If There’s a Still, There’s a Way: Corruption Presents Struggles for Prohibition in Wyoming (Part 1)

Billy Hunter, Al Morton, Chris Jessen in Green River, Wyoming. Otto Plaga Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

SWEETWATER COUNTY– January 17, 2020 will mark the centenary of one of the most unpopular laws ever passed in United States history—Prohibition. The United States Congress enacted the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1917 and sent it to the states for ratification, which was accomplished by the necessary three-fourths of the states by early 1919.

According to “This Day in History”, from www.history.com, the movement for Prohibition of alcohol began in the early 19th century, and by the first couple of decades of the 20th century Temperance societies had become a powerful political force.

Nine months after Prohibition’s ratification, Congress passed the Volstead Act (over a veto by President Woodrow Wilson), which allowed Prohibition regulations and enforcement to go into effect on January 17, 1920. As of that date, the United States became officially “dry”, and enforcement efforts began. A special unit of the Treasury Department was created to enforce the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

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The www.history.com article goes on to state, “Despite a vigorous effort by law-enforcement agencies, the Volstead Act failed to prevent the large-scale distribution of alcoholic beverages, and organized crime flourished in America.”

Mobsters like Al Capone became wealthy men supplying a felt need that did not disappear in early 1920.

Graft aplenty

According to “Prohibition in Wyoming”, a production of www.wyomingpbs.org, “The last state in the Rocky Mountains to adopt Prohibition, Wyoming, failed to stop the sale and manufacture of illegal liquor. The [state] legislature created a new law enforcement agency, but two State Directors were fired for graft and bootlegging. Adding to the state’s problems, many county officials did not enforce Prohibition laws…

“The farming communities of Goshen, Platte and parts of Big Horn, all supported the new measures, but Natrona, Sweetwater, Lincoln, Sheridan and Hot Springs struggled with enforcement. Graft was rampant, with county sheriffs and law officers actively accepting bribes and selling liquor.”

Sweetwater and neighboring counties certainly had their problems. The article goes on to say, “In Kemmerer, not only was moonshine produced, but according to life-long resident Joe Sebastion, ‘Half the town was making it’…Coal miners, many from southern Europe, brought their wine-making skills with them to Wyoming. As Jenny Kuseck of Rock Springs said, ‘Everyone in the neighborhood had wine. Everybody.’”

Kuseck was not the only local resident to comment that Prohibition was a joke. According to the Rock Springs Museum, local resident Daniel Budd commented, “…there was never any Prohibition; it was as free as it ever was. They would have died if they couldn’t have gotten the liquor.”

The owner of the Fountain Club, Leo Zadra, said that bourbon was simply put in a copper container with a plug in the bottom, the Museum information says. If federal enforcement agents entered the Fountain Club, the plug was simply pulled and the alcohol would pour down the drain. Other saloons had friendly patrons who would call them ahead of time when federal agents were spotted in the area, giving the saloon owners time to hide alcoholic beverages.

Photograph of the Casper, Wyoming police department taken in 1926. Otto Plaga Collection, American Heritage Center.

Enforcement efforts

If local residents didn’t think much of Prohibition, then local officials, the state legislature and federal agents did plenty of thinking for them, and there were efforts to enforce the Volstead Act and Prohibition of alcohol.

A January 13, 1919 article in the Rock Springs Miner noted that the state legislature was getting ready to convene, and that legislators meant business about making Prohibition stick in Wyoming.

“…PROHIBITORY LAWS WILL GET IMMEDIATE ACTION” part of the headline read. The article reads in part, “Prohibitory legislation will take the pole immediately after the organization of the senate is completed. The first bill introduced in the upper house will be the measure approved by the Wyoming Anti-Saloon league, as the instrument through which the prohibition constitutional amendment adopted last November shall be made effective. It…very thoroughly will cover the subject to which it is devoted, including among its provisions a drastic ‘search and seizure’ section.’”

One of the provisions of the proposed statute would have closed saloons within 60 days of enactment, although many legislators favored a more gradual approach to the saloon shut-downs.

Notwithstanding the efforts of state legislators, Wyomingites and including those in Rawlins and Rock Springs still enjoyed their alcoholic libations, often by making the brew themselves.

A short article in the Miner, dated November 18, 1921,quoting from the Rawlins Republican, acknowledged the law-breaking but asked those who were doing it to at least be considerate of others in the city. “MOONSHINERS PLEASE BE MORE CAREFUL” the headline read. “Those persons who are making moonshine are respectfully requested by the City officials to be careful and not dump mash into the sewers.”

“During the past few months,” the article continues, “the city has been put to much expense because of the necessity of tearing up sewer mains and cleaning out mash that has been dumped into the sewer and that has clogged it up…Any moonshiner caught can rest assured that if his case is tried before the Police Judge the maximum penalty will be given him.”

Still seized from Manuel Victor. Otto Plaga Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Law Enforcement Efforts Persist Despite Disregard

Despite widespread disregard for the new Prohibition law enforcement efforts continued apace. A Rock Springs Miner news report for December 30, 1921 stated, “The first active raid under the state prohibition laws occurred last Friday night when Sheriff Morton called in all his deputies, seven men in all, and was able to visit four places simultaneously. In all these places liquors were found and those in charge were placed under arrest, taken before Judge Dykes where they were required to put up bonds totaling about $1,800 for their appearance in district court.

The article goes on to say that the “grape vine telegraph” spreads the word around town to other establishments that may be serving alcohol that law enforcement is on the way and that the evidence of alcohol consumption needs to be disposed of. Local law enforcement still tried their best:

“Sheriff Morton made the attempt with but few deputies to bring a halt in the liquor traffic. Requests for aid had been sent to both the state and the federal departments. This aid had been promised, but was long delayed. Some weeks ago he determined to act, and in conference with several citizens planned the raid on Friday night. This raid was the first in the county and it is thought by many that it resulted in the hurried trip of the federal officials on Wednesday.”

Another small article in the Rock Springs Rocket from the same time states, “On Friday evening of last week the Sheriff’s force raided four soft drink parlors here and arrested the proprietors and secured evidence in the shape of “wet goods” which will be tested to ascertain if it contains more than the prescribed alcoholic content. The places raided were: Saltis & Story, Pilot Butte Avenue, Rock Springs Coffee House, North Front Street, White Front and Gem Bars on South Front St. They were given a hearing and bound over to be tried at the next term of the district court.”

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the story and history of Prohibition in Sweetwater County and Wyoming. The historic photos throughout this series are courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum and the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. Keep your eye out for the next installments.