"Wonderful Old Lawrence" by Elfriede Fischer Rowe

Liquor in the Prohibition Era

Drawing of a fella with an umbrella sneaking downstairs to go out but dressed for bed, with a wall grandfather-style clock in the background, and sound effects of feet hitting the treads of the stairs

     SESSIONS OF THE KANSAS LEGISLATURE these days usually take up the subject of liquor by the drink. This is a far cry from the days of national prohibition. It brings to mind the many devious ways people used to get around the law then. Bootleggers abounded. But it wasn't too easy to buy liquor in those days. You had to know the right people or have friends who passed you the word where to get it. And in turn, in Lawrence the bootlegger had to know about your integrity in not advertising his existence.

     Lawrence had numerous methods of delivering liquor. A cornfield was one contact. Then there was "Aunt Jane" who lived in east Lawrence and supplied many a student. Pittsburg had its "deep shaft" whiskey. In fact, that whiskey was delivered as far east as New York City. A Lawrence man made that discovery when he was there and was being entertained.

     Nearby Leavenworth used a milk wagon for delivery. The liquor was bottled in milk bottles that were painted white inside, so the contents looked like milk. The story goes that the expression, "Bathtub Gin" got its origin from Leavenworth. They claimed that many a gallon of gin was mixed in bath tubs in officers quarters.

     One of our friends traveled for a living and Wichita was on his route. While down there one week, he was warned by his friends to be careful of bootleg whiskey made around there, because some people had been blinded by drinking it. It had too much fusel oil in it. When he returned home that weekend, he and his wife attended a dinner party where whiskey was served

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in cocktails. The man cautioned all of the guests about the danger of fusel oil. After the party, the family retired for the night. Several hours later, the husband awoke. He pulled the light cord by his bed to get up. All was darkness to him. He panicked. He woke his wife and said, "Honey, I'm blind. I must have gotten too much fusel oil. I turned on the light and I can't see a thing. Call the doctor. I'm blind." She sleepily said, "Oh, that. The bulb burned out last night and I forgot to put in a new one. Go back to sleep."

     Then it became the thing to do, to make your own wine and beer and gin. Whiskey was never attempted. The beer making was taken on as a community enterprise among close friends. Huge pottery jars, bottling caps and bottles were purchased. Drug stores advertised the various ingredients to make the beer, and the tools to make and bottle it. There were many discussions by the men as to which brand of malt was the best and where you could buy it the cheapest. The men figured how much a bottle the stuff cost. All brands of malt were tried. Each man had his favorite kind.

     The beer had to work so long, and then when it reached a certain temperature, it had to be bottled immediately. If you were to be away for the evening, there would be a quick last minute trip to the cellar to figure how many hours you could be gone. Sometimes the man would leave a party and take one or two friends with him to help bottle, and then they would come back to the party. The women had nothing to do with any of the operations. It was strictly a male project.

     One time a bottle of beer was opened in our kitchen. It must have gotten too warm. The stuff shot out like "Old Faithful", and we had to have our kitchen repainted. Sometimes the beer would explode in the basement where the bottles were shelved. You might be sitting upstairs quietly playing Bridge when a loud popping would be heard from the cellar area. If the man of the house was home, one wild dash to the cellar would take place. One time, one of the men took an umbrella with him to protect himself from flying glass. Beer making did have its hazards.

     Wine making followed. Dandelion, wheat, wild elderberry and wild grape, all were tried. Everybody exchanged recipes and samples. But domestic grape was the most successful and popular. Again, wine presses were bought, clean barrels purchased from the Poehler Mercantile Company, and syrup barrels from the drug stores. Quite a few grapes were grown in those years in and around Lawrence.

     A few times, several merchants got together and bought a carload of grapes to be shipped from California. Then there was much activity as the grapes had to be used before they spoiled.

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One thing was for sure, you always knew who was making wine, because the minute you stepped in a house, those little gnats that fly around fruit, would greet you at the front door. Then there were the gin makers. The alcohol was obtained from bootleggers or bootleg drug stores. Once in a while, a doctor friend would write a prescription for pure grain alcohol and you got it filled at a certain drug store in Kansas City. It was legal to sell juniper oil. The gin was supposed to be better the more you mixed the alcohol, juniper oil and distilled water. It was common practice for many to have a half gallon bottle under the back seat of your car. The jolting and vibrations of the car did the mixing for you.

     It may be hard to believe, but it would appear that these consumers of 40 years ago, have survived with no ulcers, at least not many, that is.

     Printed in Journal-World Jan. 10, 1968

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