Cy Cole: Humboldt Moonshiner

 

Cyrus Joseph 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.

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22 comments

  • Kym,
    Considering the places I have been, “alcohol and poaching activities” do not seem to be “high crimes” anywhere they don’t have streetlights & sidewalks. As a matter of fact we’re told to never approach a still…unless you’re invited. And from what I can tell around here Poaching is a hunting Style instead of an illegal activity. Ol’ Cy sounds like good people to me.
    I do enjoy your posts. Dobry Den.

  • Kym,
    Considering the places I have been, “alcohol and poaching activities” do not seem to be “high crimes” anywhere they don’t have streetlights & sidewalks. As a matter of fact we’re told to never approach a still…unless you’re invited. And from what I can tell around here Poaching is a hunting Style instead of an illegal activity. Ol’ Cy sounds like good people to me.
    I do enjoy your posts. Dobry Den.

  • About every time I search a family line, I find a skeleton or two. Cy was a handsome man, for sure, with an “interesting” occupation.

    Did you ever hear about Grandpa meeting Pretty Boy Floyd?

  • About every time I search a family line, I find a skeleton or two. Cy was a handsome man, for sure, with an “interesting” occupation.

    Did you ever hear about Grandpa meeting Pretty Boy Floyd?

  • Kym
    Talking about Fred Wolf brings back a lot of good memories for me. Back in the early seventies we used to go out and help him round up his sheep. We used to round them up with our dirt-bikes. That was a lot of fun.

    Once we had them all rounded up we would hold their tails over a block of wood and cut them off with a hot, wide, chisel blade. Then we would castrate them and paint them with the funny smelling sanitizer that you can still smell on a good wool sweater. It kinda’ smells like sheep dip.

    After we were all done with that, we would have a big fried chicken dinner. After dinner Fred would break out a few bottles of his home-made huckleberry wine. When that ran out there was some blackberry wine. When that ran out…. Well, you get the Idea.

    There is nothing that I would rather do than have a few drinks and do what can only be termed as bullshitting with Fred Wolf. I miss the old goat a lot. He had stories about the good old days like nobody else, and he knew all the scandal about everybody. I heard tales that you could only hear from Fred, and you could never repeat them, but when you saw some of the folks down town that you’d just heard a great story about what they did in their younger years you’d almost break out laughing.

    Fred had a lot of real history himself, he was delivered into this world by Sally Bell, one of the last survivors of the Needle Rock Indian massacre. My grandmother knew her in Usal. This was such a small world just a few short years ago.

  • Kym
    Talking about Fred Wolf brings back a lot of good memories for me. Back in the early seventies we used to go out and help him round up his sheep. We used to round them up with our dirt-bikes. That was a lot of fun.

    Once we had them all rounded up we would hold their tails over a block of wood and cut them off with a hot, wide, chisel blade. Then we would castrate them and paint them with the funny smelling sanitizer that you can still smell on a good wool sweater. It kinda’ smells like sheep dip.

    After we were all done with that, we would have a big fried chicken dinner. After dinner Fred would break out a few bottles of his home-made huckleberry wine. When that ran out there was some blackberry wine. When that ran out…. Well, you get the Idea.

    There is nothing that I would rather do than have a few drinks and do what can only be termed as bullshitting with Fred Wolf. I miss the old goat a lot. He had stories about the good old days like nobody else, and he knew all the scandal about everybody. I heard tales that you could only hear from Fred, and you could never repeat them, but when you saw some of the folks down town that you’d just heard a great story about what they did in their younger years you’d almost break out laughing.

    Fred had a lot of real history himself, he was delivered into this world by Sally Bell, one of the last survivors of the Needle Rock Indian massacre. My grandmother knew her in Usal. This was such a small world just a few short years ago.

  • Polar, As I was writing this post, I was cracking up comparing Uncle Cy with our local growers. Around here, people are considered real good people and model citizens even if in other areas they might be considered drug dealers. I suspect that is what prohibition did to people back then too.

    Aunt Jackie, By the end of Cy’s life, he was toothless and amused his great nieces and nephews with his bad table manners but, he sure was good-looking in the early photos I’ve seen. And I’m going to have to ask you to refresh my memory of Grandpa and Pretty Boy Floyd. I do remember the story of Grandpa and his uncle the moonshiner though. (if I’ve got it right?)

    Ernie, I love your comments as much as I love your posts. Funny you should mention Huckleberry wine, I had never heard of it until my aunt told me that Uncle Cy used to make it. I’m not much of a wine drinker but I think I’d enjoy the taste of the libation. I never knew that Fred Wolfe was delivered by Sally Bell. Our history is still relatively young around here!

    • Fred was born a blue baby and Sally had Tom B. go out and gather some herbs and she administered them to Fred and that is how she saved his life.

