St. Mary’s: Land of the Fiddle and the Flask
Despite the enactment of Prohibition laws, whiskey stills abounded in St. Mary’s County during the 1920s and 1930s. Aleck Loker, prominent local historian, wrote “….when the nation went dry, St. Mary’s County rediscovered the value of home-brewed liquor…. Bootlegging offered a large return on investment – about $24.00 for each $4.00 sack of sugar.” Quoting Dr. Roy Guyther, he says “Reliable estimates by a local attorney in practice during that era indicate that only one in ten St. Mary’s residents who were arrested for violation of the Volstead Act were convicted.” But bootlegging was not without risk. In one notable case, Federal Revenue Agents shot numerous times and killed Charles P. Gundlach, an elderly St. Mary’s Countian suspected of making illegal alcohol.
There are many other Countians with memories of Prohibition times in St. Mary’s. Some of their stories are below, excerpts from chapter one of the John Hanson Briscoe Historical Project, “Johnny Briscoe, A Great Life,” available for download here.
J. Frank Raley, a state senator whose father ran a general store in the south county during Prohibition: “Things weren’t going too well down here, there wasn’t much going on, this place had gotten steadily poorer, it was one of the poorest counties and areas in the whole state of Maryland….It went to bootlegging, this was a heavy bootlegging country. I don’t know if you knew that but this was ideal for it because it was a peninsula with heavily wooded, hard to, for the revenue officers to get in without being detected. They even had a surveillance system, a local surveillance system, everybody, all the local people….the community, the citizens they were very much opposed to Prohibition and they of course flaunted the law absolutely and all banded together into a vast network of watching out for the revenue officers when, if they started down the road the lookouts would spy them and then they would call in to make sure that everybody got away from their stills.”
A country businessman active in the same area as J. Frank’s father, T. Webster Bell shared this memory: “Well, he’s dead and gone now so I guess it’s all right to mention his name. Vernon Milburn. And he had a sister. She was a right sharp lookin gal, she worked for the internal revenue, the prohibition department. She knew, she could overhear ’em talkin, these fellas that would come down and bust up these stills. They’d always be two, three, or four, dependin on the size of the operation and how much work was involved. It would take ’em back in those days anywhere from two to three hours to get down here from the time they left Washington. And she would know exactly where they were goin and what still they were goin to raid that day. And course she would call ahead and tell the operator, or Central as we called it, what was getting ready to come off. Then if the people they were gonna raid that day was, didn’t have a phone, why she’d raise for somebody to get in touch with them some way or another. So she’d call somebody that did have a phone, ask them to go over and tell Joe Dokes or who it would happen to be that the revenue agents was on their way down and to clean out. Well, course they not only would bust up the still and destroy all their mash and everything that they used to make it, but what they wanted to do was catch these fellas, ya know. But if they got tipped off, why of course they’d have to leave all their equipment behind, but the main thing was not to get caught, ya know. But I’ve always said that I don’t blame people for what they do, I only blame them for gettin caught.”
Loretta Beavan Norris, who grew up in Leonardtown, the centrally-located county seat: “The revenue men were always around looking for everybody. In fact, Randolph Brewer lived up over here on Brown Road. And he shot Gundlach over here behind us, two farms over. My husband picked up the shell….old man Gundlach was a friend of this family. He was an old German man and they heard the gunshots and went over there and my husband picked up the gun shell and put it in his pocket. Phil Dorsey was the lawyer and they took Berkman to Baltimore to testify because he had the gun shell in his pocket. But old man Gundlach, Brewer shot him in his door of his house. In the 70’s or early 80’s the Tech Center was building a house on that property, on that hill, on Brown Road. So Berkman said to my son John, John was the county engineer at that time, “John, they can’t build a house on that piece of property; Gundlach is buried there.” He said “Oh, dad, come on.” He said “John, I buried him. I know he’s there.” So ok, they start to dig for the foundation and they find Mr. Gundlach’s bones. They had to stop digging until they found a place for Mr. Gundlach’s bones.”
Loretta Beavan Norris said that Revenuers came onto her farm in the 1930’s. “They would come checking to see if they could find a still. The saw mill and the grist mill were both down here behind John’s house, behind those houses down on that stream. (A running creek was required for the purpose of cooling the copper tubing during the distilling process.) And they would come in here checking to see what was going on and checking to see if there were any stills on the property. Of course, Berkman’s family didn’t make any whiskey, but they did have the saw mill and they did saw the lumber that the people would come and buy and they made the boxes for the mash. Then they would have the gristmill over here grinding the mash. So of course they knew something was going on. Everybody made whiskey. I can remember my grandfather didn’t make whiskey, but he would buy a big keg of whiskey and fill it full of rock candy and peaches, and age it up in the closet.”
