Idaho History

Prohibition kept Boise law enforcement officers busy

The Boise Police Department in the Roaring ’20s helped enforce Prohibition.
The Boise Police Department in the Roaring ’20s helped enforce Prohibition. Provided by Arthur Hart

Prohibition had no sooner gone into effect in Idaho in 1916, and in the rest of the country in 1920, than a significant part of the population began to look for ways to get around it. The demand for liquor was so great that tens of thousands of Americans who had never before broken any law now figured that making and selling illegal liquor was worth the risk. The Idaho Statesman reported regularly on those who got arrested for trying.

“Pullman-Auto Booze Seizure” read a headline on the morning of April 4, 1917. “Orric Cole, proprietor of the Cole auto livery, Ray Ramsey, one of his chauffeurs, and S.H. Paterson, a Pullman porter, were arrested Monday morning at the Oregon Short Line yards at about 8:30 o’clock, just as they were about to drive off in one of Cole’s autos with 44 pints of Cedar Run whiskey and two quarts of Sunnybrook that the sheriff said arrived Monday morning from Ogden in lower berth No.1.” Three suitcases were later found to contain an additional 59 pints of whiskey.

“Bootleggers Are Arrested” reported the Statesman on Aug. 18, 1917. “Two Caught as They Cross Nevada Line; One Tries to Escape.” Some 36 cases of liquor and a four-and-a-half gallon keg of whiskey, all worth about $2,500, were seized. The men were armed with a six-shooter and a shotgun but wisely decided not to try to use them against C. A. Haskell, deputy collector for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service; Sheriff Emmett Pfost; and his deputy, Oscar Somerville. A man who tried to escape by jumping out of a moving car and running into the brush was quickly recaptured. The liquor was turned over to U.S. officials.

“Booze Cached in City Limits” was the headline on Aug. 21, 1917. Five barrels of whiskey and eight boxes of bottled beer had been driven to Boise from the area of Bruneau and hidden in brush beside the Boise River. When the young driver of the truck that brought the booze to Boise was arrested, he said he had been hired for the job by a man named Alvin Harris. He gave police a written description of his adventure: “We got to Boise about 6 o’clock Sunday morning, August 12, after the streetcars had started to run. We came across Broadway bridge and when on the north side of Boise river turned off Broadway and onto the road that runs through Julia Davis park, followed that road about a block and a half or two blocks, then turned off toward the river, and then Harris unloaded the barrels and boxes from the truck. The place was rather swampy and tulies were growing there.” When Sheriff Emmitt Pfost and a local agent of the Department of Justice went to the spot described, they found it easily, but the booze was gone. Today’s Greenbelt runs right past the spot.

A former Boise policewoman was arrested in April 1919 after beer and the apparatus for making it and 174 quarts of 1912 Old Crow and Yellowstone whiskey were found in her home near Julia Davis Park on South Ninth Street. According to Sheriff Pfost the woman brewed her beer from hops and malt in an agateware kettle on a gas range. It was then placed in a stone jar and drawn through a tube to another jar before bottling. At the time of the raid there were 20 quart bottles filled and capped.

Dozens of news items in the Statesman in the 1920s describe raids and arrests of violators of liquor laws. Boise police worked with federal, state and county officers in tracking down and arresting moonshiners and runners. In March 1921, officers arrested five men and seized three large touring cars and a light truck as they entered Idaho from Canada carrying 106 cases of bonded Canadian whiskey. In February 1926, all 13 cases on the docket of federal court in Boise were for violation of Prohibition laws. The fines meted out ranged from $200 to $500.

In 1928, 703 arrests were made in Idaho alone for violation of Prohibition laws, 86 complete stills were confiscated, 7,750 gallons of liquor and 30,020 gallons of mash were destroyed, and 25 automobiles were confiscated. And those are just for violators who got caught.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email