PITTSBURG — As part of events planned for this year’s Frontenac Homecoming, Ken Peak, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Reno, and co-author of books including Kansas Bootleggers and Kansas Temperance, will give a presentation Saturday on the history of bootlegging in the area.
Peak still lives in Nevada today but grew up in Kansas, including several different places in Southeast Kansas, and he earned two degrees from Pittsburg State University.
Although Peak’s 1991 book published by Sunflower University Press and co-authored with Patrick G. O’Brien is titled Kansas Bootleggers, it focuses almost exclusively on Crawford and Cherokee counties. Along with Pittsburg and Girard, Frontenac features prominently in the book.
“I got a saloon and I expect to keep one,” one resident informed prohibitionist Kansas Gov. Walter Stubbs in 1910, as recounted in the book. “I pay my debts and am a good citizen,” the author of the letter to the governor wrote, but added some cautionary words.
“Keep your nose out or someone gets hurt — we don’t fool [around] down here in Frontenac, as you are warned and it is your falt [sic] if you get hurt.”
Frontenac Mayor Linda Grilz said that Homecoming has never had the kind of presentation from a speaker along the lines of the talk Peak will give at Frontenac Town Hall at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“When we were planning I thought, ‘Man, a presentation would be really nice and add a lot to our homecoming’” Grilz said.
“I’ve known Ken for about 40 years and I knew that he wrote these books on bootlegging because he did a presentation at Miners Hall Museum, so I knew it would be outstanding. So I just think it’s going to add something a little bit different to Homecoming and something for everyone. That what we want to do.”
Many people in Frontenac used to be involved in bootlegging to earn extra income.
“My grandpa, he didn’t do bootleg [beer or liquor] but he did homemade Dago Red, you know, wine,” Grilz said.
While making “Dago Red” wine may not have even been considered bootlegging at all in what was essentially the capital of Kansas when it came to illicit distilling and brewing during the prohibition era, however, in Colorado, “the tenacity of these Italians in making ‘Dago Red’ led to near civil war with prohibition authorities,” according to Peak’s 1991 book.
In an interview Thursday, Peak recounted some memorable anecdotes from the history of bootlegging in Southeast Kansas.
“There was one aggressive [Crawford County Sheriff’s] deputy who lived near the Girard Golf Course,” Peak said. “His house got dynamited one night while the family was asleep. They just blew up half of his house, and fortunately everybody survived but that was a message to him: ‘You better back off a little bit.’ So there was that kind of ongoing battle all those decades.”
It’s also worth noting, however, that not all local authorities during the era of alcohol prohibition — which remained in place as part of the Kansas Constitution for longer than in any other state — were as serious about enforcing the law as they might have been.
“There were a lot of payoffs going on,” Peak said. “Frontenac City Council, Pittsburg City Council, a number of city councils, not just here but across the state, were blatantly taking money, typically I’ve read about $15 a month, and you were allowed to keep your saloon operational, and it was pretty well-known.”
One sheriff entered office “dirt poor” Peak said, “and when he came out four years later, he owned three farms and had amassed quite a little fortune, everybody in the county owed him money.”
There were also loopholes in the prohibition law that were readily exploited by Kansans.
“The bugaboo of the law was that for about 40 years, the law provided that druggists could dispense alcoholic beverages but with a doctor’s prescription,” Peak said. “Well that opens the floodgates, there’s where the problems come into play. You get a doctor to prescribe and they’re giving him a little bit of money, and all of a sudden they’re going to the druggist to get their alcohol for, you know, boils, or depression, or I even read of a nun down in Texas who went and got alcohol prescribed for, you know, some lewd thoughts she was having. Booze could cure anything all of a sudden.”
Besides bootleggers, there were also those who operated legal businesses that catered to the local underground economy.
“I interviewed a hardware store owner who was in Pittsburg back when you could walk into the hardware store — and about any hardware store — and over in the corner there would be a section where you could buy everything you needed to set up your still,” Peak said.
“I compared it in my classes at [University of] Nevada, Reno and it’s a very close correlation with the more modern-day drug culture, you know, the head shops kind of thing.”
While Southeast Kansas may have been a bootlegging hub, many people in the area who made illegal liquor never made a huge amount of money doing it, and simply were taking one of the few opportunities available locally to augment their modest income.
“They just tried to use it to squeak by,” Peak said. He also talked about some of the side effects of low budget bootlegging operations.
“One gentleman told me that, you know, those were tough times, again, a lot of people struggled, so if you made moonshine with corn mash, you would feed the leftover mash to the farm animals,” Peak said, “and he described how your horses and cows and pigs just would flop around, roll around on the ground. They’d be so intoxicated they couldn’t whinny, they couldn’t moo, they couldn’t oink, they’d just kind of grunt.”
Peak’s bootlegging presentation is scheduled for Saturday, June 8, at 2 p.m. at Frontenac Town Hall at 200 E. McKay St. in Frontenac.