Editor’s Notebook: Fond accounts of Prohibition as its Northwest centennial nears

The prohibition years created new possibilities for those with good imaginations. For the enterprising who were determined to stay within the bounds of the law there were commercial opportunities. Many attempted to evoke fond memories of the period before prohibition. According to the Oregon State Archives, they formulated a variety of non-alcoholic drinks that prominently included words clearly associated with liquor.

There probably isn’t anyone with an alcoholic in his or her immediate family who hasn’t wished all ethanol could be magically zapped into oblivion forever. A century ago, this thinking brought forth a notorious social experiment that remains a frothy topic of interest to this day.

“Boardwalk Empire” is HBO’s violent but fascinating new saga chronicling an only-marginally fictionalized Prohibition-era criminal enterprise in Atlantic City, N.J., a key port of entry for smuggled Canadian hooch. Anchored by Steve Buscemi, who is sure to win a best-actor Emmy, and created by Terence Winter of “Sopranos” fame, it is a bloody and sexy thrill ride. Family viewing it is not. But in exploring a time when fairly ordinary people wandered into outlawry, it reveals juicy moral intersections.

Most of us think of Oregon and Washington as being “live and let live” places, but Prohibition was one of those episodes when our do-gooder gene kicked in. Oregon voters banned the manufacture, sale or advertisement of intoxicating liquor on Nov. 3, 1914, five full years before the rest of the nation. Seattle went dry on Jan. 1, 1916, one of the first large American cities to do so. 

This definitely does not mean that everyone quit drinking. Although no one has made much of an effort to mythologize Prohibition in the Pacific Northwest, newspapers and court dockets from the era overflow with colorful references to moonshine and stills. It also stands to reason that the mouth of the Columbia and Willapa Bay would have been prime territory for smuggling, and so they were. 

 

Back in the 1980s, historian Marie Oesting made a valiant attempt to capture the recollections of locals who knew anything about those times. Although people may claim to appreciate having a colorful horse thief in the family, Marie encountered a great deal of reticence when it came to speaking on the record. Maybe the same moralist streak that led our ancestors to implement the ban on alcohol constrains their descendents from admitting grandpa profited from trafficking rotgut liquor. 

One of her best interviews was with “Slub” Tenho Harju, a tremendously nice man on the Peninsula, now dead, with a neck like a keg of bolts. He told her a variety of hearsay stories that wouldn’t stand up in court, but make for good reading. One was from his cousin, who used to be invited to ride along with a deputy who lived nearby.

“On of those trips they were looking for a still that was reported in the area, and they was just going out in the woods and they’d find where there was a little stream, and they’d head up the stream you know and see if they could find anything,” Slub reported, noting that stills require a lot of fresh water. After wasting quite a few hours bushwhacking their way up creeks and not finding anything, his cousin suggested to the sheriff that they check out a little bigger creek. “And he drove by the place. He [the cousin] says, ‘Right here; here, stop here.’ He [the sheriff] says, ‘Can’t go up there, kid, there’s b’ars up there.’ In other words, he knew where the still was, but he wasn’t going to find it. ‘We can’t go up there, kid, there’s b’ars up there.’”

Slub remembered a friend whose father was a reputed bootlegger. “And this kid was around their home place, you know, it was on the road between here [Ilwaco] and South Bend, and he, the sheriff and some other fellows came along. ‘Your dad at home?’ ‘Nope.’ He says, ‘Is he out in the woods?’ He says ‘Yup.’ ‘You know where he is?’ ‘Yup.’ They say, ‘Will you take us up there?’ He says ‘Nope.’ ‘Give you 50 cents to take us up there.’ ‘Nope.’ When their offer got up to $10, he says ‘OK,’ $10 being a lot of money in them days. So he [the sheriff] says, ‘Let’s go.’ He [the kid] says, ‘Pay me.’ Sheriff said, ‘We’ll pay you when we get back.’ Kid shook his head. He said ‘Well, we’ll pay you when we get back.’ Kid says, ‘You ain’t coming back.’”

 

In September 1916, nine months into Washington state’s prohibition and nearly two years after Oregon went dry, with suspiciously complete knowledge the Chinook Observer reported one of many, many smugglers:

“A whiskey vendor is doing business outside the Columbia River bar, on a ship named Tramp. He is selling ‘barbed wire whiskey’ in solution at $1 a quart, bonded goods at $2 a quart, and beer at 33-1/2 cents per bottle. The federal authorities are waiting to swoop down on Skipper Bob Jones and his whiskey ship, and if they lay hold of him they will probably prosecute him on a charge of ‘maintaining a general nuisance.’ Fishermen, gillnetters, and Astoria businessmen are said to be patronizing the booze skipper. He hails from Eureka, Cal.”

The Pacific County historical magazine Sou’wester reported, “There was once a merchant of Bruceport [on the east shore of Willapa Bay] who amassed a fortune said to be upwards of a quarter million dollars, mainly from selling penny pencils for a dime! There as a gimmick, for with the sale went the privilege of a trip to the back room where a barrel was kept containing a concoction referred to as ‘tangle-foot’ … for a beginner could take but a sip at a standing.”

One of my favorite stories, as it was for other area newspapers at the time, involves “Hazy,” the owner of the South Bend Journal and simultaneously the crusading divisional chief of the coast’s federal booze-interdiction efforts. Editors are justly infamous for enjoying a little “nip” from time to time, and fairly or not, Frederick Archibald Hazeltine was regarded as something of a traitor to the cause.

His biggest seizure was a Canadian barge carrying in excess of 1,600 cases of liquor — precisely 18,836 bottles. Hazy posed for photos on deck. In their hurry to smash this cargo and dump it in overboard, his men reputedly “accidentally on purpose” left many bottles intact. According to the Sou’wester, “The bottles were packed twelve to a sack, each protected by a strong covering of a bamboo-like material. It was usual in such operations to pack in a generous weight of rock salt and cork to float the sack when the salt melted away.”

Even now, there are those who recall their dads and uncles acquiring a sudden and intense interest in fishing that part of the bay.


Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.

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