Lari Mako, who grew up in Leonardtown nearby Loretta Norris: “There were moon shiners everywhere in this county. Absolutely true. I could tell you stories. Well the thing of it is, when my father and mother got married, he loved it down here and she hated it. And he promised her he’d never take her to the country to live if she’d marry him. His grandfather died about a year later and left him some money and he came down here and bought a 100 acre farm in Helen. And we had a terrible time because there was so much property and there were about six stills on it. He’d get the people off of there and then they’d come back. And my grandfather went almost crazy with it; not my father, my father was dead then, but my grandfather because it was a tobacco farm and we didn’t live there. We rented it to tenant farmers. There were like three farms on it. I’d say to my mother, ‘ Did they get another still?’, talking about the Internal Revenue. The Internal Revenue came down to Southern Maryland very often to check on the stills and this is during Prohibition.”
“In those days the hotel had burned down so people of the town would take the revenue men in for the night. The largest room in the house was called ‘Uncle Claude’s room’. It was at the far end of the house. Uncle Claude was dead long ago; they just called it that. Well, that was my grandfather’s cousin or brother or somebody, you know, and the story is he came for dinner and stayed for five years or something like that and they called it his room. My grandfather invited two revenuers to spend the night. And they were there two nights and on the third night, the next day after they left, actually the ceiling came down in that room and all this liquor spilt into it. My uncle, Joseph C. Mattingly, had much liquor stored up in the attic. I think my Uncle Joseph made a lot of money in bootlegging. I don’t think he was a bootlegger, but he sold it. He worked at Loker’s store, owned by George Loker. I think there was a good place to supply liquor in the back room. I think they called that bootleg whiskey and that’s all they had. They were drinking it down here. My Uncle Joseph’s friend, Senator Tydings, he used to come down and get it regularly. Everybody drank certainly more liquor in those days than they do now. My Uncle Joseph lived in that house, but not in that room. He had put his liquor up in the attic; there was a room that you could close up and lock and he had put the liquor in there. I’m sure he sold it from up there. They must’ve taken quart jars and taken them up there and got it. Maybe he was in a hurry one day or something, I don’t know. But one of the barrels had fallen over and it leaked. And those houses just had plaster and it leaked all through the plaster.
“It wasn’t legal what he was doing and you certainly wouldn’t have been inviting revenuers to stay. I’m sure Uncle Joseph was worried when my grandfather did it. My grandfather had no idea the liquor was there, heavens no! He wouldn’t have allowed that for a minute. He knew nothing about that. My grandfather maybe drank a little hot toddy every once in a while, but that was it. My grandfather had a wonderful sense of humor. I remember him telling Judge Loker this story and they got hysterical, but it’s really a true story. The day after they left the ceiling fell down.
“And in Leonardtown at one time, I’m not exaggerating, we had about seven or eight bars. If you went to the hardware store there was a bar in the back. If you went to the grocery store there was a bar in the back. No matter where you went I can’t remember there not being a bar.”
Paul Bailey was also a future state senator, who had this colorful characterization of his mother county: “I’m not ashamed ever to say that drinking in moderation was likewise a part of the life here. All the church festivals had beer. Never heard of them selling whiskey at a festival. And even during Prohibition, homemade beer was sold everywhere in St. Mary’s county. The county was always called as I told you at the outset of this part of your interview, ‘the land of the fiddle and the flask’. It sure was.”
Larry Millison likewise recalled the practice of giving out alcohol at church festivals: “If the father was a drinkin man, you’d give him a pint of gover– what we called government whiskey. That was, you see … bootleggin was a very big industry in St. Mary’s County, and particularly on Cedar Point. Even after Prohibition was repealed, where in most parts of the United States they stopped making whiskey, they still continued to make whiskey in St. Mary’s County. People actually liked homemade whiskey better than what they called store-bought whiskey, or government whiskey, which was manufact– you know, it was the popular brands of whiskeys we know today. Of course, the tax situation changed so that as time went on, the taxes on whiskey, on alcohol, got very high, which encouraged the manufacture of homemade whiskey. Homemade whiskey is still an industry in St. Mary’s County. Of course, during Prohibition, you made friends with the local storekeeper, like a fellow like my father, who would discreetly supply you with sugar, which was necessary to have to make the whiskey. Sugar whiskey. And mason jars. Of course, the way of capturing, or finding out about the bootleggers was who was buying the, an unusual amount of sugar, and an unusual amount of mason jars. So, the local store merchant had to get em for you. And he also had to discreetly sell em to ya, so that it wouldn’t cause anybody any attention. It was not uncommon to take your truck to Baltimore, and get a load of sugar, and a load of bottles and mason jars. And not ever unload em at the store, and load em at someone’s farm, or two or three people’s farms. You certainly realize that a man with two or three children, buying a ton of sugar every other week, wasn’t usin it to bake pies with. Of course, at the local store– there weren’t many telephones. So people would come to the store to use the phone. And the store’s– Roy Dyson’s grandmother, Congressman Dyson’s, Florence Dyson, she was the telephone operator in Great Mills. She was a lovely woman. Usually the revenue agents would come in to St. Mary’s County through Charles County.”
