Prohibition in SLO County: Bootleggers and tales of mischief

On any given night in downtown San Luis Obispo, you can walk along Higuera Street and see people enjoying drinks such as gin and tonics, white Russians, lemon drop martinis, 805 beers or a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey in the bars and restaurants that line the historic street.

Not to mention the San Luis Obispo County’s wide array of wine-tasting options.

But between 1920 and 1933, consumption of alcohol went underground.

Prohibition aimed to cure Americans from the pitfalls of liquor. The hotly debated law was spurred by the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In this county, the publisher of San Luis Obispo’s Daily Telegram also firmly supported the temperance movement in the early 1900s.

Will the home-loving, God-fearing residents of San Luis Obispo give consent for 65 or more saloons to continue their work of blighting lives, wrecking homes, breaking hearts.

1911 San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram article advocating local prohibition

But the attempts to stop people from drinking spawned a vibrant bootlegging industry, which developed throughout the country during those “dry” years. And secret batches didn’t go untapped in the San Luis Obispo area.

It would take 13 years before the law was changed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The reversal was partially because of the need for the significant tax revenues generated from alcohol sales.

With today’s prevalence of alcohol — taking up whole rows of grocery stores and driving the economies of downtown bars, eateries and the North County wine country — it’s hard to imagine a period when alcohol was off-limits.

A file at the History Center

Articles in the Telegram-Tribune (which became The Tribune in 1999) from the 1980s include anecdotes from residents who lived during Prohibition, and historical accounts of bootlegging.

The oral history has been preserved at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, which has a file on Prohibition-related newspaper clippings, essays and local newsletters.

Patrick Brown, who grew up in Avila Beach, and William Froom, a San Luis Obispo native, recalled growing up when rum-running emerged as a lucrative black market venture.

Speedboats of 25- to 30-feet long would drop off 5-gallon cans of booze along secret areas of the coastline, Brown recounted in a 1987 article written by Dan Krieger, a Cal Poly professor emeritus of history and a Tribune columnist.

Similar to the drug activity trafficked by panga boats now, landing zones at Pirate’s Cove, Montaña de Oro, San Simeon, Pismo Beach and Cayucos were havens for smugglers. Some of the liquor came from Canada, where alcohol was still legal.

Flatbed trucks would come, load up the alcohol and haul it away for distribution. Once, when a truck crashed and was stranded on the Avila Beach wharf, the traffickers fled before the sheriff arrived and confiscated the loot, according to Brown.

The smugglers also tied weights to the jugs of alcohol so they’d sink below the surface of the ocean. They then attached the jugs to strings along the pilings for later retrieval.

An unfortunate member of the Spooner family got caught in a smuggling operation at Spooner’s Cove, in what is now Montaña de Oro State Park.

“But dozens of others escaped detection,” Krieger wrote. “Most participants were in every other way upstanding, law-abiding citizens.”

Froom, who grew up on a 500-acre, San Luis Obispo dairy farm along Los Osos Valley Road and Highway 101, wrote an enthralling essay on his personal observations relating to the black market mischief he observed in his youth.

Smuggling-related mischief

The late rancher’s property is now the site of the Home Depot store at 1551 Froom Ranch Road in San Luis Obispo.

But in the 1920s, trucks carrying outlawed liquor would pass by the Froom family ranch at night, sometimes getting stuck in mudholes along the way. They’d pay Froom and his brother $10 to help pull the truck from the mud.

One driver repaid Froom’s family with two 5-gallon cans of booze for help with car trouble.

“Dad didn’t want to get caught with the alcohol on his property, but he knew a friendly saloon keeper who often said he wished he had a little of it to mix with other stuff he could make pretty well,” Froom wrote. “Dad made a deal with him … the two cans of alcohol for a 1917 Studebaker car. It was our first car and nobody in the family knew how to drive yet.”

Nationwide, those who had a penchant for a drink started distilling their own alcohol. The practice took place in San Luis Obispo County, as well.

