Friday, October 28, 2011


     When the provisions of the Volstead Act took effect on January 16, 1920 Wisconsin lost 9,656 taverns.  Milwaukee breweries employed 6,000 workers and other brewing companies scattered all over the state were shuttered or converted to the production of near beer.  This was the beginning of the great experiment to improve man and society by regulating the use of alcohol.

     This was the summit of all the temperance work of over a half century.  People would not become drunk and kill others:  families would no longer linger in poverty because of an alcohol addicted breadwinner tossing his wages into the urinal; all of the criminality and societal decomposition laid to the devastation of brew and ‘John Barleycorn’ would end.  It didn’t work out that way. 
      Legitimate enterprises which had supplied alcoholic beverages died and gangsters fought each other to control the illicit supply and the big money that came with it.  This was the era of the mobster; the ruthless thug who killed both the imbibers and each other.  Alcohol consumption rose despite the lethal effects of bad booze.  Grant County Deputy Sheriff George L. Hunt said in 1925 that most of the liquor available in the county was “poisonous”.  He based this on tests done by chemists for the

Grant County Circuit Court.  Twenty two of the samples tested, he said contained “sufficient poison in one pint to kill a person if that amount was taken in six hours.” 
     The fact that much of the liquor was poisonous was not an accident.  It was the policy of the government to order the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States so that it could not be used by bootleggers who often stole those stocks to make the ‘hooch’ they sold to lower and middle class consumers who could not afford the “good stuff” smuggled in from Canada.  This denaturing process usually involved adding methyl alcohol to the mix to make it toxic and therefore unfit for human consumption.  Still by the mid 1920’s it was estimated that 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen annually and used for producing illegal alcoholic beverages. 
     The gangsters hired chemists to “renature” the toxic liquid.  Many of these chemists were not successful in separating the good alcohol from the poisons.  Other moonshiners created their own toxic brews from scratch.  As a result thousands of speakeasies administered toxins to citizens all over the country.  At least 10,000 died and unknown numbers suffered blindness or organ damage.  It became an issue in congress and investigations of the poisoning policy ensued, but little was done about it.  Powerful dry senators, like John Morris Sheppard (D) of Texas held sway.  “Alcohol itself is a poison” he cried, “You can’t poison poison!”
     Grant County did not stand as a bastion of righteousness in those days.  Teens and young adults were going to “country dances” where bootleggers waited in the parking areas administering their product by the shot.  More respectable people visited hidden speakeasies to satisfy their thirst, or got prescriptions from their doctors for the “medicinal” drink.  Local breweries, such as Cassville’s (August 1924) turned off the near beer spigots and made true brew by night, hauling it to cities all about.
prescription for liquor 

     Probably the most popular area of Grant County for moonshiners to operate was on the islands and river bottoms across from Dubuque.  On the islands and in the marshes, stills were busily supplying the stuff, mostly for Iowa customers.  For Wisconsin’s German, Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants prohibition was anathema.  Seventy eight percent of state residents “had an inherited wet predilection.”  Looking for quick money, locals entered the business. A guerilla war with the law ensued.
     In March of 1927 a gunfight erupted north of the Eagle Point Bridge.  A gang of bootleggers from Jo Davies County invaded the turf of a rival gang in Grant County to hijack a still.  The “Smith Gang” failed to take the still but did kidnap several of the “Kirby Gang.”  Five of them ended up in the Grant County Jail and “a large amount of material for manufacturing of liquor was confiscated.”  This area was no stranger to visits by the Grant County Sheriff.  On Thursday April 24, 1930 Sheriff Joe Greer, while on Bishop’s island near the Wisconsin shore, shot Edward Foht, a 36 year old war veteran in the head as he was fleeing arrest at a still site.  Witnesses at a later inquest testified that Greer told Foht, who was conscious despite a bullet in his brain that he had aimed high and the bullet must have ricocheted, to which Foht replied “You’re a liar. You shot right at me.”  Foht was taken to Finley Hospital in Dubuque and brain surgery was done, but he died of brain trauma on Monday April 28th 1930.  At the request of Foht’s family an inquest was held, but Greer was not charged with any wrongdoing.
     In April of 1931 over a thousand gallons of whiskey and alcohol were seized at a farm across from the “Two Mile House” outside of East Dubuque on the Wisconsin-Illinois border.  Farmer Henry Vanderah, father of ten children was arrested.  Agents found the still and whiskey in a cement basement under a chicken coop.  In May of the same year Federal Prohibition agents R. H. Taylor and Barton L. Fry were fired on in the bottom land on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River near Dubuque.  They never saw the shooter who missed them and fled.  The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported that “Hard times have placed a good many persons in the liquor business hereabouts.  Now most of them (defendants in court) say they are in the business because they can get no other work and must make a living somehow.”  Fears of shooting wars with lawmen were expressed and it was pointed out that gangsters were looking hard for the informers in their midst, and were ready to “pop off.”  The agents were reported as having successfully located a “sizable liquor plant” in the area.      

      In August of 1934 the biggest operation of all was discovered four miles west of Hazel Green on the Frank Wilke farm.  Agents accompanied by Sheriff Joe Greer swooped in to confiscate the stills, vats, and other equipment discovered.  Apparently the farmer had allowed members of a Cedar Rapids Bootlegging syndicate to convert his barn into a modern distilling plant.   This plant was believed to be a primary supply source for Iowa and part of Nebraska. 
 Jennie Justo, the “Queen of bootleggers” in Madison, Wisconsin.  She worked her way through the University of Wisconsin selling bootleg wine.  Eventually she set up a speakeasy (illegal bar) for herself and students. She is shown above embracing her mother as she leaves for a year in the Milwaukee jail.

