By Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, excerpted from their book, The Coeur d’Alenes Gold Rush and Its Lasting Legacy, available at Auntie’s Books in downtown Spokane and from Tornado Creek Publications.
Prohibition in Washington and Idaho began on January 1, 1916, and the County Dry Squad, pictured above, makes a bust in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Tony and Suzanne Bamonte.
Idaho was one of several states, including Washington and Oregon, to enact statewide prohibition on January 1, 1916, four years prior to the passage of the National Prohibition (Volstead) Act. At the time, much of the state was already dry by authority of local county or city ordinances, but most residents of Shoshone County were not supportive of the new act and made little effort to hide their contempt and defiance of it. Miners and lumberjacks had longstanding reputations for their liberal consumption of alcohol, and those in the Coeur d’Alenes did their part to uphold that reputation with remarkable enthusiasm.
The demand for alcohol from the large number of young, single, high-spirited men working in the woods or the district’s mines ensured readily available sources. Idaho’s statewide law is claimed to have been among the strictest in the country, but it did little to dry up the illegal liquor supply in Shoshone County. Moonshine operations proliferated, and a new “rum-running” industry quickly emerged, especially around Mullan, which was within short reach of the Montana border. Though Montana passed laws prohibiting the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in November 1916, those laws did not go into effect until December 31, 1918.
Although the sparsely populated wilderness of North Idaho was a perfect place to hide illegal stills, many operations were “hidden” in plain sight. A bathtub in the heart of any Silver Valley town was often just as safe. Historians have claimed that more illegal alcohol was consumed per capita in Idaho during the Prohibition era than just about any other state, adding that it could be purchased most anywhere “except the post office and the Methodist Church.” However, even the post office was not necessarily sacrosanct. According to a story in Bert Russell’s North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River (1984, Lacon Publishers), postmaster Jesse Prichard was known to have sold bootleg liquor from the post office at the town of Prichard (located at the confluence of Prichard Creek and the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River). When one purchaser was asked by a friend if it was any good, he responded: “By God! It ought to be. I just bought it at the United States Post Office.”
Another story in Bert Russell’s book came from a 1974 interview with Earl Stevens, who grew up and worked in the Coeur d’Alenes most of his life. He offered the following descriptive and amusing firsthand account of a moonshine operation near the town of Prichard:
“In 1926 and 1927, Walt Brown and I ran two fifty gallon stills in a big two story house about a hundred yards out of Pritchard [sic]. The house is gone now. We had a nice set up: [Ura] Kirtley, being a packer, could buy sugar and grain by the ton without arousing suspicion. We had two 50 gallon barrels for mash. We made all double run whiskey filtered and aged in charred hardwood kegs. Urey, that owned the hotel, bought it wholesale from us at $10 a gallon.
“I don’t know yet why we didn’t get arrested. Anybody walking by could smell the fermenting mash. The passing lumberjacks couldn’t help smelling it. Dave Helmers, the ranger, walked by our house twice a day and surely he could smell it. Then there were the women and kids that walked by on their way to the store, and they all had good smellers.
“Of course, we had plenty of friends. If somebody phoned a complaint to the sheriff about Pritchard being wide open, deputies Charley Bloom and Ray Chapman [the deputy was actually Albert Chapman] came up and made a big show of looking down between walls with a flashlight. Then they’d come into the hotel and say, ‘Break out your jug!’ and we’d drink and visit till time for the train…. Shoshone County was always wide open for gambling, liquor and whorehouses. They wanted it that way.”
Retrospective studies regarding the effectiveness of Prohibition have concluded it was a massive failure on many levels, producing far more problems than it was ever designed to solve. Historians maintain that Prohibition created a nation of drunks and criminals. (At that time, the production and sale of alcohol was a felony offense, over which distillers and traffickers could be shot and killed. Some were even shot in the back as they fled the law. Ironically, liquor regulation today is a profitable function of state and federal governments.) There was also rampant hypocrisy, as many in enforcement positions were known to be heavy imbibers. Though Shoshone County was not much different than countless other regions in its violation of the Prohibition Act, it made headlines nationwide after a series of raids and numerous arrests in Wallace, Mullan, and Kellogg in 1929. They captured attention due to the large number of arrests of county and city public officials, who were accused of widespread conspiracies to condone, protect, and illegally benefit from illicit liquor trade. During their fervid cleanup, federal undercover agents arrested nearly two hundred residents, including Shoshone County Sheriff Rene E. Weniger; sheriff deputies Charles Bloom and Albert Chapman; Wallace Mayor Herman J. Rossi; Shoshone County Assessor William H. Herrick (also a former Wallace mayor); and high-ranking police officers, include the chiefs, of Wallace and Mullan.
Most of the arrested were found guilty and handed federal prison sentences, along with hefty fines. However, within the next two years, a large percentage of the cases were overturned during the appeals process. Allegations of organized conspiracy could not be adequately proven, and the city and county officials had not profited personally by their acts. Lawyers successfully argued they had operated “for the good” of the county or their communities. Their acts involved the collection of license fees (essentially amounting to fines) from saloons (thinly disguised as soft-drink parlors) and other illicit establishments, such as gambling halls and houses of prostitution. Some were also known to have accepted bribe money to look the other way (an offense not so readily viewed as “for the good of the community”). The officials involved justified their actions by the effectiveness of the fines system, which helped to cover municipal projects and defray some of the added financial burdens imposed by the Volstead Act. Prohibition had stamped out the considerable revenue that legitimate liquor licenses had previously produced. For elected officials to interfere with this new source of revenue, or to take a hardline in enforcing the bans on liquor trade, would likely have been political suicide.
The system of fines gained support from the local citizenry, who flocked to the trials in a show of solidarity – sometimes lending a colorful circus-like atmosphere. A statement of support toward Weniger and Herrick was also shown during the primary election in August 1930. Their wives ran as successors to the positions they held prior to conviction. Ethel Weniger won the Democratic nomination for sheriff, but was defeated in the general election by Walter Hendrickson. William Herrick’s wife, Margaret A. Herrick, received the Republican nomination and became the next county assessor. At the time of the election, Herrick was serving time at the McNeil Island federal prison in Washington State.
There was such strong community support that an article in the Spokesman-Review pointing a finger at Wallace for being a “modern Sodom” created intense anger and lingering resentment toward Spokane – and other communities, such as Coeur d’Alene, that failed to show allegiance. After pointing out that Spokane had been built on wealth from the Coeur d’Alene Mining District, about a hundred Shoshone County businessmen voted to cancel their subscriptions to Spokane’s newspapers and boycott businesses that supported the papers. No doubt it was not lost on them that Spokane was also steeped in its own Prohibition-related corruption and blatant violations of the law.
The courts eventually ruled it was not illegal to collect fines against or tax “that which is forbidden.” When, during appeal, the courts overturned cases of some of the higher-ranking officials, Hoyt E. Ray, the U.S. district attorney who led the initial campaign in what has been called “North Idaho’s Whiskey Rebellion,” threw out some of the other cases. Although both Sheriff Weniger and Mayor Rossi resigned their respective positions, and were sentenced to serve time at McNeil Island, in 1931 their cases were overturned in appeal and neither served time. Charles Bloom’s case was also overturned. In 1934, the year after Prohibition was repealed, many received full pardons by President Franklin Roosevelt.