Odd, Old News:Spotlight on Humboldt Moonshiners

public information

“Four well dressed men standing with a row of barrels behind them looking at the canisters in front.” [Photo by Charles Edward (“Ed”) Seely from HSU’s Humboldt Room Palmquist photography collection]

Nuggets of old news served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

For the next few weeks Odd, Old News will be taking a look at the 1920-33 alcohol prohibition period in Humboldt County that followed the passing of the 18th Amendment. Federal law was ignored locally in much the same way as in the modern marijuana prohibition era. Making moonshine was widespread, and required some ingenuity to avoid the county dry squad out to enforce the law. Underground operations, tunnels, and the use of goose pen redwoods were some of the tactics used by bootleggers to hide their production. In Southern Humboldt dodging revenuers became an art form as will be shared in a future post.

Widely viewed as a failure, the “noble experiment” of prohibition did cut back on America’s consumption of liquor somewhat, but it did not achieve its goals of solving social problems and curbing crime and corruption. In fact it increased organized crime. Although it made it harder for the drinking man to get his potations from the local groggery, hotel bars and saloons found ways around the law. In some areas the term blind-pigging came into use as thirsty patrons were directed into back rooms to meet the ‘blind pig’. Personal consumption of alcohol was still allowed in the home in limited amounts. 10 things you should know about prohibition stated, “The Volstead Act included a few interesting exceptions to the ban on distributing alcohol. Sacramental wine was still permitted for religious purposes (the number of questionable rabbis and priests soon skyrocketed), and drug stores were allowed to sell “medicinal whiskey” to treat everything from toothaches to the flu. With a physician’s prescription, “patients” could legally buy a pint of hard liquor every ten days. This pharmaceutical booze often came with seemingly laughable doctor’s orders such as “Take three ounces every hour for stimulant until stimulated.””

Homemade moonshine was made with care and pride by some, but many took shortcuts in making their product and alcohol poisoning was not uncommon, particularly when moonshiners moved away from the use of stills and went to using denatured or wood alcohol… to deadly effect.

In the next few weeks we will be sharing some “Still life portraits” from the first prohibition era in Humboldt county, first up are accounts of two of the more ingeniously hidden moonshine plants that were found.


Arcata Union, February 1, 1923

“Staggering, elated chickens, laboring under the influence of too much ripe mash on the ranch of Joseph Loren at Mad River slough on the peninsula west of Arcata, Thursday, brought grief to their owner, for their actions confirmed a lurking suspicion in the minds of the dry squad members, who unearthed the most elaborate and completely hidden still and moonshine plant yet found in their numerous raids.

Suspicion changed into certainty when the raiders saw Loren suddenly take off across the fields at their approach, and after bringing the proprietor to a sudden halt with a shot fired in the are, the squad started a long difficult search for the hidden still. Not until after a long time spent in searching the brush around the house and penetrating every possible hiding place for the contraband kettle and coils did the raiders find the object of their hunt at the end of a 40-foot tunnel under a sand dune.

The entrance was made through the top after probing had established the squad being unable to locate the almost perfectly hidden entrance, a trap door at the end of a hog pen built up against the sand hill. At the end of the tunnel they found a room dug out of and boarded up to house safely and comfortably two large stills, one capable of holding 50 gallons of mash and the other 25 gallons. The stills were cemented into place and fitted with a perfected oil burner, draft being supplied by compressed air, according to the squad.

Ready for use, they found 13 50-gallon barrels of mash, and 30 gallons of newly made moonshine, enough of which was taken for evidence and the remainder destroyed. Loren said that the larger still had a capacity of about a gallon of moonshine an hour, and that by the use of two men, both still could be kept going 24 hours a day.

The squad had gone out to the slough to raid another place, where they found nothing, however, and as they had a warrant for Loren’s place, and notice the antics of the chickens, made the raid there.

