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Farm Life During the Prohibition
Making Hooch on the Farm
Distilling Alcohol in the Depression
My father grew up on a farm during the Great Depression, which also happened to overlap with the Prohibition Era for several years.
Prohibition in the US, also known as The Noble Experiment, lasted from 1920 to 1933 and was a valiant if perhaps misguided effort to save society from the evils of alcohol. It also afforded many farming individuals a lucrative method to supplement incomes with bootleg alcohol.
Others preferred that the government not tell them what to do, thank you, and carried on as they liked even if it meant making their own. Farmers, like my family at this time, were mostly rugged individualists who figured if they minded their own business, others should do the same.
Not unlike many independent-minded neighbors, my father’s father, his grandfather and uncle chose to do as they pleased with respect to alcohol. Since they had to produce it themselves, a still was set up from time to time in the basement for this activity.
In researching this article, I see that the distillation process is somewhat involved process. Here is a modern video depicting a method that could currently be used:
How to Distill Alcohol Now
1920s and 1930s Distillation
Recall that the equipment used in this era was all handmade, with perhaps a primitive or no pump, no automatic thermostats, etc., so monitoring progress of the manufacture would have been required. Also, plastics manufacture would have been in its infancy and modern tubing not readily available, so likely, the tubing would have been metal. The vats might have been wood or metal.
The wood and coal burning furnace downstairs would have provided the source of heat for the distillation process and some assembly of tubing through water used to cause condensation.
Anyway, Dad was but a toddler when this was going on, but he recalls his father later commenting about such activity once in the 1940s. At this time, they were cleaning out the basement and found the old dusty equipment. The job at hand was to make room for the ever increasing shelves of jarred and pickled vegetables that my Grandmother regularly made in old glass Ball jars.
They hauled the old still equipment to an unused outbuilding. With memories still vivid of the horrible Depression, nothing reusable was ever thrown away, lest another time of scarcity ensue! The old coal house was still standing, but not in use anymore, so likely the apparatus was ensconced there.
His brother, Don, was four years older and a wide-eyed six-year-old at the time the still was in use. As they took the old stuff out of there, he remembered wandering down in the basement and asking what was going on as the still was in use.
He was warned sternly by Grandma and Grandpa to stay away from apparatus while it was in use, as he could hurt or burn himself. Dad was forbidden to go into the basement at all.
An Unexpected Visit by Local Law Enforcement
Grandpa then recalled to Dad a particular time the local sheriff decided to pay a visit once while the still was fully operational for distilling purposes. Dad remembers him chuckling as he related this incident.
Throughout the sheriff's visit, which was perhaps one hour being a friendly neighbor chat, one or the other of Dad's father, grandfather or uncle would quietly slip away to the basement to tend the still, stoke the fire, etc.
Uncle Don, who was a chatty six-year-old was told to, "Shush up!" about the goings on during the visit. He quieted down enough to notice the sly glances that were being exchanged between the older men, who acted nonchalant during the entirety of the visit while still carrying out the manufacture of the booze.
It was Grandpa's belief that the sheriff surely knew what was going on, as alcohol vapors could be smelled, but said not a thing about it. Imagine your local law enforcement today being so hands-off about illegal activity today!
But, this does underscore the fact that most Americans did not support Prohibition. And out in the country, people let well enough be. We all just try to get along!
About My Farm Nostalgia Hubs
This is the fourth in a series on farm life and growing up on a farm as recalled by my Dad.
The first hub I wrote about involved the loss of a limb by one of the family dogs, A Pet Rescue Story: Brownie, the Three Legged Dog.
The second hub was about a near-accident my Uncle Don had, Life and Limb: A True Story From an American Farm.
My third was the Hubnugget winning The Story of a One-Room Schoolhouse.
The response of readers to these stories touched me personally and readers have continued to ask for more stories! So now I regularly call Dad so he can continue relating these stories and I will continue to publish them as he does. Thanks for reading! -- Laura in Denver