A time like no other in the history of the United States. A time of carefree living, speakeasies, the fabulous flapper era … a time that F. Scott Fitzgerald so vividly depicted in his classic 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby,” of extravagantly gala parties of drinking, dancing and even Daisy Buchanan diving into the pool fully-clothed to end the evening’s festivities. Yes, it was the roaring 20s! But let’s not forget that the banning of the sale of alcohol also included the appearance of gangsters like Al Capone and the beginning of organized crime. Taking alcohol off the market took its toll on the good ole USA. Scenes of the precious whiskey rushing down the streets of New York after the barrels were smashed open by the likes of famous cop Eliot Ness, stirred our emotions.
As a child growing up in Little Falls, it was hard to imagine that all that havoc prevailed as I remember being offered a glass of wine by my grandfather and we would reminisce about the previous prohibition. He made his own wine from the grapes in his backyard like many others in Little Falls did at that time. But my grandfather’s homemade vintage couldn’t hold a candle to his wife’s. His wife didn’t make wine though, she made whiskey … and lots of it.
As the story goes, and remember this is verbiage handed down from those who are not around anymore, one of the biggest distribution centers for bootleg whiskey in all of New York state was right here in the beautiful community of Little Falls. Yes, it’s a fact that up on West Lansing Street in our fair city was a thriving, and most lucrative homemade whiskey business.
Nunzia Alfano Pellerito from Montelepre, Sicily, was the owner of this enterprising wholesale whiskey business. She brewed this precious commodity from a fresh water spring located in her garage on Lansing Street. How much? I wish I knew. My only source of info came from my father, Anthony Pellerito, and all he said was “when the word got out, they came in carloads from the ‘City’ to purchase.” I can only surmise that it must have been pretty good stuff for customers to make the five-hour one-way drive to purchase.
Yes, Nunzia was quite the business woman and a most successful entrepreneur of her day. The matriarch of her family of four sons and one daughter, she didn’t limit her sales to just her West Lansing location. She took it on the road! According to my cousin Peter Pellerito of Redondo Beach, California, formerly a Herkimer resident, it was not uncommon to see her selling her whiskey at Canal Side by Lock 17. As Pete described it to me, the boats would enter the lock and while waiting to depart, she would sell her whiskey to the men on board. A most enterprising lady, indeed. This is one grandma who is not the epitome of grandmas as we all know it. This grandma ruled!
Today nothing remains of this most prosperous business in this fascinating time in history, Prohibition.
Although the house has since burned down, the garage is still standing. Whether the spring is still there, remains to be seen. What happened to the money is a story we will never know, although my cousin Pete said Nancy was a very charitable lady.
Mary Ann Pellerito Mucica of Camarillo, California, is the former executive editor of Muscle & Fitness magazine, and once lived at 24 W. Lansing St.
WRITING SERIES: Little Falls during Prohibition
Like the rest of the nation, Little Falls residents woke up to a new reality on Jan. 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment was official and for the next 13 years the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating beverages was illegal. Bootleggers, flappers, speakeasies and illegal stills would soon follow and neither the nation nor Little Falls would ever be quite the same.
The post-World War I Roaring 20′s saw mass produced automobiles, more women in the workforce, smaller family sizes, more divorces and the first “youth rebellion” against traditional values. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas. Little Falls’ population peaked in 1920 at 13,029.
The 1920′s Jazz Age symbolized this modern urban lifestyle and the proliferation of radios and phonographs brought jazz to a huge mostly youthful public; all this frenetic change and social activity occurred despite prohibition. This was also a most puzzling era in that it so impacted one of America’s favorite pastimes, the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Little Falls residents responded much as their national counterparts did during Prohibition, most people attempted to abide by the new restrictions, but others went to great lengths to produce, smuggle, conceal, sell and consume alcoholic beverages. How did it all begin?
In the short term, prohibition was brought on by a combination of forces; the anti-liquor and women’s suffrage movements, the income tax amendment, the fear of immigrant influence and the anti-German fervor surrounding WW I, but first some background.
