Bootlegging in Spearsville

On January 16, 1920, Prohibition went into effect throughout the United States. Many in the Spearsville area began to rely on what became know as bootlegging for a living. The name derived from the practice, adopted by the distillers of the illegal hooch, of stuffing a bottle into their boots for easy access when a potential buyer was found. Law enforcement had their hands full trying to curtail bootlegging in the area. It became virtually impossible to control. An area just above Spearsville became highly concentrated with those employed in the making and selling of the illegal brew. The gullies and creek bottoms of that area offered great opportunities for the concealment of stills for the production of the illegal brew. All around the area became know as Rum Center.

Charlie and Nancy Nelson Goss lived with their three children, near Lillie at his time and Charlie was having a hard time feeding his family. In fact, times were so hard that Charlie hunted in order to feed his family. Once he went squirrel hunting and had no luck. As he trudged his way home that day he pondered how he was going to feed his family. Then it hit him. He stopped off at the barn and killed several wharf rats and cleaned them. Amazingly they looked just like a cleaned cat squirrel. He took them home and gave them to Nancy to cook without saying a word. That night the family enjoyed their fried squirrel and Charlie never said a word.

Charlie was offered the job of infiltrating the population of Rum Center to try to expose those involved in the production of the whiskey by the Union Parish Sheriff. As desperate Charlie gladly accepted the job. He posed as a hobo and ventured into village bumming food from door to door. He was a stranger to the area of Rum Center and no one suspected him to be anything other than the tramp he seemed to be. For weeks he bummed around the area, dirty and unshaven, until he was accepted by the populous there as a regular fixture and was taken into confidence. He began begging from those he had learned were making it and eventually learned the locations of the stills and began reporting them to the sheriff’s office through a courier. The sheriff in turn began raiding the locations and destroying the stills and their stash of booze.

Charlie was a good friend of Boone and Edna Breazeal, who lived a couple of miles below Rum Center on the Spearsville road. In fact, Edna and Nancy were first cousins, Jeremiah Hayes being their grandfather. After several months of playing the hobo, Charlie was miserable. He hadn’t had a bath during that time and had forgotten the feel of a soft bed. He decided to visit the Breazeal farm and get a bath, and maybe a good night’s sleep, not to mention maybe getting to eat some of Edna’s cooking.

Arriving at the farm, he knocked on the screen door at the rear of the house. Edna, who was in the kitchen, came to the door. There she saw a filthy man, dressed in dirty ragged clothes, whose body aroma permeated the air and drifted through the doorway where Edna stood. Edna quickly tried shutting the door and told him to go away, but Charlie, after some doing, made her realize who he was. Shocked that Charlie had ascended to such a status in life, she was anxious to inquire of him as to how this could have happen, so she asked him in. After his explanation, she insisted that he spend the night and enjoy a bath, a good home cooked meal and a nights rest in a comfortable bed.

In the vicinity of Taylortown, the Taylor brothers, James Ellis and Clifford “Bunk”, along with Jim Turner had a still on a branch that ran nearby. James and “Bunk” were busy at the still. They sent Jim to bury a keg of new makings in a field nearby. As Jim came up out of the draw and into the field, with the keg on his shoulder, he came face to face with Charlie Goss, who was holding a shotgun. “Drop that keg!” Charlie commanded. The startled Jim did just that. The keg hit the ground with a crash and the precious brew ran down the hill toward the branch. When the Taylor boys heard the commotion they made a run for it. When James jumped the branch he landed in mud and his new shoes bogged up to his ankles. He managed to pull his feet loose but his shoes stayed stuck in the mud. Then when “Bunk” jumped the branch, Charlie had noticed them and sent a load of buck shot their way. The shot found their mark in “Bunk” and he went down. Charlie knew the Taylor brothers and where to find them, so his immediate concern was in getting Jim to jail. “Bunk” almost died from his shotgun wounds, but in time he fully recovered.

After all three were in custody, James and “Bunk” made a deal with Jim. If he would take the “rap” they would raise money to defend him. Jim agreed and was tried, found guilty of bootlegging and sent to prison where he worked on a chain gang.

True to their word James and “Bunk” borrowed a considerable amount of money from Mrs. Clara Risinger to hire representation for Jim; for years thereafter they repaid Mrs. Risinger’s loan slowly but surely, as they could, anyway they could, from bringing her eggs to occasionally money.

About 6 months after he went to jail Jim was released near New Orleans. At the time he was released he had only a dime in his pocket, but had a pair of almost new shoes. He bought a loaf of light bread with his dime and started walking north toward Union Parish. He walked at night and rested in the daytime. In those days it wasn’t healthy for a stranger to the area, especially a black man, to be walking on the road in the daytime. Several days later Jim made his way back home to Spearsville, his shoes completely worn out.

Years later while shaking his head Jim recalled watching the fruits of their labor as it ran toward the branch after he had dropped that keg, “That was the prettiest brew you ever saw.”

These were hard time for folks all over the United State and a lot of good folks resorted to making whisky in order to survive. Especially hard hit were those living in an area above Spearsville that became know as Rum Center. Prohibition made is against the law to make and sell whiskey, which did little to stop what had become a livelihood for many.

Rich Dettenheim lived in the Rum Center community and some say that he made a great deal of money dealing in bootleg whiskey. According to some, he had several local officials on his payroll, as well as in other states. He allegedly dealt in the hooch very cleverly. He would bury ten and twenty gallon containers full of the whiskey at various sites. When a buyer asked if he had any for sale, he’d say something like, “No, but for $20 (or $50, as the case may be) I can tell you where to find some.” The buyer would pay up for the information and Rich would direct them to one of the hiding places.

Rich had a considerable temper and cursed a lot when he became irate. During the depression, he applied for money, available through a government program, to fund farmers to raise crops, free of interest. The problem was that, due to government red tape, the farmers never knew when they would receive their money. In 1933, Rich’s check came to late to plant, so without even opening the envelope that contained the check, he scrawled with a pen on the back of the envelope, “Too damn little too damn late!” – and promptly sent it back to Washington.

In the 1990s, when the roads were being giving names in order to facilitate the new 911 emergency system, a protest arose over the naming of the road leading north out of Spearsville through the Rum Center community. The result was the removal of the sigh that read, Rum Center Road, and a replacement that reads, Pilgrim’s Rest Church Road, to denote the Baptist church in the village. Ironically, the lady responsible for the furor was the daughter of one of the most notorious bootleggers of the time. Lee Calk, who was among those responsible for the town being named Rum Center.

Gene Barron is a native of Spearsville, Union Parish, Louisiana. He has a genealogy database of 182,000 names, who are all connected to his family.

Gene has also written three historical books on Union Parish. I highly recommend both.


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