National Bootlegger’s Day (1/17): Staying Wet in a Dry Land

National Bootlegger’s Day is January 17th, the birthday of infamous bootlegger Al Capone.

In the state’s early years, rich soil and wine making traditions brought to the region by European immigrants, Italians in particular, positioned eastern Kansas to rival California’s Wine Country.

Instead, from 1881 to 1948, Kansas banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, far longer than any other state. While U.S. Prohibition lasted only from 1920 to 1933, Kansas Prohibition outlived President Franklin D. Roosevelt, began before the Spanish-American War, and outlasted the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and two World Wars. Plus, Crawford County was a “dry” county until 1986, when voters approved the sale of alcoholic liquor by the individual drink, with a 30% food sales requirement. Voters approved eliminating the food sales requirement in 1992.

Crawford County Sheriff’s Department with stills used to make bootlegged liquor.

Kansas Prohibition coincided with the rise in demand for workers in Southeast Kansas coal mines, where miners were underpaid, easily replaced, had no health insurance, and if they lost their job, there was no unemployment program. Because many of them were immigrants, they had few advocates.

These “foreign elements” turned to bootlegging in a desperate attempt to feed their families. Deep Shaft Whiskey could be found as far as the coasts.

“It may have been illegal, but it wasn’t wrong.”

Miners Hall Museum board member Alan Roberts says this is how Southeast Kansans of the 1920’s and 30’s described one of the area’s economic staples: bootlegging.

Civil disputes led a governor to call the region the “Little Balkans”, a reference to the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe which was in turmoil at the time. Meant to be derogatory, the moniker provided people of varied backgrounds with a shared identity and was embraced.

“People said, ‘It may have been illegal, but it wasn’t wrong,’” historian Alan Roberts told the Pittsburg Morning Sun in 2015. As an illegal activity, Roberts said bootlegging carried a stigma that, even today, has kept many families involved to keep a low profile.

Many stories and relics from this era have been saved and are on display at Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, and the Crawford County Historical Museum in Pittsburg.

These were families who had escaped escalating violence in Europe. They weren’t “breaking bad”, but they broke the law, they knew it, and they didn’t care. They were just trying to survive.

As cited by President Herbert Hoover, the mining regions of Southeast Kansas became famous for the bootlegged liquor they sent around the country during prohibition. – Exhibit at Miners Hall Museum

Former University of Nevada, Reno professor and Girard resident Ken Peak explained that “this was a generation before the welfare state and ‘safety nets,’ when victims of economic disaster were left to their own devices and often too proud to accept charity.”

Peak also says the illegal bootlegging industry of Crawford and Cherokee counties was so strong, President Herbert Hoover’s Wickersham Commission, appointed to study prohibition enforcement, specifically mentioned the two counties. Not surprisingly, the report declared these counties as two of the four worst statewide in prohibition compliance.

Bootleggers made fine money selling their craft. Deep Shaft, as liquor from Southeast Kansas was generically known, was found not only in surrounding states such as Oklahoma, but went as far as the U.S. coasts and into foreign countries. Peak’s research into one Pittsburg factory unearthed a plant that produced 210 gallons of liquor per day, which had netted the owners $18,000 in only 2 weeks of operation.

At the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, the recurring bootlegging exhibit produces some of the most colorful stories. Last year’s exhibit included a recorded lecture from Peak and several artifacts, including an electric heat stick bootleggers would use to color their moonshine. Museum board member Alan Roberts explained the process: “They would put their moonshine, which is clear, in a charcoal lined barrel and then they would put this stick down in there and shock it. And the sugar in the alcohol would turn kind of a brownish color and get the color from the charcoal so it looked much more like bourbon than it just did gin.”

Rich stories like this one can be found throughout the Miners Hall Museum. The museum is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.. For the best experience, the museum requests that you call in advance at (620) 347-4220 to schedule tours.