Nineteenth century Americans consumed on average about three and a half times as much alcohol as Americans consume today, around 90 quarts of hard liquor by each adult each year! Public drunkenness was commonplace.
To combat this excess, abstinence pledges and the temperance movement began in the 1830′s. By the 1870′s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had combined forces with the women’s suffrage movement; alcohol consumption was seen as the driving force behind domestic abuse and family poverty. Temperance became a women’s issue, to be pro-temperance was seen as the pathway to healthy families.
Locally, the Herkimer County News reported on June 4, 1880, that a new temperance organization had been formed in Little Falls by “65 young men of our village. At the end of every two months, they would have a big drunk and then swear off for another term.” Sobriety, well sort of. Around 1900 there was also a Little Falls temperance parade in which a banner was carried proclaiming, “The Home vs. The Saloon” and “For the Children.” In the 1880′s, St. Mary’s Church clergy urged Little Falls residents to “take the national Catholic Temperance Pledge of the Father Mathew Temperance Society” and to “avoid bad company and frequent the holy sacraments.”
Nationally, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) joined the fray to ban alcohol in the 1890′s; Wayne Wheeler was its most powerful figure and the movement’s “dry boss.” The careers of many politicians were made or broken on the alcohol issue. Some lawmakers drank personally (wets) but supported prohibition publicly, becoming known as wet/drys.
National prohibition was also brought on in part by changing demographics in post-WWI America. Although outnumbered by their urban counterparts, rural Americans were the driving force behind prohibition. Banning alcohol consumption became a crusade against “the immoral urban lifestyle.”
In 1913, the 16th Amendment was ratified establishing a federal income tax, the lost “sin tax” revenue from prohibiting alcohol could be replaced by increased income tax collection.
By the time prohibition became law in 1920, 33 states had already enacted prohibition laws. The Volstead Act spelled out the specifics of how prohibition was to be enforced. The possession and consumption of liquor was not outlawed. If you could get it, or possessed it before prohibition went into effect, you could drink it legally. In fact, in 1924 five legal bars were listed in the Little Falls City Registry.
GETTING AROUND THE LAW
Those who could afford to do so stocked up on their favorite alcoholic beverages prior to Prohibition. Wealthier people often had extensive caches of booze, sometimes providing tempting targets for burglars.
One such robbery occurred in Little Falls on Nov. 2, 1921, generating The Evening Times headline “Bootleggers Made a Valuable Haul.” The Williams Street home of L.O. Bucklin was broken into by thieves who made off with many cases of wines and liquors valued at around $20,000 which had been held legally. The thieves were “mechanics by the way they manipulated the locks and iron doors.” They had also cut the phone lines and made their getaway in “high powered autos, not trucks.”
Some other local people began to produce liquor illegally. One such operation was discovered by agents from the Utica Prohibition Enforcement Station. The Evening Times headline read “Officers Raid Booze Plant in Manheim — Uncover Still on Farm of Josiah Winants.” Winants was held on $2,500 bail, but three other men “escaped through a rear window” of the building containing the still. Agents used axes to break up still equipment and barrels of illegal booze. Interestingly, City of Little Falls water was used to manufacture this illegal liquor. Little Falls’ main water line running from its watershed reservoirs in Salisbury ran (and still runs) across private property. These property owners, including Winants, were allowed access to city water. Operating an illegal liquor still certainly was an imaginative use of city water!
One Little Falls resident recalls that his grandfather made regular “bootleg trips to Canada, crossing back into the U.S. near Watertown.” Still another recalls that his grandfather constructed secret compartments in his automobile to hide illegal booze.
Another resident recalls stories that the cellars of two adjacent South Side houses were connected by a low tunnel. Illegal booze was manufactured in one cellar and taken through the tunnel to the other house where the bottled contraband could be loaded into cars and then driven away. It is also rumored that a number of Little Falls social clubs and fraternal organizations managed to serve alcoholic beverages throughout Prohibition, perhaps serving booze acquired prior to Prohibition or maybe not.
