FRANKLIN — Deep Shaft whiskey and 50 Camp wines that once graced countertops across the nation trace their roots back to Crawford County miners.
People desperate to feed their families often turned to brewing and bootlegging when mines closed or other circumstances turned sour, and that heritage is celebrated in “Cheers — Bootlegging, Winemaking and Home Brew,” an exhibit opening today at Miners Hall Museum.
The exhibit has been curated by Alan Roberts and draws heavily on the work of Girard native Ken Peak, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has researched and written on the topic.
“Most of the pictures and articles here are ones he sent back to me,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he volunteered to put together the exhibit, which opens today and will remain on display through late September, but found the process more challenging than expected.
He said as an illegal activity, bootlegging carried a stigma that has led many families of those involved to keep a low profile about their affiliation with that part of history, even in recent years.
“People were reluctant to talk, and if they did talk, they didn’t want their names used,” he said. “I think it’s just a big part of the history that people are unwilling to talk about and they probably had relatives who were part of it.”
Roberts said this led to a complex ethic in regard to brewed beverages.
“People said, ‘It may have been illegal, but it wasn’t wrong,’” Roberts said. “Because of mine close-downs, they didn’t have unemployment and some of them had little farms. What many of them relied on was bootlegging.”
While home brew wasn’t unique to the local area during Prohibition, Roberts said Crawford and Cherokee counties were hotbeds and whiskey was an area specialty.
Supplies for making the beverages were readily available, and transactions involving large quantities of sugar and malt are recorded in old Co-op records on display as part of the exhibit.
Roberts said assembling a still also was a fairly straightforward proposition.
“Anything you needed to make a still was readily available,” he said.
The display’s stories and artifacts give a glimpse into the struggle for survival in the Little Balkans and the measures mining families went to to make ends meet.
It also was a whole-family affair, and Roberts said it also was interesting to him to learn how many women were imprisoned for bootlegging.
“The government didn’t care who went to jail, just as long as someone went to jail,” he said. “A lot of times it was the women.”
He said records at Pittsburg State University’s Axe Library show who was imprisoned for VPLL, or violation of probationary liquor laws, as well as the sentences served and reasons for release, but noted that local law enforcement was notoriously lax.
“There was a lot of talk at the time about how Crawford County officials maybe didn’t want to enforce the laws,” Roberts said.
“Part of it is the whole idea of the Balkans. Some of the people come from that region in Europe and the region was a little different there, like it was here,” Roberts continued. “People were desperate to feed their families.”
In addition to the ongoing display, the exhibit, which is sponsored in part by the SEK ArtFest, will feature a three special programs, each from 2-3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.
On July 12, a presentation on Bootlegging in Southeast Kansas by Ken Peak will be shown, and a teleconferenced question and answer session s scheduled to follow.
On Aug. 2, John Laflin will demonstrate how to make beer at home and on Sept. 20 John Sarley will demonstrate modern wine-making techniques.
While the display opens today, Roberts said he still hopes to find additional artifacts, such as a still. Any items could be displayed anonymously, if desired by families. Roberts can be reached at 913-717-7190 or email@example.com.