History: Prohibition in Truckee, or lack thereof
The holidays are fast approaching with family and friends getting together to enjoy good company, good food and imbibing in a special refreshment. It seems an appropriate time to look back on the history of the liquor industry in Truckee and what, if any, effect Prohibition had on our town.
Truckee’s Liquor History
At one time, around 1868, there were over 27 saloons in one block on Front Street (now Donner Pass Road in the historic downtown district). Drinking was a part of Truckee’s culture and its proliferation was infused by the dominance of the number of men in town and the lack of women, some respectable and some not quite so. Men came down from their logging or ice jobs and searched for an escape. Alcohol seemed to fit the bill.
Prohibition was a big deal. Being able to have a drink of wine or whiskey was literally ‘shot’ down when the Prohibition Act was passed on January 16, 1920 and banned the sale, manufacturing, transportation, and consumption of alcohol. Prohibition was sanctioned under the Volstead Act and ratified in January 1919. It was led by pietistic Protestants, prohibitionists who first attempted to end the trade in alcoholic drinks during the 19th century where they aimed to heal what they saw as an ill society beset by alcohol-related problems such as alcoholism, family violence, and saloon-based political corruption. (Wikipedia)
Prohibition Laws into the Towns
This unpopular law carried heavy penalties including fines of up to $1,000 and with those unable to pay their fines facing a six-month jail term.
The alcohol ban did not stop people from drinking, it just drove the industry underground. Overnight saloons that had been serving legal drinks changed to pool halls, soda shops and social clubs. Those who enjoyed an occasional drink started making their own brews at home or bought them from ‘bootleggers’ who had the dangerous job of supplying alcohol (who would hide alcohol in their boot).
Across the country speakeasies and illegal saloons flourished. Corn, sugar, barley, wheat or other grains were fermented into alcohol and were a very poor substitute to previously legal beverages. The demand, and fear of discovery, prevented proper aging of the alcohol so jackass brandy and bathtub gin were invented.
Truckee during Prohibition
With the logging and ice harvesting eras in decline, Truckee needed a new industry and had a history of being a ‘free-reeling’ town’… so black-market booze seemed to fit. Though it was so nefarious, it was about individuals in the town surviving.
Men who needed an extra income to support their families added illegal bootlegging to the work they normally did. During the 1920s and through 1933 stills were set up in houses around town and in the hills surrounding Truckee and Tahoe. Homemade beer and whisky were fermented in hidden basements. Italian Truckee families still had access to foothill grown grapes and continued to make wine. Note that some of the most respectable Truckee citizens had a distillery set up in their basement.
“Truckee was considered an open town, with Nevada County Sheriff George Carter probably being paid off by the leading speakeasy operators to let them know when the feds were on their way. The local constables had no choice but to go along with bootlegging, speakeasies, and related illegal activities, up to a point” (Gorden Richards, 5/29/2006)
Truckee was almost inaccessible during the winter so outside law enforcement was difficult. Arrests did occur. The speakeasies seemed to be immune but individual residents and those ‘not in the know’ would be arrested and fined.
Spies for anti-alcohol groups from the Epworth League, the Temperance Society, church groups and feds were everywhere, so secrecy was imperative. Spies from other speakeasies were also abundant as competition between organized groups of booze producers and sellers proliferated.
In a 1997 interview, the late Karl Kielhofer described one of Truckee’s speakeasies, known as the “Silver Mirror,” that his father, Moke along with Dan Smith, operated in the Rex Building (today’s Community Art Center):
“It had a front door with peep holes that opened electrically. Once you got inside, you entered a cage where they could get a good look at you from two or three different angles. If they thought you were O.K., they’d let you in through another thick door. Once inside there was a bar where you could buy whiskey for a dollar a shot. It was a nice place with 21 games and slot machines. There was also a back door to the alley which led to the redlight district (Jibboom Street).”
Raids in Truckee
Alcohol raids by Federal Agents (nick-named ‘Pro-Hi’) were continuous but mostly minor in Truckee. Some of the biggest included agents finding 150 gallons of corn mash and 75 gallons of wine fermenting in the basement of Pete Denosta on March 1921. Hank Wilsie’s operation of four stills, 15 gallons of jackass brandy and 350 gallons of corn mash was also confiscated. Charles Painter, owner of The Louvre speakeasy was raided and Painter arrested. And there was Ed Baldwin found with eight gallons of jackass brandy but no charges filed. There are many reports of other raids but most were attacking private residents.
