03-15-2018 Tri-City Area History Page

The Paw Paw River Journal


The Devil in the Bottle! Back in the 1920s there had been a huge outcry against the evils of liquor. Banning the sale of Old John Barleycorn would solve a lot of our problems… so people thought. And prohibition was voted in! Here in Michigan the choice was left up to counties… each one had to vote “wet” or “dry.” And Van Buren County voted to ban the Devil in the Bottle! Not so in neighboring Berrien County. Saloons did a rip roaring business there, and the railroad was most happy with the arrangement. They had trains running back and forth between Hartford and Watervliet several times a day… carrying people to lay in supplies of liquor, or just to get out for a few hours and “hoist the elbow.” Now, Hartford was not entirely dry. Whiskey was thought to have certain medicinal values, so drug stores could carry it and sell to customers who really needed a stimulant. And I suppose if a patient put on a hang-dog look, his doctor might say, “Hmmmmm, yes, a stimulant may help to get you going again!” And thereafter he would write out a prescription for a small bottle called a “10-cent vial.” Back then Hartford had three drug stores. All of them were said to sell many of the popular small bottles. Drinking in the stores was taboo, but thirsty Hartfordites could buy a 10-cent vial, slip it in their pocket, and go elsewhere to drain it. Long rows of the little “10-centers” reposed on the prescription room shelves filled with what customers called “Pop Skull,” “Paint Thinner,” “Rot Gut,” and various other names. When a customer came in, he never called for whiskey. Instead, he would say, “Give me a 10-cent vial.” There was also a “15-center” for confirmed drinkers who desired a stronger shot. But what to do then with the empty bottle! A few brought them back and slipped them to the druggist. Others dropped them along the street. Some stashed them in barns. In 1948 a local Hartford stock buyer named Charles S. Hammond came upon a startling proof of this transgression. He decided to tear down an old livery barn in Hartford. In the wall space between the siding and the interior sheathing of a horse stall he found baskets full of the small glass bottles. And there they had reposed since the days of prohibition! All along the alleys in back of Hartford’s Main Street stores stood outhouses. Inside plumbing was still a new fad then. Some old-timers even said superstitiously that sitting over running water would give a person rheumatism! Many of those back alley outhouses became the repository of the empty little bottles. A thirsty man who wanted to take a drink out of the range of spying eyes could retreat to one of those places, drain the bottle, and then easily dispose of it. This illegal trade flourished for several years. Then someone got the bright idea of amending the local option law, so that druggists had to keep a record of their sales. Liquor could only be sold for medicinal purposes and thereafter buyers were required to sign a register and specify their ailments in order to get whiskey. The law gradually cut off the confirmed topers. Their names did not look good on the register that was periodically inspected by enforcing officers. It was a popular wisecrack for old customers to tell the druggist they had “housemaid’s knee,” which the pharmacist usually wrote as “lumbago’ in the register. A spin-off industry for local druggists was in the sale of empty wooden whiskey barrels. They were much in demand for making “pickled peaches.” The repeal of prohibition brought an end to the lucrative trade in illegal liquor. And to us in modern times it seems quaint indeed to consider the lengths to which some of our citizens would go to satisfy their thirst for “Red Squirrel,” or whatever they called it. And long after the fact, Charles Hammond tore down an old livery barn. Out of the wall tumbled all the little bottles, mute evidence that people will get what they crave, illegal or not. Hard to believe that prohibition became the law of the land almost 90 years ago… and it lasted for 13 years, mostly in name only. It gave rise to a whole generation of gangsters and lawbreakers who found much profit in the desire of people for the Devil in the Bottle. One great film that chronicles those times is “The Untouchables,” starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and others. It is the story of how some federal agents brought down Al Capone and his empire… finally getting him on tax evasion! All the people from back then are gone now. They too are part of the fabric, the glorious tapestry, of life in these storybook towns of ours along the Paw Paw River.

Watervliet District Library News

Local Expert Series: How to Brew March 12, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. Presented by Arclight Brewmeister Edward Nash, learn about the day-to-day workings of this favorite brewpub at the library then take a tour of Arclight Brewery. Third Monday Book Club March 19, 7 – 8 p.m. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Great books, fabulous conversation! Ask for a copy at the desk. Adult Crafting: “Pinteresting” March 26, 6:30-8:00 p.m. Shabby Chic Easter Eggs: Have fun trying out a Pinterest inspired craft on the library! All supplies provided; sign up required. Teen Table Projects: March Teen Tech Challenge: Complete them all to enter the Ring Spinner giveaway! Challenge sheets are on the table. Zachary, the read to me dog Saturday, 1:30 – 2:30 p.m. Meet Zachary – a certified therapy hypoallergenic labradoodle. He has a Good Canine Citizen Certificate and is a member of the American Kennel Club; loves to be read to by kids.