Cy Cole: Humboldt Moonshiner
In reading the Beachcomber’s Blog this morning, I realized how little I knew about my Dad’s great uncle, Cy Cole, a local moonshiner. Cyrus was born in Ukiah around 1873 and for a time he lived in Southern California where he went to college to become an engineer. He probably moved to Humboldt County sometime in the twenties. He got a place out by Honeydew on Bear Creek–a “cabin down there in the dip” said local rancher, Fred Wolf, in Ray Raphael’s wonderful book “Cash Crop.” This is probably the same place he got a land grant for in 1931. Back then, Honeydew and the area around it was even more remote than now.
Fred recalls, “But it wasn’t too many of ‘em went down to see the old boy. Just so Goddamn far, had to go up over Wilder and clear into the bottom down there. That was the end of the line. I used to make the trip down there about once every two weeks, something like that, to pick up some stuff.” The implication being that “some stuff” was moonshine.
Uncle Cy’s occupation wasn’t exactly common family knowledge. Most people thought he wrote for “slicks,” pulp fiction magazines. (He sold tales of cowboys and living in the hills.) Although apparently, his niece, my grandmother knew. My aunt tells me that when asked if she had known Cy’s illegal activities, Grandma said that she had stumbled across the still one day while walking around on his property. “Well, why didn’t you tell me,” asked my aunt. “It wasn’t anything to talk about,” sniffed my grandmother.
But family secrets will come out as we all know. My dad learned from Chuck Watson. Chuck had been raised in Southern California when, according to our family info, he got into trouble. His father, who had been coming up and hunting with Uncle Cy for years. Worried about his son, he sent Chuck up to live with Uncle Cy.
My dad says that Chuck told him Uncle Cy would shoot deer. The subsequent jerky and moonshine he made would be “ran” to Eureka. There the jerky was sold as goat meat (Uncle Cy kept a few goats to make this plausible). The odd thing is that Chuck, who was supposedly in Humboldt to lead a problem free life, made the runs with him. Apparently, alcohol and poaching activities weren’t regarded as high crimes at the time.
In fact, my aunt tells me that prominent locals like Mr. Etter and Clarence French used to ride horses every year to Black Sands with Uncle Cy. There they would gather abalone and drink Uncle Cy’s ‘shine until “they couldn’t see straight.”
I realize this handsome, talkative man with curly red hair might have been counted as a black sheep by some but others around here thought he provided an excellent local service. Fred Wolf says, “He made good ‘shine, old Cy Cole. He was something else. Goddamn old bugger. I took two guys down there in the evening and we didn’t get out of there ‘til three o’clock. We sure raised hell with a jug of ‘shine that he had.”
Nice to know he made the world a bit better for at least a few folks.