Lighthouse Project - History: Rum runners, moonshiners abounded

It was Prohibition, but Naples would not be denied its liquor

Prohibition

Prohibition

In the early 20th century, Dr. Earl Baum — a surgeon from Milwaukee — made a movie he called "Naples on the Gulp."The title of his home movie, shot with his 16mm camera, fit the times. Despite Prohibition, Naples in the Roaring '20s had plenty of liquor to go around.

"There was never a shortage of booze in Naples, Fla.," said John Mayer, a board member of the Naples Historical Society.

Naples was anything but "dry." Early residents enjoyed "strong spirits," including Canadian whiskey and rum from Bimini. Much of the liquor came from the Bahamas or Cuba.

Historical photos show finely dressed women in elegant hats sipping spirits near the Naples Pier from tea cups.

These were the days of bootlegging and rum runs — long before high-rises and hotels dotted the Naples shoreline.

■ ■ ■

These days, with Prohibition long forgotten, there's no shortage of places to find liquor in the Naples area, from neighborhood bars and pubs to glitzy restaurants and clubs. With its oversized drinks, Blue Martini at the Mercato in North Naples, is just one of the popular night-time hangouts today – for locals and tourists.

In 2010, a travel story in the New York Times fittingly described cocktails as "sacred in these parts." The beach-front Sand Bar at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, aptly serves up a tropical cocktail with rum in it, called the Naples Sunset. Naples is now home to the most successful charity wine auction in the world.

Today, there are more than 850 restaurants in Collier County with more than 96,000 seats, many of them with full liquor licenses, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. There are more than 630 businesses with a Naples address that have a retail license to sell alcohol, including liquor stores.

"During Prohibition, the only place people would have gone out here would have been the Naples Hotel and I don't know whether they would have served alcohol there or not. That was a pretty public place. I've never heard that they did," Mayer said.

■ ■ ■

Early pioneers in Naples enjoyed their cocktail and dinner parties and they were in an ideal place to get all the liquor they wanted.

In an article looking back at Collier County's history, Ron Jamro, executive director of Collier County's museums, described the county — with its miles of deserted beaches and hundreds of hidden islands and inlets — as "made to order" for rumrunners and bootleggers.

"It was a pretty simple task to bring in boat loads of this stuff," he said. "There are stories about crates washing up on Naples beach around the Pier and shipments that didn't quite make it that were intercepted by the locals and quietly hidden."

In 1919, the Volstead Act was passed to enforce the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the making and sale of alcohol in the U.S., unless it was for medicinal or scientific reasons. The amendment wasn't repealed until 1933.

In his book, "Early Naples and Collier County," the late Dr. Baum recalls one of his own bootlegging experiences with a man he called "Mr. H." Late one night, the two men, joined by a few others, took a small boat to Chokoloskee Island, where they picked up a few cases of Canadian Club. When Baum returned to his room at the Naples Hotel the next morning "was my good wife ever happy to see me, as she was sure I was headed for trouble," he wrote.

■ ■ ■

On Chokoloskee Island, Dan House Sr. — an entrepreneurial man — brought much of the illegal liquor into these parts of Florida and though there were many other rumrunners, "none was as proficient at avoiding the revenue agents," says Doris Reynolds in her history book, "When Peacocks were Roasted and Mullet was Fried."

"Stories abound about his exploits outsmarting revenue agents, who descended on the island," she wrote.

The late Doris House Orick, House's daughter, shared what she remembered about her father's exploits as a rum-runner in an article for the Collier County Historical Society. She remembered her dad backing up a large truck at their house and then unloading case after case of gin, rum and whiskey, with the help of her mother and her older brother and sister. Sometimes, they'd move 200 cases in one night, which were hidden and stored in the attic. "...I lay in bed — my heart in my throat — afraid that the revenue officers would come," she recalled.

In his book, Dr. Baum recalled that he was always well-stocked with whiskey in what he called the good old days. "Naples was an easy place to run liquor into. It all came by boat from Bimini. They would either come under the bridge in the Keys, or sometimes they would go clear around Key West. The minute they got into the Islands, there was not a chance on earth the revenue men would catch them," he wrote.

