February 16, 2020

Wily, Creative Prohibition Stills

For Arizona, prohibition came early in 1915. Although it is probable that stills were put to work almost immediately, law enforcement did not seize many for the first 4 years of enforcement. Then starting in 1919, a crackdown on the illegal practice revealed just how wily and creative many of the bootleggers had become.

According to the book “Ranch Trails and Short Tales” by Claire Champie Cordes, Fred Cordes had what must have been a typical set-up in Yavapai County. She wrote: “During prohibition, we decided we should have a little whiskey on hand in case of snake bite or something so Fred began to fashion a still from my old copper washing boiler. He soldered a valve on the lid, got some copper pipe from an old mill, coiled it into circles, and started looking for a place to hide it. There was an old mining tunnel a couple hundred yards down the creek below our place. Tall bushes grew in front of the tunnel so he figured it was the right place. The next time he got barley for the horses he ordered a hundred pounds of oats or rye. In an old wooden barrel, he built a fire to make a nice clean char. He put rye, sugar and water in the barrel to ferment.”

Cordes’ hooch was double-filtered through crushed charcoal and then sand. “The results proved to be very satisfying,” she wrote. “One friend, a neighbor of ours, insisted he needed some for his sick wife. We sold him a quart for $5, a lot of money in those days.”

Indeed, hiding one’s still was vital. It could be argued that the best hiding places were never found and are therefore lost to history. However, some of the discovered still operations impressed both the newspaper and law enforcement. One outfit, described as “the most elaborate discovered for years was unearthed in a raid in the Verde District.” It could have doubled as a man-cave. It “was excavated at a distance of 20 feet from a well, its roof being about 4 feet below the surface of the ground. The room was 10 square feet with walls 6 feet high and could be reached only by a tunnel running from the well with the opening 12 feet below the well curb,” the paper reported. The smoke stack was cleverly run through a horseshoe forge from which one might expect to see smoke.

Frank Leonard constructed a complete shop. “their little place, located up in government canyon, was just close enough to the city to make it convenient to market the product, yet it was secluded enough to be safe,” the paper revealed. Leonard’s production house had a cement floor, drainage, and full ventilation. The paper described it as “most comfortable as well as private. In it, he had installed substantial kettles, boilers, vats, mixing vessels and a good-sized copper still.”

When the Sheriff arrived to arrest Leonard, his wife refused to go without a fight. She “bit, scratched and squawked” and then drew a pistol. While she was being disarmed, Mr. Leonard, now handcuffed, tried to make his escape but stopped when warned that the officer would shoot.

A far more serious skirmish occurred outside of Dewey in 1920. It resulted in Deputy Sheriff TJ Marks being shot in the arm as he and other officers closed in on the residence of Charles G Bly. After eluding police for 2 weeks, Bly was finally caught and served several months for moonshining. However, he beat the charge of assault by arguing that he did not know who was approaching his place and he reacted to protect his life and property. Deputy Marks required at least one operation and it took months for his arm to heal.

The colorful, true crime story of the career of bootlegger Dutch John Berent in 1916-1917 Prescott, AZ.

“Elicits stills, grading all the way from a small gas stove, with a can and a copper pipe to the modern and fully equipped article have been raided and confiscated,” the paper reported. One man “seized upon the idea of making fire water out of a fire-preventer,” when he fashioned a still out of a fire extinguisher. “With a few lengths of tubing and a little solder, he had arranged the proper outlets for the steam,” the paper observed; “every home may now have its distilling plant!”

A few captured stills were admired by both the police and the public. When the law captured what was purported to be “the finest still in the country,” it was put on display at the Sheriff’s office. “It (was) made from a wash-boiler,” the paper described, “coppered and rigged-up with a number of attachments necessary under certain circumstances.”

One large still “and its supposed product” were put on display in a store window downtown. The paper reported that “suspicions at the authenticity of the product were quieted by a sign which confirmed the common opinion that ‘If it comes from Biles-Lockhart’s it must be good.’” 

One ignorant moonshining practice came to light in September 1920 when law enforcement found a still, not made of copper, but of galvanized iron. This decision to try to utilize a cheaper still could have proven deadly. Distillation produces ethers and acetic acid which corrode the zinc in the galvanized lining producing a deadly poison: zinc acetate. The perpetrator, Matt O’Gulin, located his still near the Jerome city dump. He insisted that the brew was for his own personal use. “The County Attorney thought it was a case where the arrest of the distiller saved his life,” the paper quipped. Within weeks 3 more galvanized iron stills were found around Jerome; one hidden in a combination coop and dog kennel. The irony of their location “in the heart of the world’s most solid copper camp,” was not lost on the newspaper.

Claire Champie Cordes also related the story of an unfortunate moonshiner who employed galvanized metal: "There was one old fellow, we called him 'Lousy Wag,' who had set up stills all over the country. The officers couldn't catch him, but they destroyed his stills. For awhile he made good whiskey, but he kept rigging up make-shift stills until it got so rank, that one was afraid to drink it. He had one about a mile above our place. Fred said he used an old galvanized wash tub to cook the mask and a wool blanket to catch the alcohol as it went off in steam. When the blanket became saturated, he would squeeze it out into a bucket. He kept a few chickens around to clean up slops of grain. When people found out about Wag's distillery method, they quit buying from (him) and he went out of business. The last I heard of old Wag he was in jail for killing an old man. I think he had lost his mind from drinking the raw whiskey and had beaten an old prospector to death."

Circa 1932 ad to repeal prohibition.
One man was arrested on North Cortez St. when an under-sheriff revealed “as shiny a copper still as one could wish to see” in the rear of his car. Stating that he planned to take it to the State Fair in Phoenix, “he must have heard that there were great crowds attending…but could not have heard, as some in Prescott have, that Canadian Club in quart bottles (was) the prevailing tipple there at the time,” the paper divulged.

What was described only as a “unique sort of still” was seized and kept “for future reference.” Perhaps it was disguised to look like something other than a still.

The king of Yavapai County stills was captured off a “lofty perch on Mingus Mountain,” the paper reported. It could cook a whopping 700 gallons of mash. George Ruffner led a 3-day search for it.

Corn and rye were used by most moonshiners, although one Ash Fork man employed raisins.

By April 1922, the courthouse vault had become crammed with stills and other “booze machinery,” so the Sheriff’s office destroyed it all and sold it for scrap. “All different kinds of stills” were completely wrecked, the paper reported. Even the spiral, copper condensing tubes, known as “worms,” were cut into lengths so short that “not enough was saved to make a gasoline feed for a motorcycle.”

The cat and mouse game of prohibition would continue in Arizona and the US until 1931.

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“Ranch Trails and Short Tales” by Claire Champie Cordes. Copyright 1991. ISBN # 0-9627573-1-4.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 5/14/1919; Pg. 2, Col. 7.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 11/12/1919; Pg. 2, Col. 1. 
Weekly Journal-Miner, 9/7/1920; Pg. 3, Col. 6.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 11/3/1920; Pg. 3, Col. 1.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 10/13/1920; Pg. 6, Col. 1.
IBID; Pg. 2, Col. 4.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 9/2/1920; Pg. 3, Col. 3.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 9/22/1920; Pg. 3, Col. 4.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 9/7/1920; Pg. 2, Col. 5.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 11/17/1920; Pg. 2, Col. 2.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 10/6/1920; Pg. 6, Col. 4.
Arizona Republican, 5/10/1929; Pg. 20, Col. 5.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 12/8/1920; Pg. 2, Col. 4.
Weekly Journal-Miner,  4/5/1922 ; Pg. 6, Col. 5.

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