September 6th, 2016
Over 80 years after Prohibition ended it’s hard for us to imagine a world where bootleggers (the illegal production and sale of liquor) and speakeasies (illegal drinking spots) became a part of the ever-more inventive ways to obtain and consume alcohol. Still, Cecil County has its share of thrilling stories of moonshine and moonlit raids.
In the 1820s and ‘30s, the temperance movement attempted to get Americans to cut back (be temperate) with alcohol consumption. As the movement continued, the emphasis had shifted from moderation of alcohol to calling for outright government bans on all alcohol being made, transported, sold or consumed. At first, separate states started passing prohibition laws and Maine was the first state to pass one in 1846 and a number of other states had followed suit by the time the Civil War began in 1861.
In Cecil County, prohibition laws were on the books years before Congress started the process of enacting the 18th Amendment. The first arrest under the prohibition laws in Cecil County happened on September 1, 1903 when an Alfred Bender of Port Deposit was arrested for selling beer and whiskey.
In 1917, after the US entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson instituted a temporary wartime ration prohibition in order to save grain for producing food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, for state ratification. The amendment received the support of the necessary three-quarters of US states in just 11 months.
The three Delmarva state legislatures were early adopters. Virginia was the second state to ratify, followed by Maryland coming in sixth and Delaware being the ninth. The amendment was ratified on January 29, 1919 and the 18th Amendment went into effect a year later. In October 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, which provided guidelines for the enforcement of Prohibition. This is commonly called the Volstead Act, after Representative Andrew Volstead who championed it.
Displaying Eastern Shore independence, many coastal residents more or less ignored the new law. State’s Attorney Henry L. Constable stated that the prohibition situation in Cecil County was “worse than the average citizen dreamed of,” and he estimated there were, “600 rumrunners and bootleggers in the county,” in 1927. Cecil County’s Sheriff Logan in 1927 said, “The motto of this office is, ‘Let no moonshine on Cecil’s plains,” adding, “Even in the eight district where there ain’t no Ten Commandments.” (The Eight District was the general area of Conowingo and the Conowingo Dam project.)
During 1927, a number of large raids were made in Cecil County and among the largest of these was in the woods belonging to the Whitaker Iron Company at Principio Furnace. A total of six raids were made in Whitaker Woods with a still found in each raid, netting a total of 10,000 gallons of mash!
With the country mired in the Great Depression by 1932, creating jobs and revenue by legalizing the liquor industry was very appealing. FDR ran for president that year on a platform calling for Prohibition’s repeal and after his victory the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealing Prohibition went into effect in 1933.
Want to know more? Join us for Pass the Rum: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition on Tuesday, September 13 at the Chesapeake City Branch Library. Call (410) 996-1134 to guarantee your spot.