Larry Millison: “Right next to the Officers’ Club on the base (Patuxent River Naval Air Station on Cedar Point, in the south end of the county; during Prohibition the base hadn’t yet been built) was a still. It was a little stream. See, when you go to– the kind of whiskey they made here, you need a stream, cause you need water running over the coils, in order to keep it cool. There was a little stream down there, let’s see, what did they call that stream, it’s Goose Creek now. See, when I was a kid, that wasn’t open. It’s open now. The Navy opened it up; it’s right by Cedar Point lighthouse there. It was a stream made up in there. I remember it was a still there. There were, I’m sure, twenty, thirty stills on Cedar Point. People would move the stills all the time. You know, as the revenuers found out about em.”
“Famous story is that a, was a fella by the name of– better not call his name, cause he might get in trouble. I’m sure he’s dead anyway, but I won’t call his name. But anyway we’ll call him Mister Jones. He had a still that– he had bad luck there. The revenuers used to catch him, his still about every six months. He had a very famous piece of I-beam that would hold the kettle. They would blow his still up, but they never damaged this piece of metal. They could always tell it was his still, cause he would go after the revenuers had raided the still, and he would salvage what he could with jars that didn’t break. And he would take this I-beam and use it to hold the kettle in the next still he made. So when they found the still in– he was sorta identified by his piece of I-beam. And ninety, ninety-five percent of St. Mary’s County was involved directly or indirectly in the manufacture of alcohol. People would come down from Washington and– of course, we’re talkin about Cedar Point but in Great Mills was called Little Mexico. O course you know the big hill going up by the ‘macculate Heart of Mary. It was not uncommon to, for the group that hung in Great Mills, my Uncle Sam was one of em, they would sell a load of whiskey. And when the people would drive off, going up the road, up ‘maculate Heart, by ‘maculate Heart Church [corrects himself], no, not Immaculate Heart, excuse me, by Little Flower– they would hijack em. In other words, they would be going up the road in low gear, and maybe they’d be going seven, eight, nine, ten miles an hour, and they would jump on the runnin board and take the whiskey away from em. Back the truck back into Great Mills and sell it to someone else. It was sorta like a little Mexico. Of course, all these people would come down from Washington, and a lotta the bootleggers had cars with smoke-pots on em. They’d travel in a little caravan, maybe twenty, thirty of em. They’d have false bottoms. Like I say, Missus Dyson would let everybody know where the revenuers were. When they were raiding, they would come down the road, they’d come through Hughesville and Mechanicsville and Charlotte Hall and Laurel Grove. Everybody would hang around the store. And when they would get close to Cedar Point, everybody would go home, put the fires out on the stills, and hide what they felt they wanted to hide. My Uncle Sam had a route. And he and a fella named Senator Elrey that was my Aunt Nettie’s boyfriend, and they would deliver whiskey in Washington every Tuesday and Thursday. They would drive right into Washington. They had a fella who was a captain in the Washington police force. He would stand on the runnin board as they went through Washington. And he would sorta fix it so they could double-park. And they would deliver alcohol to their little route of congressmen and senators and government officials. And this captain in the Washington police force he would look out, he would sorta like give em escort service. So it was a big business here.”
Charles E. Fenwick, a local historian: “Every one of the little stores had whiskey in em somewhere. I knowed a man that ran a store in Leonardtown down at the wharf. He was out over the water, and he was very cautious. He had a little trapdoor there and he would let his whiskey down into the water. When somebody came in to drink he would pull the string and bring it up and sell them a drink… We had one man in Leonardtown. He was a big tall man and he had a great big overcoat and he must a had fifty pockets in that overcoat. If you wanted a bottle of whiskey, he’d give you half a pint … You’d give him fifty cents and he’d give you half a pint of moonshine. That’s after the stores closed at night. He’d walk around all night. Anybody wanted to spend fifty cents, he was a walking barroom.”
