By Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO- A little better than 90 years ago, after several decades of nationwide debate, the United States Congress ratified Amendment XVIII calling for the prohibition of liquor. Like the current status of the sale of medicinal marijuana, the use and sale of the substance was highly controversial.
The amendment was ratified Jan. 16, 1920. Serious consideration of prohibition had been discussed for years, but the measure came to the fore in Congress the previous December.
By the time the country (except, for some reason, Rhode Island and Connecticut, which never passed the prohibition law), approved the amendment, Walsenburg and La Veta had already gone dry. La Veta passed the no liquor ordinance in 1893, but returned to “wet” in the late 1890s to keep the railroaders and traveling public happy. In May 1914 she again went dry. Walsenburg voters went to the polls in November 1912 to approve prohibition.
La Veta didn’t have much to lose by going dry. A very active chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union held sway (at one meeting, 50 people were in attendance), and the only financial benefit to the town from the sale of liquor was the collection of saloon and liquor license fees. Early in her history, La Veta citizens formed an Anti-Saloon League and ran candidates in most of the town elections.
Walsenburg, with its dozens of saloons, pool halls and hotels catering to myriad coal miners, travelers, businessmen, was a different matter entirely. The Anti-Saloon League here was formed in February 1910 and by March had caused the arrest of 24 saloonkeepers, mostly for allowing gambling, but it was a start. The town fathers had to figure out how to make up 35 mills for the budget, which “hitherto [was] raised from saloon licenses”.
The State of Colorado went dry in 1917, effective June 1. The law required each person to buy a monthly permit for one quart of whiskey to be used for medical, sacramental or scientific purposes only.
After Walsenburg went dry, “soft drink emporiums” sprang up, with 18 on Seventh Street alone in 1915. Needless to say, many of those soft drinks were harder than the law allowed, and busts were frequent.
In September 1917 alone, three busts were worth mentioning in the newspapers. A transient peddler was picked up near La Veta for having 15 quarts of whiskey in his spring wagon and a Walsenburg woman was arrested for carrying 20 gallons of the stuff in her Overland car. Then the sheriff confiscated some $1,000 worth of whiskey in a raid near Pryor/Rouse.
The sheriff may not have minded confiscating things. One news article stated he’d taken a car carrying liquor that was sold for $325. The money went into the school fund.
Not only the sheriff was kept busy, but federal agents seemed to like Huerfano County for its easy pickings. Never a raid went by when they did not arrest a dozen or so men and women, one time in Cameron for a citizen harboring 63 bottles of beer. Another raid netted 1,064 pints of “ice cold liquid for post-Lenten celebrations” on Seventh Street. A private home on Seventh was found to contain a whopping 400 gallons in 1924 and in a 1926 raid, some 575 gallons of moonshine was seized from a distillery north of Walsenburg.
The record seizure had to be the time in 1927 when federal agents and local deputies found two stills, 1,000 gallons of mash and 40 gallons of whiskey in an abandoned sheep camp somewhere in the vicinity of the Huerfano Butte.
Naturally, all these raids kept the old county jail busy, with standing room only, but it was scarcely escape proof and many prisoners went on to distill another day.
One big day was Oct. 25, 1923, when Judge Patterson sentenced 18 for bootlegging and gambling, while outside the courthouse the town chief of police nabbed two men in a Cadillac coupe with 120 gallons of “booze”.
In fact, prohibition had become so popular in Walsenburg, or at least among the temperate, that the W.C.T.U. had its district convention in the city in April 1923.
The hardest hit of prohibition in this county were the southern European miners. These men were accustomed to drinking wine with meals, and each fall stocked up on grapes to make their own brew. Of course, many of them were arrested for operating stills, some of which made themselves known only by exploding.
While city, county and federal officers were chasing all over enforcing the law, one incident had the tables turned. In 1922, two carloads of disgruntled drinkers chased the sheriff 100 miles at high speed as he transferred $5,000 worth of liquor to the federal prohibition office in Denver.
As we know, prohibition caused as many problems as it solved, and cost millions of dollars to enforce. State by state, elections were held to end prohibition, and Congress approved Amendment XXI Dec. 5, 1933, repealing XVIII.
There is no moral to this story!