Odd, Old News: Bootlegging in Southern Humboldt
With a local population “upfront about violating the eighteenth amendment”, Southern Humboldt had more than its share of moonshiners and bootleggers. The widespread civil disobedience of prohibition laws crossed all economic classes, from backwoods “good ol’ boys” to the Hollywood elite who came north to vacation and party in Redwood country via the newly completed Redwood Highway. Built in the 1920’s, the Hartsook and the Benbow Inns became popular destinations for the rich. The Hartsook Inn served alcohol from local moonshiners, but the Benbow Inn did not serve alcohol due to the religious beliefs of the Benbow family. However, it was reported that the Benbow Inn looked the other way when celebrities brought their own alcohol supply.
In the middle 1980’s there was a Southern Humboldt History and Genealogy group that met and recorded interviews from the area’s elders. Thanks to Mary Anderson who wrote up the interviews for articles in the Redwood Record, amazing histories were preserved. The following article, which we have excerpted, reveals the bootlegger’s world from the perspective of one of the most iconic locals of his generation, Fred Wolf, Jr., whose descendants still live on his homestead in the Ettersburg area.
From The Redwood Record 12/20/84
ROARING THROUGH THE TWENTIES IN GARBERVILLE—FRED WOLF
By Mary Anderson
(The following is from a transcript of a taped interview taken at a meeting of the Southern Humboldt Historical and Genealogical Society meeting)
As one of the older of the old timers, Fred Wolf has become something of a legend in his own time. He was born over eighty years ago (he doesn’t say exactly how many years over) at Four Corners on the coast side of Whitethorn. He was delivered by Sally Bell, the Sinkyone Indian woman who was a noted midwife and healer in that area and the one for whom the Sally Bell Grove was named.Wolf was a blue baby, and Sally Bell’s use of roots gathered by her husband Tom is credited with saving the infant’s life…. In eighty years of life, there’s time to do many things and in his youth, Wolf tried as many of them as he could. He did ranch work, both for his father and others, drove mail stage, worked in the woods and even tried riding the rails during the Great Depression.…..The two most popular pastimes in Wolf’s heyday were bootlegging and poaching, and as he remembers it, there was plenty of both going on in Southern Humboldt. “I can remember one time there was a rum runner hit the Benbow Bridge in a Hudson. Wrecked. Well everybody in town here (Garberville) heard about it and wet down there and loaded up with booze. One fellow over here, an old guy, says ‘Come on Wolf, Let’s go to Benbow’. So we went and he says ‘Slow down’ and he grabbed up two hugs. That was old Shorty Brannigan. He worked for the Tuttle Ranch for quite a number of years… So anyway, Shorty come back and throwed them bottle in back and the town marshall he says ‘Stop or I’ll shoot,’ and Shorty hollered back ‘Shoot!’ So we went up Bowden ranch down by the river and through that way. When we got back to Garberville, here was the dry squad. Parked up on the highway. They’d been down to Benbow to get the booze. Shorty says, ‘Gee we made a luck trip’. Well Shorty was drunk for two months. That was good moonshine. Shorty loved it.”The dry squad was the team of revenue agents that tried to enforce prohibition and they apparently had their hands full around here. “Darn right there was a lot of bootleggin’ up here.” Wolf says. “At one time there was about three or four saloons right here in town. My dad operated one of the, Jess Smalley had one and Curly Underwood peddled it. This was back in the early twenties. Everybody knew it.” The government knew it too, Wolf says, and the dry squad made periodic raids in town. ‘But then they’d raid you once and if you didn’t pay the $250 fine you could serve your six months. Most of them took the six months of free board and room. That was the way they paid the fine. I know different ones that was in on that and I come prett’ near being in on that myself’ cause I run booze. Somebody would come in and say ‘Well, let’s go get a load of booze’ and well, I was young and didn’t give a damn.” Wolf says he’d go down to Napa County to get his bootleg or down to Santa Rosa or Petaluma………………….There was also stills operating in the area, brewing up a local product. “Out in Ettersburg country, I know of three different stills,” Wolf says, “and then there was a lot of booze that come in by boat at Shelter Cove.” To hear Wolf tell it, the majority of locals were upfront about violating the eighteenth amendment, but prohibition did have its local supporters, too. Well, I imagine somebody turned them in to the revenue,” he says. “Sometimes one rum runner would report on the other one.”
Long-time resident Erwin Foltz was also present at the meeting and joined Wolf in reminiscing about the days of prohibition. He says the dry squad was composed of three men: Cheetam, Hash and Willy McKay. “They come up and had dinner at our house once while they was raiding our neighbors,” Foltz says. “We didn’t want to feed them but we had no choice.”
