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A bootlegger's daughter

The Spirit of Tehachapi

Some years ago, I wrote an article for The Loop newspaper entitled "Only a bootlegger's daughter." I'd like to add a few facts to that long ago piece. Since I was but five years old when Prohibition ended in December 1933, my memories are in the form of my eldest brother's recollections of those days and my parents' oft-told stories. Still and all, it was a time of unrest in this country what with the Great Depression taking its toll, the speakeasies and the illegal sale of liquor. Congress must have been out to lunch when they ratified the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1920, prohibiting the manufacture, transporting and sale of alcoholic beverages. The temperance societies were very sure it would be a cure-all to instigate a National Liquor Abstinence. Thirteen years from start to finish included the greatest crime wave the country had seen so far. Tell the American public that they cannot have what they think is rightfully theirs, whether it's freedom, liquor, the right to assemble or bear arms, etc., and you'll hear from them. It's the American way. God bless us!

So it was then, in 1931, my out-of-work father, Chauncey Davis, a victim of a blanket lay-off by the Southern Pacific Railroad, was driving his Model T Ford truck, off-road style, across the Mojave desert. Being an avid gold prospector, he was planning to take ore samples from the twin buttes site southeast of town. He was able to eke out a living for his family by working at odd jobs in town and at the local gold mines on Standard Hill and Soledad Mountain. Because of his love of mining I was taught to pan gold before I could spell cat.

As his Model T topped a little rise he came upon what appeared to be a mining operation with much activity. Walking up to the scene to converse with the workers, he noted five one-thousand-gallon vats placed in a timbered dugout. Dirt and desert foliage atop the liquor filled vats disguised a thriving bootlegging still in full swing operation.

Realizing that he may have walked into a dangerous situation he conversed casually with the men on site about gold mining and then left for town. He realized that what he'd seen was no simple home brew operation but a large scale bootleg liquor business. Highly illegal. As he pulled into the driveway at home a large black sedan pulled in behind him and a Mojave businessman came to him and said, "Well, Chauncey, you know what you saw. What are we gonna do about it?"

Replying with the only answer beneficial to his health, he said, "Well, I could sure use a job."

He was hired as a guard stationed on a slight rise near the still, a 30-30 Winchester rifle (his own) in hand. He was paid a good salary of fifty-five dollars per week, cash on the line. There was a buzzer system rigged up to warn of intruders.

The danger of the Feds was always imminent but liquor hijackers were of a greater risk and far more apt to show up. There was a fenced-in corral with cattle near the entrance and another of my father's duties was to herd them into the area near the gate so their hoof prints would cover any tire tracks from the departing loaded liquor trucks.

No Federal men came but the hijackers did and my father had to use his fists and then his 30-30 to defend himself and the still. The hijackers left with bullets passing over their heads. My dad was a crack shot but as they were already leaving, empty handed, he saw no reason to "detain" them.

The grand weekly salary of fifty-five dollars enabled my parents to pay cash for items purchased instead of the usual credit. This was noticed by local grocer, Roy Moore. My eldest brother, Everett Davis, who was about twelve during this period, was often questioned when he was sent to the store. "Your dad workin' somewhere son?" Roy Moore would ask. Everett had been instructed to act dumb and say he didn't know.

The government agents began closing in on other stills in the area and many people were arrested. My father always said that the"big boys back east" said it was time to close up and relocate. The good salary was gone leaving him with a few stories to tell his grandchildren.

One such story was an incident of one of the cattle, a bull that fell into one of the thousand-gallon whiskey vats. They were able to extricate him but not before he had swallowed a great deal of the whiskey and went charging off into the desert mad and roaring drunk.

On December 5, 1933 this period in history ended and President Franklin Roosevelt declared National Prohibition at an end. Some states, to this day, still have "dry" counties.

My father secured a job driving the local school bus and the kids at school called me the "bus driver's little girl." I really didn't like being identified in that manner but it could have been worse; I might have been called "the bootlegger's daughter."