When the sale, production and transportation of alcohol were banned in the United States in 1920, Western Marylanders had to choose between becoming teetotalers or criminals. Many law-abiding citizens chose the latter.
“Illicit liquor, manufactured in countless stills in homes, farmyard barns, and even auto repair shops, could be bought all over the county.” Harry Stegmaier, Jr. wrote in Allegany County – A History.
One of the first raids in the county on these places where illegal liquor was sold and produced came about almost accidentally. On June 2, 1920, Elmer Dumar, owner of the Vimy Restaurant on North Mechanic Street was not very happy. His wife, Jennie, had spent part of the evening flirting with “a Spaniard,” according to the Cumberland Evening Times. Dumar finally lost his patience and got into a fight with the Spaniard. The man ran off and called the police.
“The Vimy Restaurant had long been a source of trouble for the local police and it was suspected that whiskey was either being sold outright in one of the rooms adjoining the restaurant, or else being made somewhere on the premises. The police chief decided once and for all that the local police department would get the inside story of the numerous fights that had kept them busy running to the Vimy during the past year,” Herman Miller wrote in Cumberland Through the Eyes of Herman J. Miller.
The police raided the restaurant and the Dumar apartment above it. They found two moonshine stills, six barrels of corn mash, four gallons of moonshine and other equipment for producing liquor. The Dumars and three other men were arrested.
Though Prohibition was not popular nationwide, Maryland was nearly defiant in its attitude toward the law. Maryland was the only state not to pass an enforcement act and it still called itself a “wet”, not “dry”, state.
A Cumberland Evening Times editorial proclaimed in 1920, “On the bootlegging proposition the police commissioner is probably right in his conclusion that the. United States army would not be able to stop drunkenness entirely. This probably would be true so long us preventing drunkenness depends upon the enforcement of so extreme and unreasonable a measure as the Volstead act which, in its entirety is not respected by one reasonable person in ten.”
The mayor of Lonaconing, John H. Evans, must have agreed with the sentiment. He was arrested for moonshining in 1942.
However, no matter how unpopular Prohibition was, law enforcement officials did their jobs. According to Miller, so many arrests were made for bootlegging and illegal liquor sales during Prohibition that the Allegany County Jail couldn’t hold everyone at times and the excess prisoners had to be kept in the Garrett County Jail in Oakland.
One of the reasons for so many arrests in Allegany County was due to the work of federal agent William R. Harvey. He could be considered Allegany County’s Eliot Ness.
“He could not be bribed, and he achieved quite a local reputation for his persistence in tracking down illicit whiskey. At one point, he trailed a bootlegger through the snow for several miles, from the swamp where the man confiscated a cache of moonshine,” Stegmaier wrote.
He became such a thorn in the sides of bootleggers that they backed his campaign for Allegany County Sheriff in 1926 because they thought it would give him additional work to do besides coming after them. Harvey won the election and served as sheriff for a time, but he eventually returned to working for the federal government.
If Harvey was Allegany County’s Eliot Ness, then Harry Klosterman of LaVale was probably the county’s Al Capone. Klosterman was the “king of local bootleggers,” according to Stegmaier.
“This amazing gentleman had stills scattered all over the area, including one in a house on Washington Street in Cumberland, right under the nose of the chief federal agent in the area, who lived nearby,” Stegmaier wrote.
Despite the comparisons, Western Maryland actually had very little problem with organized crime, such as what was seen in Chicago, during Prohibition. The reason for this is because nearly all of the moonshine in Mountain Maryland was made locally so organized crime never had much of an opportunity to get its foot in the door here.
On the night of January 23, 1923, Hawkins led a raid on Poole’s Garage at 361 Frederick Street in Cumberland.
“The raid, according to Agent Hawkins, resulted in the capture of one of the largest stills in this section and perhaps the largest in the state,” Miller wrote. “Agent Hawkins destroyed the $8,000 miniature distillery found on the third floor rear of the garage building. In addition to three forty-five gallon copper stills, which were in operation when the officers entered the place, they found six 500 gallon steel vats containing about 2,300 gallons of corn mash in the first stage of fermentation, three 50 gallon barrels of 126 proof liquor, six new empty-barrels, hundreds of empty bottles, jugs and jars, and all the conveniences of an up-to-date bootleg factory. In all, there were about 295 gallons of finished liquor in the room, ready for delivery.”
It took an hour to destroy the illegal liquor and dismantle the stills. Agents took samples of each barrel and then poured kerosene into the barrels. B.A. Poole, the garage owner’s son, was then called in to witness that each vat of corn mash had been poisoned with bichloride of mercury.
Hiding the stills
Because manufacturing liquor was illegal, the stills needed to be hidden out of sight of law-enforcement officials.
“In the Georges Creek region, abandoned mines proved convenient for housing stills and storing moonshine,” Stegmaier wrote.
One still was found in a hidden room in a house on Roberts Streets when an oil stove exploded in the room on July 11, 1925. The room was in the cellar of James R. Smith’s house. The explosion caught the house on fire, but when firemen arrived, they could see smoke coming through the parlor floor and through the floor around the flue in a front bedroom on the second floor but they couldn’t find the source.
“Finally, against the strenuous protest of the family, they began to dig through the floors of the parlor and the bedroom. Beneath the parlor floor they found a layer of earth about a foot thick and then a rough board ceiling, which covered a secret room in the cellar,” Miller wrote.
The flue from up to the second floor was four-feet wide, but from the second floor up to the roof, it was only 18 inches wide. A ladder in the wide flue led down to the secret room.
Another bootlegger who lived on North Mechanic Street had a platform constructed outside of a second-story window so that it hung over Wills Creek. It was designed so that if the house was raided, the bootlegger need only pull a rope and the bottom on the platform would drop and anything on the platform would crash into the rocks of Wills Creek destroying any evidence.
Another Cumberland bootlegger wore an overcoat wherever he went.
“People who didn’t know him thought he was an eccentric, but he had a half dozen pockets inside the coat in which he carried his stock of whiskey for sale,” Miller wrote.
Bars, which were called “speakeasies” during Prohibition, also had to be hidden out of sight. Some of Cumberland’s speakeasies could be found on Harrison Street near the American Legion, on Cumberland Street between Baltimore and Market streets and in many restaurants in the city.
The end of prohibition
Due to its unpopularity, Prohibition soon ended after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. However, Allegany County lagged a bit behind the rest of the state in switching over to selling alcohol. A bill passed in the state legislature stipulated that county beer permits didn’t become effective until seven days after the sale of beer became legal, which happened on April 7, 1933.
“You could buy beer on the first day of repeal in Pennsylvania. A store just over the state line on the Bedford Road was selling beer on the first day. A steady stream of Cumberlanders took advantage of the beer sale,” Miller wrote.
On April 14, beer sales finally became legal in the county and the speakeasies came out in the open to handle the steady business that now came their way.