Never dry, just damp
Some still remember Prohibition & Richford
By Linda Collins
St. Albans Messenger Correspondent
(Photos shown were taken by Greg Bessette and scanned from the St. Albans Messenger published on Monday, February 24, 2003 and in no way reflect the quality of Greg's work)
RICHFORD-Author Scott Wheeler calls them "walking textbooks of American History" and advises people to record as many memories as possible from those who have lived the history of this country.
Wheeler, author of "Rumrunners and Revenuers: Prohibition in Vermont" was referring to the gentlemen who shared the podium with him at the Richford Fire Station last Thursday evening.
Sterling Weed, 101, and William "Dig" Rowley, 93, are the subjects of two of the chapters in Wheeler's book, which features oral histories from many Vermonters. About 50 people came to hear the trio speak about Prohibition days at a program sponsored by the Arvin A. Brown Library.
Scott Wheeler, author of the prohibition based novel, "Rumrunners and Revenuers," joins Sterling Weed, 101, during Thursday's presentation
Wheeler, of Derby, is a writer and history enthusiast who is working on another book about World War 1I veterans, both American and German, who made their homes in Vermont following the war. He also publishes a monthly journal called, "The Kingdom Historical," which features stories about the history of the Northeast Kingdom.
"Rumrunners and Revenuers" is a compilation of stories about Vermonters who participated in Prohibition either on one side of the law or the other. Many of the anecdotes are from personal interviews.
Wheeler's interest in the topic is personal
"My grandfather went on a six month all expense paid vacation to Windsor (prison). I guess he wasn't very good at rum running," he says.
Although his family didn't discuss it much, Wheeler figured his grandfather was just trying to make a living during the Depression when wages were about 26 cents an hour and one trip to Canada carrying back bootleg whiskey was worth $125.
Wheeler told the crowd that 150 years ago a group of women formed a Christian temperance union (WCTU) and blamed alcohol for the ruination of the country. When World War I came along, German breweries were the predominant source of beer and to drink it was considered un-American.
By the time the Volstead Act (prohibiting sale of alcoholic beverages) was passed, Vermont had been pushing for a prohibition for about 5O years.
"Vermont was never really dry," Wheeler says. "We were damp."
One could always buy beer in Vermont but this wasn't true in other states farther from the border. Consequently, Vermont became a corridor for running booze to the cities. There used to be traffic jams in Richford as people headed to the border on the weekends.
Weed recalled that it sometimes took a half an hour to get through St. Albans because of the lines of cars heading to the border.
Wheeler says the urban gangsters operated farther south of the border. "In 1932, the community in the United States that had the most residents per capita in federal prison was Lyndonville, Vermont, 35 miles form the border," he says.
Weed's chapter in the book is titled, "A View from the Bandstand." He has the distinction of being the oldest working bandleader in America at the age of 101. Weed jokes that he has bookings until he is 104
He and his band; Weed's Imperial Orchestra, played on both sides of the border during rum running days.
"Prohibition was a good thing in many ways," he says. "All the schools used to have dances and the parents used to attend with their children, it was nice. When Prohibition ended, the parents went back to the bars and the children were dropped off. Many families suffered because of alcohol."
Weed said his orchestra had to leave a $4,000 deposit at the border before going in to Canada to play and if no trouble came about they could collect their money on the way home.
Speaking of getting his money back, Weed says he is still waiting for "the Democrats" to return his money. He had amassed about $13,000 before the Depression and when the bank reopened he had only 13 cents left. "I'd like to skin them alive if I could," he says.
A legend in St. Albans and Vermont, the city celebrated Weed's 100th birthday with a public celebration in Taylor Park. He was recognized for bringing Big Band music to rural Vermont. A room in the Franklin County Museum, where Weed attended school, is dedicated to his life.
Weed, a lifelong non-drinker, says he isn't about to start at his age, but Prohibition provided him with some raucous memories.
Wheeler says one of the most memorble things about writing the book was meeting men like Weed and Dig Rowley and appreciating their great sense of humor.
"I sometimes wonder if you get a sense of humor as you get older, or if having a sense of humor makes you live to be older," Wheeler says.
Rowley, known as the official, unofficial Mayor of Richford, has a chapter in the book devoted to him titled, "Everything was Against Them."
The retired U.S. Customs agent says lawmen caught only about 10 percent of the lawbreakers.
The charismatic Rowley mesmerized the crowd with tales of growing up in Richford. As a Customs agent, he worked with the men who chased the bootleggers and who regaled him with stories.
He says business at the hotels in nearby Abercorn, Quebec was so good that gangsters brought and sold them on a regular basis.
"At one point there was so much noise and trouble that they had the bright idea of serving food with the alcohol," Rowley says.
This was the beginning of the "Famous Cheese Sandwich," obviously a ploy aimed at hiding a person's real reason for being at the business establishment.
Rowley explains. "When you ordered a beer," he says, "They'd bring a plate with a cheese sandwich so old the edges were curled up - nobody ever dreamed of eating it. When you were done drinking they took the sandwich away for the next guy"
Rowley recounts being picked up hitchhiking by a smuggler who took him for a wild ride. There also were tales of violence and an infamous dive caused the "Bucket of Blood" where Rowley says there was a ruckus every weekend.
"Once there was a gang of locals who walked up to the Abercorn House and started twisting the band's instruments around poles and jumping on their drums, then the action began, " he says. "There wasn't a pane of glass left in the Abercorn House by morning."
On a more serious side. Rowley says trying to stop the bootleggers was almost impossible. The Customs agents had no way to communicate with each other and public opinion was not always with the agent.
"The St. Albans Messenger played a vocal role in anti-prohibition editorials especially after a rum runner named Winston Titus of Jay was shot by a young Immigration agent.
Wheeler says, "They (revenue agents) said it was an accident and they were trying to shoot out his gas tank, but even if you supported Prohibition there were some things people just couldn't accept.
Wheeler's book, published by New England Press, is a fastpaced account filled with colorful anecdotes and historical facts. He concludes by bringing the story into modern times Bootlegging still occurs but the irony is that the booze is being smuggled into Canada instead of out, he says.
"Modern day smugglers are still using the same routes and operate in much the same fashion," Wheeler says.
Alcohol is three times more expensive in Canada and smugglers usually purchase the alcohol in New Hampshire where there is no tax. One of the most unusual tales of modern crime cited in the book is the case of the smugglers who ran a hose under ground from the U.S. to Canada and transported the liquor across the border into a tank. The humming of the sump pump alerted authorities.
Some things never change.
Wheeler plans a sequel to his book and is still collecting anectdotes about the Prohibition era and the people who lived it.
Note: "Rumrunners and Revenuers; Prohibition in Vermont" is available in Richford at Richford Rexall and elsewhere at most bookstores.