Loren was taken before Justice of the Peace A.B. Adams in Eureka who set his bail at $1000 cash or $2000 bonds. He was unable to raise the money Thursday and went to the county jail.


public interest

“Five men in suits standing out in the forest with barrels and canisters.”
The men are named as Jack Long, Bill McKay, Ed Seely, Ed Reed, and Bob (Robert) Redmond. [Photo by Charles Edward (“Ed”) Seely from HSU’s Humboldt Room Palmquist photography collection]


Humboldt Standard, January 5, 1923

Fruit juice or wine, it makes no difference, is a good fertilizer as proven by the splendid growth of cabbages depicted above. The picture is that of the cabbage patch of Ben Dandrea of the American Exchange hotel, at this home 415 S Street, in the East End. The value of the red wine, although Dandrea and his attorney call it ‘fruit juice’, as a fertilizer was discovered by the County dry squad last month when it raided Dandrea’s home and was attracted by the luxurious cabbage growth in his garden. Being farmers themselves, naturally they were interested and began digging to get earth for a soil analysis. As they dug a more familiar odor became more and more pronounced and when their implements struck wood, the secret was out. The wood was that of a barrel and further examination developed that the barrel was filled with red wine and that the fumes of the wine seeping through the wood had nourished the cabbages. There were 17 cabbages all in a row, and under each cabbage was a 50-gallon barrel of wine.

Much Fertilizer on Hand

Of course a farmer would have a reserve supply of fertilizer for the next crop so Dandrea’s bar was investigated and in it were found 10 more 50-gallon barrels of the fertilizer, fruit juice or wine, whichever the court may determine it to be, besides a 700-gallon tank of the same liquid. As the Wright act had not yet gone into effect the county squad could not seize the wine so leaving it where it was they reported to the City Police and to aid the city further one of the dry squad swore to a complaint in the Police court charging Dandrea with the possession of wine.

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many more, but here are the most recent:



  • Kym, I noticed the “Earlier Odd and Old News” section displays the boilerplate placeholders in lieu of the links to recent posts in this category. They are:




  • 🕯🌳I’ve seen some of the tunnels under Eureka and there spooky. There filled with the homeless now. Was going to do a story on them because Coast Central found one remodeling there place in downtown Eureka. They have pictures in their lobby. 🖖👍🏽

    • I pretty sure that tunnel connected to the old Bank of America across the street. BofA used to house the main cash supply vault for most of the counties banks in its basement.

  • Although Prohibition did more than “cut back on America’s consumption of liquor somewhat” ( nobody notices that neighborhood taverns used to be everywhere), it, as does illegal pot grows now, created a culture of disregard for the law in averagely honest citizens. It wasn’t the bootleggers or gangsters that did that, it is the ordinary person determined to violate the law to supply their wants.

    Some people think that the disgard for laws only applies to dearly held vices like intoxicant, but it also applies to things like taxes, dog licenses, speed limits, utilities, etc. Any time the regulation appears too burdensome AND not supported by the populace in general, then more effort will be spent on circumventing the law than complying. A general sense of respect for authority evaporates and civilization becomes more chaotic. And dangerous.

    • Yes and some ‘non-ordinary’ were determined to violate the law: ”
      38. There was a lot of hooch at the White House.
      Prohibition, schmohibition. President Warren Harding (who voted for the Volstead Act as a senator) kept a fully stocked bar in the White House and had frequent poker nights where everyone drank whiskey.

      39. Congressmen kept drinking and had their own supplier. Bootlegger George Cassiday brought bottles of alcohol to Congressional buildings in a briefcase, making an average of 25 trips a day. He became widely known as “The Man in the Green Hat” when he was arrested while wearing, ahem, a green hat, and banned from entering the Cannon House Office Building (so he switched to the Russell Building). Capitol Police largely let him go through unchecked, but the Prohibition Bureau initiated a sting operation that sent Cassiday to prison for 18 months.

      40. George Cassiday estimated that 80 percent of congressmen drank illegally.
      ‘George Cassiday,… bootlegger to Congress, The bootlegger wrote articles for The Washington Post and claimed that 80 percent of Congress broke their own law during Prohibition.’

      That quote came from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/603956/prohibition-facts

      • As I recall, prohibition allowed existing stocks of alcohol to be consumed legally. There was also medical alcohol and alcohol for church services. Cider remained legal. Grain alcohol was an excellent way to make use if surplus grain and was also used as a barter medium. It was also the cause of the first flexing by the federal government when George Washington put down Shay’s rebellion over a tax revolt.

        We monkeys like our intoxicated and laws won’t change that. Although the volume of alcohol consumed before prohibition was hard to comprehend, post prohibition our consumption moderated a bit.

        My grandfather-in-law used to run casks down his irrigation ditch. The water came from Canada and his farm is about 1/2 mile from the border. He ran a little speak easy at his farm throughout prohibition and didn’t drink a drop after the 21st Amendment was passed.

        My uncle, in the Spanish Merchant Marines, ran brandy to the east coast… years after he was a LA County Sheriff and investigator for the DA.

