Crawford County Historical Museum bootlegging exhibit extended

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
Moonshine stills made from materials including copper and a bathtub are among items on display as part of the Crawford County Historical Museum's bootlegging exhibit.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — An exhibit highlighting the history of bootlegging in southeast Kansas was originally planned for January through March at the Crawford County Historical Museum, but it has been so popular that the museum decided to extend it and might even make it a permanent feature. 

"Putting this exhibit together, it was just amazing how many different layers there are,” said Amanda Minton, executive director of the museum.  

“You get the bootleggers’ version, and then you get the badge version,” she said. “As you walk through and you read the information, you know, you think ‘Was prohibition a good thing? Did it help? Did it hurt?’” 

The exhibit features a historical timeline, a reproduction of a speakeasy, a variety of moonshine stills, and law enforcement documents, among other historical artifacts. Since it opened, Minton said, it has been extremely popular. 

“I don’t know if it’s because people have been home for a year and they’re just ready to get out and do something and look at something, I mean we’re kind of in an odd time right now,” she said, “but I don’t remember ever having this many phone calls asking if this exhibit is still going on.” 

Alcohol prohibition lasted much longer in Kansas than in the rest of the country, from 1881 to 1948. According to Ken Peak, co-author of the books Kansas Bootleggers and Kansas Temperance, Crawford and Cherokee counties in particular were a hub for bootlegging statewide at the height of Prohibition. 

Peak has donated several copies of both of his books to the museum and they are for sale there, with proceeds benefiting the museum.   

For the generation that lived through the Prohibition era in southeast Kansas, bootlegging was both a means of survival and a way of life.   

“People would hide their moonshine in dog houses and chicken coops, and the women would even make what’s called kitchen moonshine,” Minton said. 

The exhibit also highlights some of the other historical events of the Prohibition era and beyond and how they shaped or were shaped by Prohibition and bootlegging. It includes information about the evolution of NASCAR, for example, starting from modified cars that were used to smuggle illicit liquor. 

Before Prohibition, Minton said, most establishments where alcohol was served were men-only saloons, but following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, the unauthorized speakeasies that emerged to meet the public’s continued demand for alcohol generally allowed women, and featured other innovations such as mixed drinks. 

“The speakeasies were basically the end of the saloon era,” Minton said. “So the player pianos, the swinging doors are gone, and you had a more sophisticated era of a nightclub.” 

The bootlegging exhibit, which is currently spread throughout the museum, is now set to remain on display until at least June 19. After that it will likely be consolidated into a smaller permanent exhibit.