In 1997 the late Gene Baron stated “Truckee was the biggest bootlegging area on the west coast. There were stills all over town. One night one of the stills on the hill below CF McGlashan’s house blew up. While they were fighting the fire, another one blew up.” “Whenever the Pro-Hi’s came to town they’d go into a saloon, order a shot of whiskey, then arrest the bartender and close the saloon for thirty days. After the bartender got out of jail, they’d be back in business again.”
Most likely, when a saloon keeper got caught, they had a volunteer who would go to jail for them. One profiteer, an Italian business owner and founder of Cabona’s, would go around town asking for single men to “take the fall” for saloon owners and pay them to go to jail when the raids occurred. It was easy work and you got three meals a day.
Certain well-known people had an ‘in’ with the sheriff in Nevada County and you needed his permission before you could do anything in town. According to Kielhofer “These were the days of Al Capone. I believe Baby Face Nelson lived in the Sierra Tavern for a while and was known to spend time in town. It was a tough neighborhood in those days.” “Every boarding house on River Street, operated by Truckee’s sizeable Italian population, was a night club, supporting the woodcutters and ice cutters.”
Gangsters considered Truckee a safe haven. Most stayed at the Sierra Tavern but it was made clear that there would be no trouble in Truckee. Any incidents were quickly taken care of and any merchants who were ‘pilfered’ were paid off so as to not file charges. Any violence was confined to Main or Jibboon Streets so locals never feared for their safety nor locked their doors.
Prohibition agents were low paid, very unpopular, not always honest, and had spotty enforcement. Then there was the fact that the Truckee police were paid by the local merchants, many of whom were bootleggers themselves, so liquor enforcement was given to the Feds though they would ‘help’ in a raid when needed.
Truckee Post Prohibition
Longtime Truckee resident and President of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, Greg Zirbel, shared some of his favorite memories of Truckee’s notorious past.
In 1962 Greg’s dad, Bob Zirbel, took over the Lucky Lager Beer distributorship that ran out of Auburn and was located in the old stone garage on the corner of Jibboom and Bridge Streets in downtown Truckee. His memories begin here, sitting on the engine hood of the beer truck.
In the 1960’s there was a great deal of flooding over the banks of Trout Creek and the garage housed an old Christ-Craft wooden boat that was mostly filled with beer kegs. In the flood waters they would drive to the Pastime Club, Tourist Club, Sierra Tavern, the Capital Café, Donner Lake Lodge, Truckee Hotel, Gateway Bottle Shop, Smarts Café, Stubblefield’s, Donner Summit Lodge, and Sugar Bowl, all the while Greg collecting matchbooks and candy at each location.
In the 1970’s summertime Truckee was mostly a quiet and dusty place until the Hells Angels and Clamper’s arrived. Greg was a stockboy for his dad’s liquor store (Gateway Bottle Shop). The two groups liked little bottles of booze to tuck into their jackets. His dad tried to be prepared with a little 38 special and a 44 magnum under the counter, in case trouble broke out, when dozens of Harley Davidson motorcycles pulled up all at once. Greg would run to the back and peek through the beer cases but he never saw his dad use anything except his Billy club to deal with an out-of-hand customer.
Bob Zirbel’s liquor store was a favorite hangout for the local sheriff deputies. When Greg got his driving license in 1976, he started to bring home ‘collectables’. His favorite is a cast iron keg from the Buffalo Brewing Company with a Lucky Lager sticker that made it through Prohibition and WWI and WWII. It is now proudly displayed in the Old Jail Museum on Jibboom Street.
By the late 1920s prohibition became an unpopular reality with enforcement hopeless and demoralizing. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. During Prohibition, the whiskey made in Truckee was some of the best in North America. Truckee was considered a supply and distribution point for California cities with much needed money flowing through town. Compared to other locations around the nation, Truckee was a quiet place with little crime ‘reported’ during Prohibition.
So hold up your glass and toast to Truckee’s identity of being a safe rough and tumble historic mountain town and able to survive the hardships of prohibition…and more.
Many thanks to Guy Coates, Gordon Richards and Mark McLaughlin for their research.
About the author
Judy DePuy is a volunteer with the Truckee-Donner Historical and Donner Summit Historical Societies. She is a board member for the Museum of Truckee History and Truckee Donner Railroad Society. She lives in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, and their dog, Morticia.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.