Prohibition had great impact on the nation as well as a number of unintended consequences. Prohibition did curb overall alcohol consumption. Those who “traded in alcohol” were in effect criminals. The court system could not keep up with these violations. Criminal elements and bootleggers gained control of the liquor trade in major cities and widespread bribery of law enforcement officials undercut support for law enforcement in general. Before Prohibition, most men drank in saloons that prohibited women. Prohibition caused drinking habits to change, both men and women began frequenting illegal bars known as speakeasies and female alcoholism increased.
High-powered modified automobiles were used by bootleggers to outrun law enforcement; this later evolved into stock car racing. Wealthy individuals frequently hosted alcohol soaked parties throughout Prohibition.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of such gatherings in his classic 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” describing one bash as “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars … I believe that on the first night that I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited — they just went there … and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks.”
Local versions of such parties also took place. An Evening Times Dec. 7, 1931, article read: “Silver Slipper Raided — Utica Enforcement Men Break Up A Saturday Night Party — Allege That Proprietor Gave Fictitious Name — Collared Man In Charge.”
It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people died from drinking unsafe alcohol during and just after Prohibition. In 1935, eleven individuals died in Gloversville with the Albany Evening News headline reading: “Poison Rum Kills 11 in Gloversville — Utica Liquor Deaths Also Rise — Toll So Far In CNY Is 27 — Others Ill.”
Prohibition-related criminality and violence was commonplace as criminal groups gained control of beer and liquor distribution in major cities. Perhaps the worst of it being generated by Al Capone’s gangland violence in Chicago. Capone’s gang was likely responsible for the Feb, 14, 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which seven members of a rival gang were gunned down.
The violent side of prohibition also played out locally on Sept. 26, 1930, when the bullet riddled bodies of two former Little Falls merchants, Louis and son Rocco Malkoon, were found on Jones Road in the Town of Frankfort. They had apparently been boxed in by other cars at a remote intersection, taken from their car and shot execution-style at close range. The Evening Times headline read, “Slaying of Malkoons Due To Bootleg War.”
PROHIBITION IN DECLINE
Between 1925 and 1933 Prohibition slowly collapsed. The “noble experiment” would either succeed or fail in America’s big cities. Most city dwellers viewed prohibition as an assault by a rural Bible Belt minority on their ethnic heritage; the Germans loved their beer, the Italians loved their wine and the Irish loved their whiskey, and none of these groups was willing to give up their ethnic identity just because rural Americans said that they should.
The Great Crash of Oct. 29, 1929 signaled the onset of the Great Depression and in 1932 Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President promising to support repeal of prohibition. Perhaps he figured that Depression desperate Americans needed a legal drink? His opponent, the highly unpopular President Herbert Hoover, received a telegram at the White House that read: “vote for Roosevelt, make it unanimous.”
With so many Americans out of work, income tax collection fell dramatically and a revived alcohol tax would help balance federal and state budgets.
Enforcement of prohibition in big cities was an all but impossible task from its onset.
Overall, drinking did decline by about half during Prohibition, but mostly because illegal beverages became much more-costly, not because people thought that consuming such spirits was somehow evil. Illegal stills, bathtub gin mills and home breweries by the hundreds of thousands rendered prohibition impossible to enforce. The lack of funding and widespread bribery of law enforcement officials dealt a death blow. Drinking patterns had changed, male-only saloons were no more and a new national relationship with alcohol consumption would emerge.
Eighteen states continued to enforce state-level prohibition after the 21st Amendment repealed national prohibition in 1933. Over one third of Americans continued to live under prohibition; Mississippi was the last state to end prohibition in 1966.
The 1936 Little Falls City Registry listed no fewer than 32 establishments dealing with the liquor trade as well as a brewery and a beer distribution company as old patterns of life returned.
The general public is cordially invited to visit the Little Falls Historical Society Museum at 319 S. Ann St. to view the new exhibit “Little Falls During Prohibition” along with our many other exhibits and artifacts. The temperance parade banner described earlier in this article is part of this display and it is thought that the hole in this banner was made by a rifle shot, perhaps having been fired by an irate saloon keeper!
Jeffrey Gressler is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society