Editor’s note: Speaking of Prohibition, due to another new government action, Assembly Bill 5, Rebecca Yerger will be limited in the number of articles she can write for the Register in 2020. Therefore, her column will run only every other week.
A century ago, in January, Prohibition became the law of the land. The pages of the local newspapers were filled with stories reporting the details about this unique time in American and Napa Valley history.
However, while these articles were strictly factual accounts, Prohibition also generated countless local legends and lore. Having survived the test of time, these century-old anecdotes provide a different perspective and even amusing reflections into Napa Valley during Prohibition.
Although the Volstead Act, the federal legislation creating Prohibition, allowed individual to produce wine for personal consumption, many people, especially immigrants, were under the impression any and/or all wine making was illegal. Fearing entanglement with the law and legal systems for “bootlegging,” many home wine makers devised ways to camouflage the production of their personal wine.
One related story states that the effort to disguise this private winemaking involved an entire district of what is now Napa. This neighborhood, known as East Napa or Little Italy, was located on the east side of the Napa River and was heavily populated by Italian immigrants and Italian Americans.
According to this tale, the women of the East Napa sautéed hundreds of pounds of onions and garlic to mask the distinctive scent of the grape crush. However, some locals claimed this practice was actually a ploy to increase business at the Italian eateries of Napa as the pungent scent of the cooked onions and garlic blended with the fragrance of the crush whetted many appetites, both far and near.
While wine was considered a refined and tolerable form of alcoholic libations, distilled liquors were viewed as wicked and corrupting spirits. As a result, Prohibition mandated severe restriction on their production, sale and consumption in the effort to abolish distilled beverages. But according to local legend, it surreptitiously prevailed.
Throughout Napa County, the surviving “watering-holes” found ways to procure or manufacture, store, and sell distilled liquors. Many of these establishments created hidden compartments and/or used code words to assist with their defiance of Prohibition.
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For example, a bar once located just east of the Semorile (now the Bounty Hunter) building on First Street had a trap door behind the bar. Located on the floor, it opened to the Napa Creek below. Within this underground hiding place was a special and locked vault filled with bottles of distilled alcohol. It was within easy reach of the long-armed proprietor-barkeep. But it also provided a quick disposal site for any incriminating evidence. When needed, the liquor filled glasses and open bottles were dropped into the water below.
As for code words, at the Oberon (now Downtown Joe’s) a trusted customer could always quench his or her thirst with a special order. The secret code phrase was, “I’ll have a caramel sundae, but hold the ice cream.” In reply, the bartender would serve the patron a distilled beverage of their choice.
But not all bootleggers were so secretive. According to the late George Blaufuss, his father, a German born and trained brewmaster, was arrested for openly making beer. When he was arrested, the local sheriff’s deputy confiscated the evidence — a few cases of beer. Being an upstanding citizen of Napa, his case was held within the judge’s chambers in the presence of his attorney, the District Attorney and the arresting officer.
As part of the hearing, the deputy brought in the evidence, the cases of beer. At that time, both attorneys as well as the judge questioned as to whether or not the beverage was an illicit liquor. So the judge ordered the deputy to distribute samples of the evidence to each party. A considerable amount of time and additional samples were required by all to make an informed decision. Eventually, the judge determined it was beer, but without sufficient evidence, he could not find the award-winning brewmaster guilty. The hearing ended with the case’s participants filing out of the judge’s chambers in a most happy way.
ANNOUNCEMENT: For those of you who are interested in discovering more stories like those above and/or true but interesting local historical account, I invite you to enroll in one or more of my upcoming local history courses offered through the city of Napa’s Parks and Recreation department. The first course, “Napa in the Movies,” Wednesday, Jan 22—Feb. 12; 6:30-8:30 p.m., will feature movies filmed in Napa Valley, such as “A Walk In the Clouds.”
The following two, five-week, courses, “Napa Historical Treasures 1 & 2”—Wednesday. Feb. 19- March 18 and March 25-April 22; 6:30-8 p.m.—will feature true and unique local historical accounts. Each course, independent of one another, will offer a wide range of topics and will be presented in a non-traditional format.
For more information and/or to register, either review pages 16 and 56 of the Winter/Spring 2020 Parks and Rec schedule; visit cityofnapa.org/parksandrec or call 707-257-9529.