        “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Certainly the alcohol and marijuana prohibitions parallel each other in many ways.

        • Lost Croat Outburst

          my immigrant grandmother ran a small speakeasy in her kitchen. Hid the booze under the stairs. She did well in her adopted country, thank you very much. Slavic people like strong drugs. Zinfandel is actually an old Croatian clone. Seriously, they sequenced the DNA. Typically a high-alcohol wine.

          Bootleggers in my hometown in Ohio ran booze across the Canadian boundary in Lake Erie. International diplomacy at its finest.

  • Great choice for a topic on Odd and Old!

    It’s definitely relevant and a continuing dichotomy to the area still.

    I’m curious if the men pictured in both photos are the “dry squad” or the bootleggers?

    I’m guessing the bootleggers.

    • Methinks that they are the apprehenders and not the apprehended. Both are labeled photo by ‘Ed’ Seeley (who is defintely in the second one), from the Palmquist collection. I think that there is a better chance that this is the equivalent of a current time pot bust photo. Could be wrong though, R. Brian.

      • Nice, thanks David.

        I see your point.

        I was thinking you might see a badge or holster or gun…if they were the dry squad.

        I thought it might be guys showing off their projects.

        Interesting stuff.

  • All those tunnels under the old city are really cool. A old friend of mine found two perfect pumpkin seed whiskey bottles. Lots of opim vials to.
    If you’re a bottle hunter, under the Carson mansion is the spot

  • And when prohibition ended, the fed goons realized that they had hundreds of “agents” without anyone to point their guns at, they invented the 1934 GCA (gun control act) which gave us the glorious band of assholes known as the A.T.F.
    That is, until Oklahoma went bang, and they tacked the “E” at the end of their moniker.
    Read John Ross’s Unintended Consequences for a real history lesson that will never be taught in any public school…

  • I think all the tunnels are a pretty interesting history. Los Angeles had tunnels too, but unlike most big cities during prohibition, LAPD ran the underground booze scene… They didn’t want the mob coming in like in NY City etc. I’d love to see some of these tunnels and maybe some remaining 1920’s wall art as they have down in LA where the many speakeasies were located underground.

  • Late comment again! Great stories.

    I was reminded of a post that I did back in 2008. At the bottom is a prescription for alcohol. Kym Kemp actually made a comment on it.

    Here’s a link to “Hooch” https://ernielb.blogspot.com/2008/02/hooch.html

  • Lost Croat Outburst

    If your chickens are getting drunk on your sour mash, is that cruelty to livestock as an additional charge?

    • Apparently the sour mash was irresistible to many critters… after reports of “hilarious times as the result of bootleg whisky in the southern portion of the county as far away as Phillipsville”, the dry squad searched and found a still on the Van Duzen near Blue Slide. “That the distillery was well patronized was indicated by the many wagon and auto tracks in a road leading to its vicinity Not only that but the wild animals of the vicinity had “got wise” to the good things there & undoubtedly had been having a high old time also. Of course they did not get the pure stuff but had t content themselves with the spent mash dumped out on the hillside. Around these mash dumps the officers found all kinds of animal tracks the most notable being bear tracks.” Humboldt Times, date unknown

  • Excerpt from “Bits of the Past” by J. W. McCarthy:

    Dry Squad

    During Prohibition Days the County Dry Squad consisted of Wm. McKay, John Cunning, Steve Hash, Nifty Hill and Vince Getty. They not only had a difficult time trying to control bootleggers by locating the stills and arresting those who manufactured the liquor, they also had to catch those who sold moonshine by the glass. One of the tricks they employed was the sprinkling of flour on the back steps of an establishment at night. Usually it was a place that they had raided several times only to have the bartender break the bottle containing the liquor over an open sink, allowing the moonshine to flush away so there would be no evidence. By sprinkling the flour they were able to follow the footsteps to a wood pile where the main cache was hidden. Hence the arrests were made.

    Another of their problems was the Chinese ships that came into Humboldt Bay for lumber. The liquor was stilled aboard ship and the contents were bottled in bottles with popular American labels. Our Dry Squad was stymied since they did not have the authority to make a raid on a foreign vessel. The only thing they could do was to search the crew members as them came ashore and confiscate any liquor found on them. As the Chinese could not speak English there was much jabbering over the seizure but the Dry Squad always won. They could do nothing but take the liquor and let the crew members go. Some of our younger boys became smart to the actions of the Chinese and by flashing phony badges, took the bottles from the protesting Chinese.

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