Those were rough and tumble times and apparently young fellows were more or less preoccupied with getting booze. “I remember a fellow out in Briceland named Whitaker, he worked over on the Grothe ranch. He got his booze in five gallon jugs. One time I hauled the guys down there and they went in and got him drunk and what was in the jug. It was just hijackin’ but he had more money than the rest of us did and we needed the —– so we took it. But Whitaker, he was there two-three years and he was drunk most of the time.”Wolf remembers another almost legendary character, Sy Cole. “There was one time I went up there and he was in the house and it was rainin’ and I said ‘God, Sy, I’d like to have a drink,’ and he said ‘I aint got a drop.’ I says ‘You’re a durn liar. I can go get one.’ So he says ‘No, you wait, I’ll go get it myself.’ the same with Walter Briceland. I come in and I wanted to buy a quart. Generally it was in a quart vinegar bottle but any kind of clear bottle would do. But a quart vinegar bottle was five dollars. So I stopped there with Walter and said ‘My dad’s sick. I got to have a quart of whiskey.’ ‘I ain’t got one’ he says. ‘Alright’ I says, ‘I’ll go out to the smokehouse and get one.’ ‘No you won’t,’ he says. ‘I’ll go get it for you.’ He had a still in his smokehouse there in Briceland. Out in Ettersburg, Carl Briceland had a still, Sy Cole had a still, Roarke had a still and there were one of two others that had stills in there. Seemed like they all made a livin’. Somebody would buy it and drink it.“But there was one thing that I always done. You come in and offer me a drink out of full bottle I wouldn’t take it. You had to take the first drink. If it didn’t kill you it wasn’t goin’ to kill me. Some that stuff was awful” Now old Sy Cole when he stayed sober, he made darn good liquor. It was good as good as any. Same way with Walter Briceland.A car was essential for bootlegging and Wolf had one. It wasn’t so fast. He says it took him about five hours to get to Eureka. “They didn’t have the speed that cars got now. My old car, the low gear was four miles an hour. When you’d get up to around twelve of fifteen, they you’d get into high gear. Then you’d have one of them old push-and-pulls on the Model T. You push with your foot and pull the lever down with your hand. I had two or three of them. Like comin’ out of Ettersburg in the wintertime, it would be a little bit wet, so you’d always carry somebody else with ya and then he’d get out and push. With the old Dodge I had, I could pull the hand throttle down and put it in low gear and get out and push with him” It was only goin’ four miles an hour. Just run along the side and push. We got by, though.” It doesn’t sound like much to make a fast getaway from the revenue but the law was similarly equipped, presumably. “When you’re young and somebody dares ya,” Wolf says, “you take the chance.”Even though the dry squad was bad news for the local bootleggers, sometimes the local law enforcement tried to look the other way. “There was one time I came in to town” and the marshall come over to me and said, ‘Wolf, you’d better get out of town. The squad is out here pickin’ up Walter and you’re goin’ to be called in as a witness.’ So I tuned up the car and away I went and came back in about a week. Then the constable says to me “Where were ya?” I told him I had business out of town and I asked him what happened to Walter. He said since there was nobody to testify against him they had to turn him loose……
Along with the bootlegging, Wolf remembers an attempt to establish a house of ill repute in Garberville. “There was one fella years ago moved a couple of girls in for the red light business. The didn’t last but about hours. When the women of Garberville found out about it, those girls was down the road! They come in about three o’clock and by dark they were gone!”
Shelter Cove was a different story. Wolf remembers there were two red light houses in tents at the Cove. “The women, the fishermen’s wives would count everybody that went into the tents,” Wold says. “They asked me one day, ‘Don’t you ever go’ and I said ‘what for?’ But I found out that I could go through the grinding’ room and sackin’ room and then had about two jumps and I was in the tent” But I don’t know, nobody ever seemed to get hurt. But when I was a young fella and somebody dared me, I would always say, ‘Let’s go.’”
One of the Shelter cove ladies was known as Cleone Jackrabbit, Mrs. Meek. “Well, she prett’ near got run out of the Cove,” Wolf remembers. “She come down one time with a load of booze. She was peddlin’ booze and what-have-you, like the business she was in. The women told her she had to get out, so she just moved her business up into the eucalyptus grove up there and kept right on a-going. She was one of the red light gals and of course she brought her booze in. The two just seemed to go together in them days”…
…”One time in Thorn, there was this guy at the bar asleep, laying on the bar asleep. One guy said if he had a clipping machine he’d fix him and other said I got one at home. So, go get it and they just mowed a swath right over the middle of his head. He raised up and looked up in the glass and there was he was with the swath right down his hide in the middle of hair. Now if he could have found who done it there would have been a dead bunch in Thorn! That bar was called the Bucket of Blood and there was prett’ near a fight every night there.”
Reporting only fun stories about the prohibition era would be a disservice to the reality of the dark side of alcoholism, the lives destroyed, and the many families who were broken up because of excessive alcohol consumption. Some of the main motivations for prohibition were wives tired of their men coming home drunk and being mean. Reading through the newspapers of the day reveals many divorces caused by alcoholism, a pattern that obviously continues today.
Note: Cyrus Cole, the legendary Humboldt County moonshiner, was Kym Kemp’s great-great uncle.