Two friends of Froom’s who had connections to Cal Poly began producing their own alcohol, partly as a way to help the “plight of the World War I vets who had fought the war and lost some of their buddies,” Froom wrote.

“They didn’t blame them for taking a drink now and then to forget,” he added.

Froom said his friends bought a still and the makings. One, a student on campus, made contacts for potential buyers, while the other friend who lived in town, ran the still on his uncle’s ranch. Their production unit was down in a dry creekbed, and they kept a dog nearby to alert them of anyone coming.

They didn’t blame them for taking a drink now and then to forget.

William Froom, talking about World War I vets, in an essay on the Prohibition era.

Revenuers, federal agents tasked with enforcing alcohol laws at the time, caught wind of the alcohol dealings going on at Cal Poly, then a polytechnic high school, and waited for the drop-off one day.

But Froom’s friends were alerted in advance as they planned a delivery and, fearing arrest, one friend fled to Mexico for four years, later returning to finish high school at Cal Poly.

Froom, in a separate recollection, recounted how another friend couldn’t elude law enforcement.

The man had a tucked-away dairy farm in Morro Bay, and a local saloon owner persuaded him to start distilling, reasoning that nobody would discover his little brewery, Froom wrote.

As a token of appreciation for the idea, the dairy farmer brought the saloon owner a small jar of his product, which the saloon owner liked so much that he asked for more.

One day, the Morro Bay farmer filled three empty milk cans with his alcohol and set out to deliver them to the saloon owner.

But the dairy farmer sampled his drink to “calm his nerves” on the way there, leading to some erratic driving.

He “backed up and drove next to the curb in front of the saloon heading the wrong way,” Froom wrote.

Then he ran when police showed up, but they caught him and turned him over to federal agents. He was sentenced to two years in jail but was granted a lenient punishment of probation because he had a large family to support.

“I worked with the man on many jobs after that, and there never was a better man to work with,” Froom wrote. “He never mentioned the episode, and neither did I. And ... he never took a drink again.”

When Froom took over his family’s dairy farm in 1927 (his father died in 1929), San Luis Obispo had a population of 3,000 people and Higuera Street was covered with gravel, according to a July 15, 1989, Telegram-Tribune article about the man.

According to online public records database Nexis, Froom died in September 1998 at age 88.

Ridding SLO County of alcohol

A Daily Telegram article from 1911, before Prohibition was passed, pushed hard for a ban on alcohol.

The Sept. 28, 1911, story — an editorial in today’s news standards — titled “Saloon or No Saloon? Which?” lays out an argument for county residents to prohibit saloons from carrying on “nefarious business in our midst.”

The story had no byline, nor did other articles in the same edition.

“Will the home-loving, God-fearing residents of San Luis Obispo give consent for 65 or more saloons to continue their work of blighting lives, wrecking homes, breaking hearts, depriving children of their daily bread, all for the sake of the city reaping a little revenue? GREAT GOD FORBID IT!”

The article makes a comparison of tax revenues and other civic data between Santa Barbara, which had 25 saloons, and the city of Riverside, which had none. Under California’s Wyllie local option law, local municipalities could block saloons.

The story also details statistics of a much higher divorce rate in a wet Illinois county compared with a dry one. Arguments in favor of Prohibition included that some men drank away their incomes, abandoning the support of their families.

The Telegram, started by C.A. Black in 1905, lobbied heavily for Prohibition in its early years.

In 1920, Prohibition advocates across the country got their wish when national legislation was enacted. The headline in The Telegram on Oct. 28, 1919, read: “Congress Passes Prohibition Bill Over Veto.”

But, as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns stated in his 2011 film, “Prohibition,” in regards to the “noble experiment,” the ban was greatly inept at undoing a long-held practice.

“Prohibition was the story of people on the left and on the right, and in the North and in the South, black and white, arguing that human beings should have to give up what human beings have always had for centuries, and it didn’t work,” Burns said.

A March 14, 1933, Daily Telegram headline stated: “House Passes Roosevelt Beer Bill.”

San Luis Obispo’s downtown now offers 66 restaurants, bars and breweries where patrons can grab a drink lawfully.