October 29, 2022 | Last updated Mar 23, 2023

Bootleggers’ Carnival

The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the manufacture and sale of liquor nationwide, but statewide prohibition was already in effect in Iowa and Nebraska. In 1916 Iowa went dry and Nebraska voters adopted a prohibitory amendment to their state constitution that took effect in May 1917. Enterprising individuals soon learned how to profit by flouting the law. The Dakota County Herald on May 24, 1917, reprinted an article from the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal reporting the bootlegging then rampant in that vicinity:

May 1, 1917, the first day of statewide prohibition in Nebraska. NSHS RG0813-40

“When Iowa went dry January 1, 1916, bootlegging increased in Sioux City. For the first few months everybody who had a taste for this profitable business indulged himself. But when the police raiding squad started its work the ranks soon were thinned. The man with the clever idea survived, and his unimaginative neighbor was run out of business.”

One unusual method for transporting illegal liquor involved horse collars. “A short time ago a number of metal horse collars were shipped into Dakota City. The collars are used only for heavy draft work and in the artillery branch of the army. The great numbers of this kind of harness where there was no apparent need aroused the suspicions of the authorities. An investigation was made and it was found that each collar contained several gallons of whisky. Every horse in Dakota county is now eyed with suspicion.”

The newspaper reported many other novel hiding places for booze, including pianos, ash barrels in back yards, and dry goods boxes with false bottoms. “One day one of the raiding squad noticed that the gas jet in a house that they were visiting was damp. He opened the jet and applied a match. A fine stream of ice cold beer squirted into the air. A tank was found in the attic which was connected with a gas pipe to the sitting room on the first floor.”

Fred Bargemann’s Saloon, Bancroft, before prohibition, NSHS RG3334-41

Bootlegging continued even after the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning liquor nationwide, was ratified in January 1919. Nebraska was not one of the thirty-six states (out of a total of forty-eight then) that later voted to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal national prohibition, but in November 1934 Nebraskans did vote to repeal the state’s constitutional prohibition by a 60- to 40-percent margin.

– Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications

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