Once Baum swapped fishing stories with a man, who told him that day's fishing was "out of this world." Turns out, the man had reeled in a gunny sack with six bottles of Canadian Club in it. Sometimes, bootleggers spotted by the Coast Guard or chased by revenuers would throw their sacks of liquor overboard to avoid getting caught. Every once in a while, an unsuspecting fishermen would snag one.

■ ■ ■

Visitors heading back north found a way to ship their illegal liquor back home from Naples without getting caught. They would stash it in a travel trunk, then put a 10-cent bag of marbles in an empty drawer inside of it. With the marbles rolling around, the porter wouldn't hear the "gurgle" of liquor in the trunk and it would "always go through," Baum remembered.

There were other creative ways to hide liquor back in those days.

At Palm Cottage, the oldest house in Naples, built in 1895, there's a hollowed-out wooden table in the front room that was used in the days of Prohibition to stash liquor bottles. Lift the top, and there's a hole in the middle of it.

"There was a lot of partying going on down here," said Mayer, of the Naples Historical Society as he showed off the table during a tour.

There was a much more deadly and dangerous side to Prohibition, however. There were killings over it.

With the opening of the Tamiami Trail on April 26, 1928, bootleggers from Miami quickly discovered it was a great way to move alcohol north to Tampa — and beyond. That led to dangerous battles on the trail between the bootleggers and the Southwest Mounted Police, motorcycle riders who helped stranded motorists and enforced the laws along the new roadway, Jamro said.

"It was a pretty small force and ill-equipped to handle these hardened criminals," he said.

■ ■ ■

Bootleggers weren't the only problem for local authorities.

There were moonshiners, too, making their own brews deep in the Everglades — an easy place to hide out because it was mostly wilderness. Collier County Sheriff Louis Thorp — often seen carrying a bullwhip and chomping a cigar — waged a war on them, declaring that "he was going to put an end to it," said Jamro.

By 1929, local deputies intercepted a truck load or two of spirits a month along the Tamiami Trail. Thorp would smash up the bottles of alcohol the deputies confiscated in public showings in Everglades City — then the county seat.

In 1931, bootleggers killed Bill Hutto, a chief deputy and jailer and the chief of police for Everglades City.

In a published story about life living along the Tamiami Trail, Lillian Larkins Weaver recalled that Hutto was taking the bootleggers to jail when one of them pulled the officer's gun from his holster and shot him. After that, Bill Weaver, Lillian's husband — part of the mounted motorcycle patrol along the trail — was told to stop and search all the cars that passed the Monroe Station at Loop Road east of Ochopee, where he was based.

"I'd lie down until I heard a car coming, then I'd get ready to shoot if they shot at Bill," she recalled. "But none did, although one car refused to stop and Bill let go a blast from his shotgun, aimed at the back of the car. But the car was going too fast and wasn't hit."

Hutto was 36 when he died after delivering Christmas gifts to children on Christmas Eve. He left a family behind, including his four children.

■ ■ ■

On Marco Island, bootlegging was going strong in the 1920s.

"People on Marco really didn't like Prohibition," said Betsy Perdichizzi, a member of the Marco Island Historical Society who has written several books on the island's history.

Mary Samuel, a school teacher on Marco who boarded with a local family on the island, shared a story about how she and another teacher were taken by boat one night to see 800 cases of liquor hidden in the woods that had come from Cuba. Big loads went to Chicago and to eastern cities for distribution, Perdichizzi said.

On Chokoloskee, "Totch" Brown made moonshine on a remote key. He created high ground by building up a mound of shells in the middle of the key.

"It was a secret and I guess they didn't find it," Perdichizzi said of authorities.

In a skit she performed at Estero High School in February, Perdichizzi, playing the role of Tommie Barfield, one of Collier County's most influential women at the time of Prohibition, explained that Brown found it difficult to store his moonshine. He put it in wooden barrels and buried them in the ground. The worms ate right through the barrels.

They eventually found the moonshine was safe from the worms only when the barrels were coated inside and out with plaster," Perdichizzi said.

The pioneers, she said, invented the term 100 proof. It meant the moonshine had 50 percent alcohol and to prove it gun powder was soaked with the moonshine and set on fire.

"If it burned," she said, "it was 100 percent proof positive that the moonshine was 50 percent alcohol."

History

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features