How Truckee Survived Prohibition – Part I
It may be hard to believe, but eighty-two years ago there was a time when the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was a crime in the United States. Yet, at one minute past midnight on January 16, 1920, prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol became law, sanctioned under the Volstead Act, which was ratified in January 1919. This unpopular law carried with it some heavy penalties; including fines of up to $1,000 and those unable to pay their fines faced a six-month jail term.Millions of Americans who enjoyed an occasional drink either made their own brews at home or, more often, bought their beer or whiskey from “bootleggers” who earned an illegal, sometimes dangerous, but remunerative living supplying it. “Speakeasies, ” illegal saloons, soon flourished across the country. Truckee was no exception.Times were already tough in town. After World War I many of the local sawmills had closed and the ice industry had declined. “Moon shining” was often a family’s only income – more so during the Depression.Accustomed to hardship and traditionally rebellious, Truckee’s enterprising citizens found ways to survive. Saloons became “Soda Fountains.” Illegal stills popped up everywhere. It wasn’t unusual to find a distillery in the basement homes of even the most respectable citizens.More than one old-timer recalls that most saloons had illegal slot machines installed on wheels so that in the event of a raid, they could be quickly rolled out the back door and hidden in one of the storage buildings along Jibboom Street.In a 1997 interview, the late Karl Kielhofer described one of the Truckee’s speakeasies, known as the “Silver Mirror,” that his father, Moke, along with Dan Smith operated in Rex Hotel building.”It had a front door with peep holes that opened electrically,” Kielhofer said. “Once you got inside, you entered a cage where they could get a good look at you from two or three different angles. If you 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 red light district.””I used to help my dad wrap bottles of gin in tissue paper and he would take them to Calpine and Loyalton and sell them.””Truckee’s saloonkeepers would pay off officials in Nevada County and they would warn them when the raids by the “Pro-Hi’s” (Federal agents) were going to come. Whenever the saloonkeepers got caught, they had a volunteer who would go to jail for them. The Silver Mirror had a guy named Joe Lawrence who always went to jail for my dad. The Pastime Club had a guy named Jack Noonan, an old Hollywood actor, who went to jail for the owner. Every saloon had a person who was willing to go to jail for the owner.””Larry McKelvey was running the Capitol Saloon. They called him the ‘Grey Wolf.’ Everyone had an alias in those days. His brother, Jack McElvey worked for him. He had two bartenders named Buck Davis and Dutch Patton and a Chinese cook named ‘Wing Wong’ who ran the restaurant. There was also a guy named Dan Sala who owned a joint down the street.””Dave Cabona was Truckee’s ‘Czar’ or ‘Godfather’ and he had the ‘in’ with the sheriff down in Nevada County. Cabona had a lot of connections and you needed to get his permission before you did anything in town””These were the days of Al Capone. I believe that 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. They had William Graham and James McKay in Reno who ran the Bank Club and the Palace. Moke was a good friend with them. Baby face Nelson knew them and was always around.”Kielhofer recalled the many boarding houses on River Street, operated by Truckee’s sizeable Italian population that served the ice cutters and woodcutters who worked in the area and needed a place to stay.”Every boarding house was a night club,” recalled Kielhofer. ” My father, whose mother was Italian, made whiskey at his home on East River Street. Everyone had a basement in those days and that’s is where the whiskey and wine were made. There were also dozens of bootlegging joints on the front street.”Moke Kielhofer had a reputation as salesman and storyteller. Among his favorite stories were of his many adventures in Bootlegging.Frank Titus, who knew Moke quite well, provided the following account of Moke’s exploits:”His operation was on River Street, a few houses east of the bridge,” Titus stated. ” He would go to San Francisco to sell his products, since that’s where they paid the best prices. One of the big establishments in San Francisco gave him an order for Gilby’s Gin. Moke would take orders for any brand and had labels made up for whatever was ordered and glue onto his bootleg booze. It should be remembered that prohibition did not outlaw any legitimate distillers, but as a consumer you couldn’t get it without a prescription from a doctor. The prescription would read ‘Spiritus Frumenti.’ “”Anyway, Moke returned to Truckee with this big order for Gilby Gin; gave the orders to his workers and the deadline in which he had to deliver. He then went to Sacramento to get orders from other clients there. When Moke returned he found that his workers had put the gin into the aging barrels used for whiskey. The gin had taken on a brownish tinge instead of the normal crystal-clear color of the real Gilby Gin.””The barrels used for the aging of whiskey were generally oak and had been ‘fired’ on the inside to provide a layer of charcoal to filter out harsh tasting congers and other undesirable byproducts of the distillation.””Moke was furious because his deadline was just weeks away, but he didn’t have time to distill such a large order in that short of time. Besides, he had quite an investment in he gin already in the barrels. As always, Moke rose to the challenge and contacted his bottle supplier in Chicago to see if they had any frosted bottles that would hide the color. They said they did, but the bottles were square and not the regular round shape. Moke had no choice and he ordered them.””He used these new ‘frosted bottles’ for his brownish gin and pasted the Gilby label on them and delivered them to his customers; then waited for the fallout, but was delighted to hear that the new bottles had made quite a hit. New orders began to come in from all over San Francisco.””In fact the gin was so popular that representatives of the Gilby Gin Distillers came to San Francisco and were so impressed they recommended the company change their bottles to the ‘frosted squares,’ and that his why today Gilby Gin is marketed in those bottles.”Titus agrees that Truckee was a tough town in those days. He should know, because his dad, Frank Titus Senior, was the town’s night watchman.” During the 20’s and 30’s, but especially during the depression years, America produced some desperate criminals,” Titus recalls.” The FBI ‘s most wanted list had John Dillinger Public Enemy #1 and on down the line to include Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly among others.”” During this time Reno was run by casino owners Graham and McKay, who owned the old Bank Club, a Race Track, Race Horses and were involved in many questionable schemes. In fact both were finally sent to the federal penitentiary. Many of the nation’s desperados knew Graham and McKay, and some were rumored to have done jobs for them.”” Graham and McKay put out the word that Truckee was to be a safe haven. Anyway the likes of Baby Face Nelson spent a lot of time in Truckee, generally staying at the Sierra Tavern. Others of note were Alvin Karpis, Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly but its possible others were there too at one time or another.”” Apparently Graham & McKay made it clear there was to be no trouble in Truckee and there were never any violent incidents from this crowd, although they would sometimes get drunk and pilfer from some local store or get in a fight. Graham & McKay would always arrive, or send an emissary to pay-off the aggrieved merchant so he wouldn’t file charges and bail them out of jail if need be.””Occasionally, some of the lesser known gang members came to Truckee with their families and stayed for awhile. One that comes to mind was a man who worked for Larry McElvey at the Capitol, dealing cards, reputed to have been with the Capone gang in Chicago.””The town was generally calm during the week, but on week-ends when the lumberjacks, ice-cutters, section hands from the railroad and the crews from Floriston arrived it was a rough and tumble situation. The fights that broke out sometimes got out of control when knives or pistols became involved resulting in ‘ stabbing’ and in worst case scenarios the demise of one of the combatants.”” Bodies would sometimes be found dumped at the cemetery after these weekends. Another problem arose when ‘toughs’ riding the rails would mistakenly believe that Truckee easy pickings and stir things up only to learn that Truckee businesses were able to take care of themselves. The so-called ‘toughs,’ always ended up leaving on the next freight, going either direction, happy to escape in one piece.””Any violence was confined to the Main Street, or Jibboom Street, and locals never feared for their safety at home or even locked their doors. My dad carried a 38 Colt Army Special and a nightstick,” recalls Titus. “I still have them and the nightstick shows evidence of heavy use. When he was the lone officer at night he was backed by the bartenders and if a big melee broke out they would come from all the bars with baseball bats or clubs of some kind. One of the bartenders I remember was known as the ‘Cherokee Kid’ from his days in the ring where he was a pretty fair boxer. He assisted my dad on numerous occasions. The ‘Kid’ finally owned his own bar in Wadsworth Nevada where he was killed in a brawl.””Local police enforcement of the Volstead Act was spotty, at best, across the nation and most police were more than happy to leave it up to the Federal Agents or the pro-hi’s as they were nicknamed. In Truckee the pay for the police, at least my dads pay, came from local merchants many of whom were bootleggers themselves; so the incentive was even bigger to let the ‘Feds’ do it, although he was called in several times to help the sheriff with his ‘raids.’ Dave Cabona always knew when these raids were coming so arrests were few and far between.”In a 1997 interview, the late Gene Barton disclosed some interesting revelations:”Truckee was the biggest bootlegging area on the west coast,” said Barton. ” There were stills all over town. One night one of the stills on the hill below 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.””Everyone drank in those days and nobody considered it wrong. All a bootlegger needed to make was $25 per day to stay in business. All business establishments had basements where whisky and wine was stored.””Whiskey made in Truckee was considered some of the best on the North American continent,” said Barton. “It was made from sugar, wheat and barley and aged in old wooden barrels and they strained it well so it wasn’t bad for you.””The constable at the time, Butch Boettcher knew about all the bootlegging but didn’t enforce the laws. I believe he got his share of the action. If someone needed to hide, he and other locals would help out. Boettcher never put anyone in jail. If anyone got killed, it got swept under the rug.””Tony Polyanich’s club had the best whiskey. The Capitol was also popular. Charlie and Bertha Hope, a vaudeville couple, had the Gilt Edge Saloon, which later became the Pastime Club. Everyone Drank, nobody thought it was wrong.” (Charlie Hope was County Supervisor for the Truckee District for many years.)In another 1997 interview, the late Marjorie Zoebel provided her own unique insights:”None of us knew exactly everything that went on in those days,” said Zoebel. ” Dave Cabona was a very good friend of the Sheriff in Nevada County. I am sure that the sheriff would call Dave and say, ‘We’re going to raid on Friday.’ Dave would pass the word around and by the time the pro-hi’s came to town they might find a pint or maybe a quart of whiskey in each bar.””Angelina Crowley lived only two doors down from Constable Boettcher and was known around town as the ‘beer lady.’ She made beer in her basement.””The Italians down on River Street had a permit to make wine for themselves, but they always made too much. When the pro-hi’s came to town they’d take barrels and barrels of wine from these Italians and break them open in the street until the roadway was a river of wine.”The notion that the streets of Truckee were a “river of alcohol” was documented in the Truckee Republican (predecessor to the Sierra Sun) on January 20, 1921 when it was reported that local residents had complained that the sewer system had been blocked.”After two days of digging,” the articles disclosed, “an investigation showed that the stoppage was due to large quantities of corn Mash being dumped into the system. The mash was in a state of fermentation, evidently being used in distillation of moonshine liquor. The Sanitary board plans corrective measures since it is felt that if all Truckee bootleggers were to dump their mash into the sewers it would greatly increase the tax burden to keep the system functioning.”As Truckee’s reputation as a hub for the sale of illegal alcohol began to grow, so did pressure from law enforcement agencies. On March 10, 1921, the following story appeared in the Truckee Republican:”Prohibition enforcement officers (pro-hi’s) raided the homes of Pete Denosta, Hank Wilsie and C.F. Painter. At Denosta’s home, 150 gallons of mash and 75 gallons of wine were found. At Wilsie’s house officers found four stills in operation along with 15 gallons of Jackass Brandy and 350 gallons of mash. A still was found in operation at the house of C.F. Painter along with a quantity of brandy and mash. Eight gallons of Jackass Brandy was found in the home of Ed Baldwin, but no charges were filed against him.”Many old- timers still remember the night when a house in Brickelltown was blown off its foundation after the still in the basement exploded. Frank Titus who lived nearby says the blast was so powerful the drapes from the home’s front windows were draped over the gas pumps of the service station across the street. Fortunately no one was in the house at the time so nobody was injured.On January 19, 1922, the Truckee Republican’s headlines splashed news of yet another raid:”Federal agencies arrived in force from San Francisco and raided several business places along Truckee’s main street and on River Street. Half a dozen men were arrested for violation of the Volstead Act and are to appear in federal court in Sacramento. This is the first ‘dry’ raid since last March when 15 barrels of liquor were found in a carload of hay by federal officers and dumped into the sewer.”Two weeks later, the Truckee republican reported:”Thursday morning prohibition agents dropped in unexpectedly and unearthed several stills. One was at the cabin of Frank Campbell and three more were found in an old abandoned bakery on Main Street.”By the late 1920s prohibition had become a very unpopular reality. The job of enforcement was hopeless, as well as demoralizing. In February 1933, Congress passed the 21st amendment that repealed prohibition. On December 5th of that year the 21st Amendment was ratified.America was no longer dry. In its own unorthodox way, Truckee had survived one of the most turbulent periods in American history. Despite the many hardships suffered during prohibition and during the depression, the town was just too tough to die.Read Part II of Guy Coates’ column in the April 11 Sierra Sun.