The daily output of the plant was estimated at 750 gallons a day.  Agents said the product was of “fairly good quality.”  Inside the barn were four mash vats having a capacity of 6,700 gallons each – a total of 28,000 gallons.  They also found a 3,500 gallon high line alcohol cooker turning out 130 proof alcohol, 1,286 gallon tins of alcohol, and 500 pounds of yeast.  They did not find the 120,000 pounds of sugar they had tracked to the plant.  The bootleggers had been tipped-off. 
     When the Twenty-first Amendment ended Prohibition, the big money in bootlegging was gone and it was left for smaller operators in the back country to practice the craft.  Organized crime, now large and powerful moved into other rackets including the drug trade.  These crime syndicates still are a curse to our nation.  
  Was prohibition a good thing?  It certainly came of good intentions which envisioned a sober and more moral and industrious America.  Human nature, however, got in the way and the nation was forced to continue to live with the problems caused by alcohol abuse.  The noble experiment had failed.   John Barleycorn continues his encouragement of human stupidity.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


     In the 1880's America was in the process of withdrawing the freedoms won by the Union for the African American. The Union occupation forces that guaranteed the rights of the southern African Americans had been withdrawn and a campaign of terror, coupled with poll taxes and tests drove most black voters from the voting booth. The propaganda of the era was that Negroes could not handle the vote or high offices because they were allegedly too stupid or lazy.
     With all this against African Americans, it is nothing short of amazing that any could receive a college education.  Pleasant Ridge was a harbor of peace and relative tolerance, and to this community came Romulus Richmond, a cousin of the other Richmond’s who had come earlier. Romulus married Lillie Greene, granddaughter of John and Lillie Greene, who had left Missouri and slavery in 1863 carrying along baby Lillie. Romulus was reputed to have a college education. 
     He worked as a minister with Rev. David W. Smith, a circuit rider, to build a church for the community.  It was called the Flora Fountain United Brethren in Christ Church. The log building was finished in 1883, and Romulus worked with Smith giving sermons in this and other area churches.  He helped start a Sunday school at Boice Creek Church.  It was quite novel for an African American minister to address white congregations anywhere, north or south, but it happened in Southwest Wisconsin. There was prejudice here as in all places, but there were also honest and fair neighbors who accepted these industrious African Americans. The sharing of work in the community made life easier for White and African American alike.  Neighbors helped each other in haying and harvesting.
     It wasn’t only Romulus who preached to white parishioners; his cousin's wife, Minnie Richmond was an evangelist of considerable skill, doing her work in Grant and Crawford Counties.  Romulus decided to give up farming and planned to make the ministry his career.  On August 7, 1887 he preached his last sermon at Flora Fountain and moved with his family to Chariton Iowa, where The African Baptist Church awaited a new minister. Lillie, a devout Methodist, served as a lay preacher in the Chariton African Methodist Church.  This arrangement seemed to suit the couple.  Lillie and Romulus had 10 children.
     Romulus was not only a minister of the gospel; he was also an inventor.  He invented machines for lowering caskets, and separating the yellow colored earth from the black dirt, so the black dirt could be used on top of the grave. These devices were useful to him as he was the sexton of the Chariton Cemetery.  He patented a machine gun which could fire 200 rounds a minute.  That would seem a strange thing for a minister to invent.  He may also have made his own motion picture projector per Cara Caddoo, Instructor of American Studies, State University of New York, Old Westbury who wrote me and sent much useful information.
From: Annual report of the Commissioner of Patents 1896
     His church closed about 10 years after Romulus came to Chariton.  Apparently he did not get rich from his inventions, as he had to take work in an iron foundry to make ends meet.  Lillie worked at the Burlington Depot Hotel and the Railroad CafĂ© in Chariton for many years making up to 40 pies a day.  It is believed that Romulus died in Missouri sometime after 1910.  No one is sure of his resting place.  The last census in which he appears shows him living in the Peoples City Mission Home, a shelter for homeless men which is still operating today.  Why he was there at that time is unknown. 
     Lillie was very proud when one of her sons, Booker T. Richmond placed first in the Iowa Bar Exam in 1930.  Booker was also a high school football and basketball player and was a member of the undefeated debate team at the University of Iowa.  He practiced law in Mason City and Des Moines.  Of Romulus and Lillie’s children, one served in World War One and three in World War Two. 
Charles City Press (Iowa) October 9, 1930
      As she did every summer, Lillie returned to Grant County in 1947 to see the old home place and visit the cemeteries.  She was interviewed by Mrs. Crichton, who documented so many of Grant County’s interesting people for the newspapers.  Lillie said of slavery; “All I know about slavery is what my folks told me. It’s kinda like something out of a story book.” She was too young to recall her trip to freedom.  In a way, through all the struggles of life, The Richmond’s and the other citizens of Pleasant Ridge had what many slaves would have considered a wonderful life.  They took hold of freedom and labored to lead their families to a place where they found respect, good work, and a fine education.  We can thank Romulus Richmond for impressing on the community the value of education.  Many children of these African American pioneers, who chose rural life to the uncertainty of the great and troubled cities, rose to prominence in the generations that followed; and why not.  They were planted in good soil.