  • Polar, As I was writing this post, I was cracking up comparing Uncle Cy with our local growers. Around here, people are considered real good people and model citizens even if in other areas they might be considered drug dealers. I suspect that is what prohibition did to people back then too.

    Aunt Jackie, By the end of Cy’s life, he was toothless and amused his great nieces and nephews with his bad table manners but, he sure was good-looking in the early photos I’ve seen. And I’m going to have to ask you to refresh my memory of Grandpa and Pretty Boy Floyd. I do remember the story of Grandpa and his uncle the moonshiner though. (if I’ve got it right?)

    Ernie, I love your comments as much as I love your posts. Funny you should mention Huckleberry wine, I had never heard of it until my aunt told me that Uncle Cy used to make it. I’m not much of a wine drinker but I think I’d enjoy the taste of the libation. I never knew that Fred Wolfe was delivered by Sally Bell. Our history is still relatively young around here!

    • Fred was born a blue baby and Sally had Tom B. go out and gather some herbs and she administered them to Fred and that is how she saved his life.

  • Not absolutely sure I have the facts straight, but seems to me Pretty Boy Floyd came to Grandpa’s moonshining uncle’s place and that’s where he met him. I’m pretty sure it is in his life story. I’ll have to look for the details.

  • Not absolutely sure I have the facts straight, but seems to me Pretty Boy Floyd came to Grandpa’s moonshining uncle’s place and that’s where he met him. I’m pretty sure it is in his life story. I’ll have to look for the details.

  • Well, I was off a bit on who was the moonshiner. Here is an excerpt from his life story:

    “We had a neighbor by the name of Fred Argo. We knew he was on the shady side of the law, but no one cared. All the kids thought Pretty Boy Floyd nd John Dillinger were heroes and police were villains. When playing games, I was always Pretty Boy Floyd. Often times at night we would hear cars going up to Fred’s place. We called them high-powered cars. Nowadays
    they would be nothing. One day Dad said he had someone he wanted me to meet. We walked over to Fred’s place. Now in those days you never knocked on anyone’s door, you always hollered ‘Hello’ and told them who you were. Dad did that. Fred told us to come on in. When we got there, there was two
    fellows there. One came over and shook Dad’s hand and acted like he knew him, but he was strange to me. Dad looked at me and said, ‘Son, I will make you acquainted with these men, but don’t ever tell anyone about this meeting.’ He pointed to the man that had shook his hand and said, ‘J. D., this is Charley Floyd. You have heard of him as Pretty Boy Floyd, and this man,’ pointing to the other, ‘is Charley Birdwell.’ I was so scared for
    they were the most wanted men in the world, but I felt great to have met such great men. Birdwell was killed the next day robbing a bank in Bowlegs, Oklahoma. This was a colored town. A Negro stepped out of the vault and shot him. I believe Pretty Boy was killed in a cornfield in Ohio.”

  • Well, I was off a bit on who was the moonshiner. Here is an excerpt from his life story:

    “We had a neighbor by the name of Fred Argo. We knew he was on the shady side of the law, but no one cared. All the kids thought Pretty Boy Floyd nd John Dillinger were heroes and police were villains. When playing games, I was always Pretty Boy Floyd. Often times at night we would hear cars going up to Fred’s place. We called them high-powered cars. Nowadays
    they would be nothing. One day Dad said he had someone he wanted me to meet. We walked over to Fred’s place. Now in those days you never knocked on anyone’s door, you always hollered ‘Hello’ and told them who you were. Dad did that. Fred told us to come on in. When we got there, there was two
    fellows there. One came over and shook Dad’s hand and acted like he knew him, but he was strange to me. Dad looked at me and said, ‘Son, I will make you acquainted with these men, but don’t ever tell anyone about this meeting.’ He pointed to the man that had shook his hand and said, ‘J. D., this is Charley Floyd. You have heard of him as Pretty Boy Floyd, and this man,’ pointing to the other, ‘is Charley Birdwell.’ I was so scared for
    they were the most wanted men in the world, but I felt great to have met such great men. Birdwell was killed the next day robbing a bank in Bowlegs, Oklahoma. This was a colored town. A Negro stepped out of the vault and shot him. I believe Pretty Boy was killed in a cornfield in Ohio.”

  • Cy was a good-looking man. Sounds like quite a character, too.

  • Cy was a good-looking man. Sounds like quite a character, too.

  • Aunt Jackie, Aren’t we supposedly related to Birdwell whose real name is George btw.

  • Aunt Jackie, Aren’t we supposedly related to Birdwell whose real name is George btw.

  • I looked Birdwell up too and found his name was George. Grandpa must have had the name Charley on his mind when he wrote his story.

    I’ve never heard we are related to Birdwell.

  • I looked Birdwell up too and found his name was George. Grandpa must have had the name Charley on his mind when he wrote his story.

    I’ve never heard we are related to Birdwell.

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