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Historically Speaking: Prohibition and bootlegging in Southeast New Mexico

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Pictured from left are Shorty Neely on Maggie and Johnny Adams on Star. Photo taken in the 1930s on Adams' place northeast of Roswell near Bitter Lakes.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

To preface this week’s story about prohibition and bootlegging here in Southeast New Mexico, I would like to share a bit of the history leading up to prohibition.

According to the article, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” by the National Constitution Center, Oct. 19, 2012-April 28, 2013, there were many reasons leading up to prohibition.

“Step back in time to the era of flappers and suffragists, bootleggers and temperance workers, and real-life legends such as Al Capone and Carrie Nation. Prohibition was America’s most colorful and complex constitutional hiccup. Spanning from the dawn of the temperance movement, through the Roaring ‘20s, to the unprecedented repeal of a constitutional amendment.

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“On Jan. 17, 1920, a new day dawned. As the 18th Amendment went into effect, Americans could no longer manufacture, sell or transport intoxicating beverages (it actually stated, intoxicating liquors). Prohibition was now part of the Constitution, holding the same status as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the abolition of slavery.

“What did those who wanted America ‘dry’ hope to achieve? And how did the ‘wets’ ght back? These were the tumultuous years of 1920 to 1933, and why the country went dry in the rst place. Prohibition’s advocates said that they wanted to improve the nation’s moral and physical health, and in some ways, they succeeded. But the nation also endured a radical rise in crime, corruption and cynicism. By the time it ended with the ratication of the 21st Amendment in 1933, America had become a very different country.

“American colonists brought their thirst for alcohol with them to the new world. The ship Arbella, which arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, had more than 10,000 gallons of wine in its hold for 700 settlers. It also carried three times as much beer as water.”

Historian W.J. Rorabaugh wrote in his research on American alcohol consumption for The OAH Magazine of History: By 1700, the colonists drank fermented peach juice, hard apple cider and rum, which they imported from the West Indies or distilled from West Indian molasses. Drinking was an important part of the culture, and people passed around jugs or bowls of liquor at barbecues, on market days and at elections. Candidates gave away free drinks. A stingy candidate had no chance of winning. Practically everyone drank. Even restrained New Englanders consumed great quantities of liquor. The Puritans called alcohol the “Good Creature of God,” a holy substance to be taken proudly yet cautiously.

The article by the National Constitution Center continues, “By the early 1800s, the country was swimming — and nearly drowning — in liquor. A barrel of hard cider sat by the door of thousands of farmhouses, available to everyone in the family. In many cities, the tolling of a bell at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. marked ‘grog time,’ when workers were granted an alcohol-soaked break. The wealthy could drink their evenings away in hotel dining rooms or at lavish dinner parties.

In rural areas, whiskey and hard cider were the drinks of choice. Farmers used the grain they grew to make rye or corn whiskey. They also used apples from trees like those that John Chapman — ‘Johnny Appleseed’ — had planted throughout the Ohio Valley. Some of these apples were specically meant to be fermented into hard cider and stored in ceramic jugs. Frequently, distilled liquor was added to cider to keep it from spoiling, making it stronger than beer with an alcoholic content of at least 10 percent.

“By 1830, the nation reached rock bottom. On average, Americans over the age of 15 were guzzling seven gallons of pure alcohol each year. This was the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor — or about four shots every day. Three times greater than current levels, it remains the highest measured volume of consumption in U.S. history. The consequences of this national binge would be severe.

“The establishment that was seen as the most destructive force in American life by those advocating for reform was the saloon.

Between 1870 and 1900, as millions of immigrants flocked to the United States, it is estimated that the number of saloons nationwide increased from 100,000 to 300,000. The saloon was a male-only institution, which served many different purposes. In cities, they were gathering places for working-class immigrants that often doubled as the headquarters for political organizations. Out West, it was simultaneously a social hall, a place to pick up your mail or cash your check and an entertainment venue.

