Speakeasies were Truckee’s answer to Prohibition
The battle of the early 20th century between moral crusaders and the alcohol industry and alcohol consumers resulted in a prohibition on most alcohol in January of 1920. The alcohol ban didn’t stop people from drinking, it just drove the industry underground, with saloons changing into speakeasies.
Alcohol has been a part of American history since its founding, as has the temperance movement. The battle came to a head by 1919, and the 18th Amendment was passed in a majority of states and by Congress. Saloons that had been serving legal drinks overnight changed to pool halls, soda shops and social clubs.
The legal manufacture of alcohol didn’t stop with Prohibition; it too went underground. In Truckee men who needed an 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.
Corn, sugar, barley, wheat, yeast or other grains were fermented into alcohol that was a poor quality substitute compared to the previously legal beverages. As corn became scarce, sugar was substituted in the fermentation process. The demand and fear of discovery prevented the proper aging of what became known as jackass brandy and bathtub gin.
The Italian Truckee families still had access to foothill grown grapes, so they continued to make homemade wine. Homemade beer was also fermented in hidden basements around town.
Truckee was considered a wide 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 ” at least up to a point. Since not everyone was under the protection of the law, arrests did occur.
While most speakeasies seemed immune to the Prohibition raids, individual residents and those not “in the know,” didn’t escape being arrested and fined. In a raid in March of 1921, agents found 150 gallons of corn mash and 75 gallons of wine fermenting in the basement of Pete Denosta. Hank Wilsie’s operation of four stills, 15 gallons of jackass brandy, and 350 gallons of corn mash was also raided.
A still, jackass brandy and mash in the house of Charles Painter, owner of The Louvre, another speakeasy, was raided and Painter arrested. Ed Baldwin had no charges filed against him even though eight gallons of jackass brandy were found.
When the feds found the illegal booze, they often broke open the barrels on the site, letting wine or whiskey flow down the streets. Other times they dumped it down the sewer system.
A January 1922 raid caught R.L. Hackett, owner of the Arcade saloon, Victor Cozzalio, proprietor of the St. Louis Saloon, and L. Falconi of the Nevada Saloon with large quantities of alcohol. They were held briefly on bail in the local jail, but the court appearances were in federal court in Sacramento.
The most common sentence was a stiff fine and a few months in jail. Nevada County was pushed to ban these business owners from running the legal portion of the front for the booze business, but that was mostly ineffective. A 30-day closure was the longest that any of the big players ever suffered.
Prohibition agents were low paid, very unpopular and not always honest. A Reno-based agent, William Byrne, disappeared in August of 1925 after imbibing a little too heavily while investigating speakeasies there. The only place he felt safe was in Truckee, where he frequented a few pool halls, passed a few bogus checks for booze, before relatives found him, took him back to Reno, and dried him out.
Before prohibition, no women were allowed in saloons, but with the under-grounding of the businesses, women began to frequent the clubs. This led to the “Roaring ’20s” becoming known for new fashions, young women becoming known as flappers, the use of hidden hip flasks, clubs playing modern music, and new dances such as the Charleston.
To get into a speakeasy, also know as a “blind pig,” one had to know where the secret door was, know the password, have plenty of money and have a very strong stomach. Some were in the basement, some in back rooms or on second floors. Trap doors in the floors, secret doors with peepholes, and guards interrogating strangers were all part of the business of the day.
You could find secret closets, sliding panels, steps that tipped up and disappeared, and pantries with false doors. All these methods to hide from the law were common in houses and clubs around the Truckee and North Shore area.
In addition to a good time, gambling was also found in the clubs. Nickel slot machines, illegal for several decades, made a big comeback during Prohibition. These machines were on wheels so they could be rolled into hidden compartments when a raid was feared.
Truckee’s economy, formerly based on lumber, ice, and the railroad, became dependent on the free flowing money that came into town from alcohol. Both North Tahoe and Truckee were favorite stops and hangouts for visitors and tourists in both summer and winter.
As Truckee was a supply and distribution point for California cities, money was always flowing through town. The quality of the booze was better than in the cities as well.
Businessmen such as “Moke” Keilhofer and Dan Smith of the Kirk Inn, later the Rex Hotel, Dick Joseph and Joe King “Kingpin” of the Pastime Club, Larry McKelvey, “The Gray Wolf” of The Truckee Pool Hall and The Capital, Tony Polyanich of The Club, all had a hand in the speakeasies of Truckee, though they didn’t use the name at the time.
Dave Cabona was an organizer of the locals, and worked with many of the out of town bootleggers and liquor buyers. Compared to other locations around the nation, Truckee was a quiet place with little crime reported during Prohibition.
Spies for the anti-alcohol groups such as the Epworth League, the Temperance Society, church groups and the feds were everywhere, so secrecy was imperative. Spies from other speakeasies were also abundant, as competition between organized groups of booze producers and sellers got organized. This led to the gangster era, which included Truckee as a safe haven for many of the Reno and California gangsters.
The likes of Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly and lesser known gangsters frequented both Truckee and after its construction in 1927, the Cal-Neva Club. The law either was paid off or so ineffective that mobsters and bootleggers felt safe around the area.
In 1933, Congress repealed Prohibition, but taxes on alcohol stayed extremely high, so bootlegging and under the table sales continued, as did organized crime. The feds still continued raids, but the emphasis in the 1930s was in collecting the taxes for the US Government, rather than prohibiting drinking.
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