“The Virginians came up here, mostly from Petersburg, Virginia. They were considered a rather rough bunch. They had five hundred gallon a day stills. They would put that stuff in half a gallon mason jars. Course it was ‘white lightnin’ they called it. No color. Pack it up in Cadillac touring cars, they called them ‘The Capital Limited’ and they would take out for Washington. They told me they would go so fast that the cop couldn’t catch em on a motorcycle. Or maybe they were paid and they didn’t, I don’t know.”
“There was a story in The Enterprise recently about Mister Gundlach. He was buried out here on his little farm. I remember Gundlach very well. He drove his horse to town when I worked at the store. The talk around then was that he had a little still, ya know, ten, fifteen, twenty gallons a day. Maybe five or ten gallons and make two batches a day. The story was that the revenue officers, if they didn’t arrest him, then he had to pay them a certain amount. Well, that old fella, he wasn’t about to pay them anything and he didn’t and they shot him.”
But perhaps the best stories come from Webster Dyson, who was a resident of St. Inigoes, and had this: “Most time we boys done the work on the farm. Daddy tell us what’s do. He might work a couple hours, but most time he be handlin’ whiskey. He was a bootlegger.
“He sold whiskey in half pint bottles. We’d walk the beach, pick up whiskey bottles, and sell ‘em to our father for two cent a piece. He had one still in the barn, one in the woods, and one in the attic. Revenuers come by to the house one time, and they said to my father, ‘ You know there’s a still down by your place in the woods?’. Daddy said ‘ No, I didn’t know it.’ They said ‘We gonna warn you.’ We didn’t wanna scare you, but we gonna go down there and dynamite it.’ We couldn’t say nothin’, but it was nothin’ but daddy’s still. Everybody set there and wait for the dynamite to go up. Everybody heard em go up – BOOM! BOOM! Had two left, and he put another one ‘n’ no time.”
“Then one time a State trooper comes in one night and told daddy that he was a big bootlegger and that they were gonna pick him up pretty soon. So he come in that night and got the rifle, the shotgun, and the revolver, and told me and my oldest brother ‘ Y’all jus get up an put your clothes on. ‘Said’ We got some work to do.’ We didn’t know what was goin’ on. He said ‘Go down and put the mules to the wagon.’ So he come out with the shotgun, the rifle, and the revolver, took us down ‘n the woods, and took the still down in the woods – it was down there in back of the base – put it on a wagon, took it up Town Creek, and set it up ‘fore that next day mornin. That State Trooper knew what was goin on so daddy got kinda shy.
“I wa’n nothin but about ten, eleven years old, but we stuck by daddy. We liked my father. Sometimes he on the road delivering; he deliver most of it. Some of it, people from the Eastern Shore or Calvert County would come over and get it. After World War I was over, they stuck a lotta ships out there in the Patuxent. Somebody bought them ships and kept them up. And they bought a lot of daddy’s whiskey. Sometime they put a whole keg on one of those ships. I think a keg would age for round six month. When the six month wa’ up, they come and pick it up. But most time they bought it green. People from Calvert County come down in a boat, and they come down on the bank. We set a kerosene lamp on the shore, and we go up on the bank and wait til they come in. When they come in, we go down, help ’em load up, and pick up the money. Most time, couple of us stay up on the bank in case someone come.
“We had put out fishin lines with small hooks on, you know. You see, you delivered at nighttime, and them revenuers come round one o’clock in the morning. So my daddy takes some black fishing cord, set it ’bout so high from the ground, and put fish hooks on it – ’bout fifteen, twenty inches apart on the cord – and wound it through the woods and round the still. When someone come in the area, they don’t see the cord, and they get hung up on them hooks. Once he would get turned away, another hook would catch him. And we had cow bells on em, so the bells would ring, you know, and let you know somebody near. But we never had no trouble cause we always set in case they did come.
“Revenuers had a hard time getting down without us knowin it. So much bootlegging going on in those days, it was fun to sit and tell jokes about how they run certain guys. They run ya, try in’ a catch ya. We’d be sittin in school and they’d come past school, run through the woods, and we’d say ‘ There goes another Revenuers man.’
“My old man have a card party every Saturday night where he sold his own whiskey, and he sold ham and chicken sandwiches. Charge people ten cents ‘a come in. People from Carver Town come over, and people from up in the swamp come down. We had a big ol’ room called the parlor, and they’d go in there and dance, they would. Had a little band. Like, all my father’s brothers and a few others play most any kinda music. We’d have a card party in one room, and they be dancing in the other. In that room where they had a card party, they would raffle chickens and ducks, and you get more money like that than you would sellin em.
“Then we had’a go church every Sunday.”