Many men gathered in saloons to escape their responsibilities on an ocean of beer and booze. A Growler-style pail from the 1890s was used to carry beer home from the saloon.”

A couple of articles from the Roswell Daily Record describe the conditions of bootlegging in our area.


Roswell Daily Record, Friday, Oct. 14, 1930

“The demon rum continues to demonstrate increased efficiency in our bootleg era. It was bad enough in old days, when varnish and wood extract were not used to make whiskey. Whiskey killed you rather slowly.

“At present, the process may take anywhere from five minutes to five years.

“In Newark, New Jersey, yesterday, for instance, four people died promptly after drinking bootleg. The authorities fear that more deaths may occur as that particular whiskey seems to be widely distributed.

“It is amazing that adults, not hopeless alcoholics, should drink poisonous concoctions of which they know nothing.”


Another Roswell Daily Record article, dated Friday, Aug. 8, 1930 reads:

“Poison Liquor Warning

“A Carlsbad couple who had been paralyzed for some time from the effects of drinking poison liquor, decided to end their misery by taking more poison and both are dead.

“There is a lesson in this tragedy for those who continually take their lives in hand by drinking bootleg liquor. It is not a safe thing to do, yet thousands continue to take the risk.

“Albuquerque has a session of federal court that has been surfeited with bootleg cases. If more persons could be spectators at these sessions of court, it would serve as a warning also against the class of liquor that must be handled by these vendors. In not all, but many cases, you would not want them dispensing food to you, surely not liquor, that they have manufactured.

“The Carlsbad case is an outstanding example of what may happen if you take the chance of buying the illegal product with which the country is flooded.

“The unfortunate Carlsbad victims may be the innocent means of saving other lives if buyers of bootleg whiskey will only stop and give the matter a minute’s thought.”


The story by Clarence Adams, “We Found Bootleggers on the Pecos”

was published in the Old Timers’ Review, Volume I, Number 4.

“Bootlegging was a way of life for many over the Southwest during the late 1920s and ‘30s. The salt cedars along the Pecos was ideal country to set up a still. And they were there. A stage trail that ran across our place became a well-traveled road that led to a well-known ‘whiskey stop’ down on the river near Bitter Lake.

“During those days, no one was shocked or surprised to ride up on a producing still back in the tamaracks. As a young teenager, I didn’t think much about all that traffic moving across our place. I knew it was people going to the still.

“It was something we accepted. But what happened one day made me a little more careful about meddling with what I found in the salt cedars. One morning my papa got my brother J.B. and me up early. ‘We’re going to haul wood today,’ he told us. He had made plans for me to go horseback and take a small herd of cattle east to a slough that ran parallel to the Pecos about a half mile west of it. ‘We’ll meet you at the river,’ Papa said.

“Knowing that Papa and J.B. would have to take the team and wagon around the road by Elmo Hardcastle’s place and then to a makeshift bridge across the slough, (we called it one-mile creek) I knew I’d get to the river long before they did — even after driving the cattle.

“Papa and J.B. took off in the wagon. Our plans were to meet at the river and load up the wagon with dead salt cedar which we would use for winter firewood. That, along with cow chips and what dead cottonwood we could find, supplied our fuel needs.

“I pushed the cows to the green meadows along the slough, and not wanting to go on around to the road the way Papa took the wagon, I decided to jump the creek — a decision which could have been my last one. My horse, old Star, was a bronc that Papa had just broken to the saddle, and a little skittish — especially when I spurred him to jump in the creek. But jump he did and when it was all over, I wished he hadn’t.

“Well, we got across the creek all right, and I kicked Star into a trot. I knew that the country was full of sinkholes, but thought I knew where all of them were. I reckon I did know where all of them were but one — and we found it. All I can remember now is that Star was falling through space and I was on top of him.

