Bootlegging
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Area’s history of bootlegging soared during Prohibition

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday November 6, 1999.

Apparently saloons and bootlegging have been around Southeast Texas since soon after the guns of San Jacinto battlefield were silenced. In Jefferson County’s early ‘Records of Retail Licenses,’ saloons had to be licensed as early as 1838. Even the Neches and Sabine River ferries were licensed to sell liquor, and they had to provide food, lodging, and cattle pens for the cattle drovers passing through. There were 3 saloons in Beaumont in 1860 and 8 in 1880.

Some East Texans on early censuses were listed as “distillers,” even though the manifests of all steamboats entering the rivers included dozens of barrels of whiskey. Apparently there were no federal excise taxes on spirits in Civil War days.

Nevertheless there have always been “dry” counties and precincts in East Texas.

Prohibition arrived in Jefferson County in 1920, the beginning of that glamorous decade of “flappers” and “cutty sarks” (short skirts), and bootleggers and “speak-easies” sprang up everywhere. A “speak-easy” was an illegal nightclub that sold alcoholic drinks, usually in the hidden cellar of a building, and where admission at the door was by recognition only. Usually bootleggers and “speak-easies” were open on Monday only if some officer had been paid off the previous Saturday.

Prohibition coincided with the heyday of Ku Klux Klan membership in this county, and every other county official belonged to the Klan. The history of the Jefferson County Klan is well documented in a large MA thesis at Lamar library.

There was, however, one Federal Prohibition Agent, named Don Spencer, in Beaumont that “moonshine” money could not buy. He once attempted to arrest a bootlegger in a houseboat when a shotgun blast through the door amputated Spencer’s left wrist. He was a frequent visitor to our farmhouse in Port Neches, where often Don and Dad left in our motorboat and 24-foot cattle barge in search of bootleg stills. And usually they would return with captured stills and perhaps 50 sacks of sugar and ground corn.

One racketeer in Port Arthur controlled all the bootlegging in south Jefferson County. Such stills in 1920 usually were operated in dense forests or in the marshlands where sea cane grew 15 feet high, as in Sea-Rim Marsh at Sabine Pass. In the summer of 1926, the Sea-Rim was intensely dry when it caught fire on the beach, and driven by a high wind, burned fiercely across eight square miles of sea cane.

After the marsh cooled, my uncle, Austin Sweeney, rode horseback through the marsh. He counted over 100 still sites and the charred bodies of several bootleggers that did not escape the flames.

In 1929 the same racketeer had a huge, 900-gallon copper still built, that later was towed across Sabine Lake on a large barge and set up in the sea cane adjacent to Johnson’s Bayou. When Spencer and Dad arrived at the site, they found the still cooking and 200 barrels of corn mash fermenting nearby. Because of its huge size, they emptied and rolled the still into the bayou, and Dad filled it with 44-cal. Winchester holes until it sank in the stream.

My last ‘moonshine’ experience occurred in 1932 when Dad and I were picking butter beans on Block’s Bayou, now the location of Oak Bluff Cemetery. We heard voices in a sea cane clump across the bayou and watched as 2 bootleggers emerged, carrying jugs of whiskey. Later we went across the bayou and found a barrel nearly full of whiskey, which we rolled into the skiff and carried to our washhouse.

My father died soon afterward, and my mother made Broomtail and I roll the barrel down to the bayou’s edge and let the raunchy contents flow into the water. That’s why the Block’s Bayou garfish and mullet stayed stoned for the next three days.

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