted in Federal court. Most local officials didn’t think it was worth the trouble of sending prisoners to Shreveport and then having to send deputies away from their jobs to testify in Federal Court in Shreveport. Town Marshall T. F. Greene made occasional arrests in Minden, but Sheriff A. H. Phillips, seemed to pay little attention to the problem, preferring to make better use of his manpower.

Those happy days for the bootleggers ended suddenly on December 6, 1921. On that date a new law passed by the Louisiana Legislature the previous summer took effect, making illegal production and sale of alcoholic beverages a state offense prosecutable in state courts. Sheriff Phillips and Deputies J. B. Batton and J. B. Lee immediately launched a campaign against illegal stills in the parish. The first day the law was in effect they raided a still north of Flat Lick that had an 80-gallon capacity and 500 gallons of sour mash ready to be distilled. Within that 24-hour period, 5 stills were confiscated. Within the first 25 days the law was in effect, the Webster Parish Sheriff’s Office captured nearly 40 stills, or more than 1 per day. The capacity of these operations ranged from 20 gallons on up to two that exceeded 100 gallons. Many of those arrested were leading citizens and active members of area churches. The embarrassment factor of these arrests almost exceeded the possible penalties. The District Court developed such a backlog of cases that an additional judge had to be brought in to speed the processing of cases.

Every one of the accused was convicted and most faced fines of between $100 and $200 and sentences of 30 to 60 days in jail.

Throughout the rest of the decade, both the Sheriff’s Office and the Town Marshall devoted much of their time to raids on stills and “nightclubs” that were the local equivalent of the famed speakeasies. The local newspapers developed a special vocabulary for such events, calling the distilled liquor ready for sale “family problems” or “family disruptors.” As in, “the raid confiscated 50 gallons of family problems.” Many of those charged were repeat offenders, and their cases became open and shut matters, as the judge and most local residents were fully aware of their activities. However, one of these repeat offenders did at least deserve an award for an imaginative excuse.

After being arrested for the third time on bootlegging charges, this resident of the Germantown area, requested to act as his own counsel during the trial. When asked if he owned the still that had been found on his property he had a unique answer. He replied, that yes, he guessed that he did, since he inherited it from his grandfather. The defendant went on to explain that the still had belonged to his grandfather and had been lost since 1869; he expressed his thanks to Sheriff Phillips for locating this missing family heirloom. Unfortunately, he could not come up with an equally clever response when Judge Robert Roberts asked him to explain the 50 gallons of freshly brewed liquor found with the still. The sentence was 30 days each for possession and sale of liquor and a fine of $100 on each charge.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the ready availability of locally produced liquor began to end. This led to the usage of various other chemicals to substitute for alcoholic beverages. At one point there was a showdown in downtown Minden between a Deputy Sheriff and the Chief of Police over the location of a cleaning solution alleged intended to serve as a beverage that was missing from the evidence room. Unfortunately, some other cases did not end with as little damage as that incident. On at least three different occasions in 1930, local residents were sold antifreeze to use for a drink. All three occasions resulted in fatalities. Such problems remained in place until March 1933, when the 21st amendment took effect in Minden and Webster Parish, eliminating not only the national laws but also any state laws regarding liquor sales. For the next 5 1/2 years, until liquor sales were again voted out in Minden in the fall of 1938, it was legal to sell alcoholic beverages in Minden.

After that reinstallation of prohibition, the focus of local illegal sales shifted to drug stores. Always the sales point of choice for town residents, many drug stores used their special licenses to stock and dispense alcohol for medicinal purposes to create a thriving business. I know that my grandfather had his “favorite” drug store and that particular store was cited many times for selling alcohol without a permit. Periodically there would be groups of raids on local drug stores by Sheriff’s deputies. Some of the stores and some pharmacists were stripped of their state permits to stock alcohol. Of course, the big raid came in Minden on the day of the LSU-Arkansas football game at the State Fair in November 1954. On that day, the State Police raided several drug stores in Minden and made many high-profile arrests. That particular raid did end up with the Mayor of Minden being sent to the Webster Parish Penal Farm. I’ll not write on that event now, because the complete story of that episode, if told, encompasses such a web of politics and behind the scenes dealing – keep in mind that the Governor of Louisiana who permitted that raid to take place was from Minden – that it deserves at the least an extended article. In fact, it could actually be expanded into a book, if you take the disputes that helped bring about that raid back to their beginnings locally in the 1920s. Still, it was the “highlight” of bootlegging and moonshining in Minden.

Throughout the ensuing years the legal and illegal sales of liquor in Minden and Webster Parish have almost constantly been an issue. Several well-publicized cases of bootlegging have occurred and periodically local option elections on the issue have been called. For a brief period of about six months in 1974, all local option laws were voided, and Minden was briefly “wet.” Most recently we saw the passage of a “special” law by the Louisiana Legislature allowing restaurant sales of alcohol in Minden to occur, without a full local option election. Now, here in 2018, we once again face the possibility of a full local option election on sales of alcohol. So today’s column give you a little insight into one Echo of Our Past that still strongly reverberates today.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.

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