“I didn’t have time to think about all the bad things I had done during my lifetime, but I do remember thinking that probably my time had come. Then I had a quick thought that I better kick out of the stirrups and try to land away from my horse. About that time we hit — not hard ground but water — a bottomless pit full of it, and the next thing I knew I was swimming, trying to catch Star’s tail.

“When I finally crawled out of the hole, I figured I’d be walking for sure the rest of the day, but I looked out about 50 yards and there Star stood, his eyes rolling and he was trembling all over like he was about to be forked for the first time.

“I reckon the poor horse was scared — maybe as much as I was. The fall had taken him unawares, too. Tall burro grass had grown up so high around the pothole that we had come upon it too suddenly to avoid falling into it.

“Star still trembled as I very easily crawled back on him. I figured he’d pitch for sure, but I guess he was actually too scared to buck, and he obediently moved — seemingly almost tiptoeing out of the mess of grass and around more bottomless potholes.

“We met Papa and J.B. at the river without further mishap and of course I had to tell them about my experience, which seemed much worse as I told about it, and after I had finished, I felt about worn out.

“‘Let’s go swimming,’ I suggested to J.B. ‘The river’s right over there,’ I pointed toward the Pecos. It was a good suggestion, and often when we were ‘ridin bog’ we would get off our horses, peel off and swim and splash in the old Pecos’ muddy red water.

“‘Suits me,’ my brother agreed. But Papa didn’t want to go. ‘Got to get this wood loaded,’ he argued. ‘You boys go on — and get back here soon. We’ve got to get started home.’

“There was a well-worn trail leading out through the trees — too well worn. I wondered about it as we walked along. It certainly was unusual to see fresh boot tracks going up and down such a back woods trail as this. J.B. and I talked about it as we made our way toward the river. ‘Maybe someone else is over there swimmin’ too,’ I finally told J.B.

“‘Yeah — and look, there’s the river, I can see the water,’ J.B. said.

“But it wasn’t water. As we approached we could see that it was a 55-gallon barrel with a shiny new washtub turned upside down over it. ‘Now what in the sam hill do you suppose that is?’ hollered J.B. as we quickened our steps toward the barrel. But he was grinnin’, and so was I. We both knew what the barrel held.

“‘Mash!’ J.B. whispered, as we lifted the tub and looked in.

“‘Yeah, sour mash!’ I agreed. ‘Suppose we ought to taste it?’

“‘Wouldn’t hurt anything if we did, I reckon,’ J.B. said.

“But the stuff was pretty green. We decided that it might make us sick and we better lay off, then I reckon we both started thinking about the situation. But after sitting down and talking it over, we decided that the barrel was too heavy to move. We concluded that maybe we better just leave it where it was and come back later, although I really don’t know what we expected to do with a ‘lost’ barrel of mash.

“Papa had some ideas about the whole matter. At first, he got a little mad. I reckon he knew a lot more than he let on. I don’t know why he seemed a little nervous, but he wasn’t the same the rest of the day.

“‘See that hill over there?’ he said, pointing to a rise about a half mile away. It looked like a good vantage point, a place which held a commanding view of the entire area. I had noticed a glint now and then, as though the sun might be on some bright object periodically. ‘I reckon a blind man can see that hill,’ J.B. said, a little sarcastically. ‘What’s over there?’

“‘You boys are lucky someone didn’t take a shot at you while you were messin’ around that barrel,’ he said, squinting at the object on the hill.

“‘Why Papa, we didn’t bother the stuff,’ I argued.

“‘Don’t make no difference. From now on you stay clear of anything that looks like a still. Them fellers mean business — and that hombre hid out up on that hill don’t have a peashooter, he’s got a 30-30 Winchester, and he’ll use it!’

“Needless to say, J.B. and I didn’t ask anymore questions. But I did lots of thinking about my day’s experience as I followed the wagon across the red flats on old Star, and you can bet your boots that I really picked out my jumpin’ places on one-mile creek from then on, too. I figured that was pretty important if I wanted to have a long healthy life.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.


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