Suffered? No one really was deprived of a drink, neither the casual drinker nor dyed-in-the-wool lush. Anyone could relieve their thirst for spirits just about any where in the nation. All it took was a phone call or visit to one of many local bootleggers who even delivered if asked.
Out here in the wild and wooly West where bug juice, corn, dust cutter, and fire water were everyday words, alcohol sellers went underground. You could still get forty rod, gut warmer, and scamper juice, it just took a little more time and lot more money. In some places, a quart of booze skyrocketed to $11, a small fortune in those days. Doing a little arithmetic, the equivalent today is about seventy-five dollars a fifth.
Prohibition did not affect the drinking lifestyle in Elko County. The saloon at Halleck changed ownership during this time and an old lard can resting on the back bar continued dispensing tarantula juice.
On the first day of Prohibition the editor of the Elko Independent wrote: "This is sure a quiet town today. Nobody arrested, nobody dead, nobody married, nobody drunk, nobody gone away, nobody home, nobody robbed, nobody licked, no fights, no fires, no calamities. Thank Heaven! But it's a poor heaven for the newspaper man."
Things changed for the hapless editor. From then on the front pages were filled with arrests and trials of the purveyors of prairie pop skull. A local court usually convicted, the bootlegger appealed, and the conviction was usually overturned by a higher court.
Sheriff Joe Harris was running the tires bald on his big Nash car traveling over the nation's sixth largest county. He confiscated booze and removed any signs advertising alcohol as a beverage. His store of illegal honeydew grew and grew in the basement of the county courthouse. The Independent editor noted that it would not surprise him if someone tapped the sheriff's wine cellar.
Then the sheriff pulled a sneaky trick. He visited all the grocery and drug stores and wiped shelves clean of patent medicines and flavoring extracts. Yep, he cut off the tippling supply of the poor homemakers and ranch cooks. For years they had nipped at lemon extract which was 85 percent alcohol, Jamaica ginger carrying a wallop of 93 percent, and almond extract with its whopping 97 percent. There had been enough flavorings in town to put the whole village on a drunk.
Patent medicines? Those painkillers and child soothers were about one-fourth alcohol. An alcoholic buzz is what made patients feel great and quieted children.
So there it is. The "bone dry act" warned that all beverages containing as much as one-half-of-one percent alcohol were illegal.
With good old American spirit (no pun intended) local lushes kept looking for new sources. Next in the news was Bay Rum, a mixture of oils, bayberry juice, and alcohol intended to make one's face smell good. No one else but truly dedicated drunks could have turned that into a cocktail. On Saturday nights, drug stores, dime stores, and department stores put out whole counters of Bay Rum until they, too, were forced to stop by law enforcement officials.
To make things worse the Great Influenza Epidemic hit and not a small number of people were shortchanged. They were the ones who always hit the bottle for medicinal purposes.
In the early 1920's, an air mail pilot headed for Elko. He became lost and had to crash land in the northern part of the county. After a couple of days everyone gave him up as dead. Then, postal officials in Elko received a phone call from him. He had walked into a ranch and asked for a ride into town.
He had been held prisoner by moon shiners who saw the U.S. on his plane and thought he was a Prohibition Agent searching for illegal stills. The pilot did a lot of fast talking and convincing while looking down the twin barrels of several shotguns.
Until 1933 it was a crazy nation and here in northeast Nevada it was about the same. In a "dry" country that wasn't really "dry" and with law enforcers not having their heart in the job they had to do, getting a shot of tonsil paint wasn't difficult at all. Americans have always been willing to pay dearly for cherished vices.
These were the "good old days" about which most old timers reminisce. It was the time when the Great War ended and the Great Depression began with the Great Influenza Epidemic thrown in to make life interesting - then Congress cut off the supply of pain killer. Those days are fondly remembered?
July 9, 1998
©1998 by Howard Hickson. If any portion or all of this article is used or quoted proper credit must be given to the authors.