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 Ferndale officers pose with confiscated  liquor outside the Police Department in this  Prohibition-era photo from the 1920s.

Ferndale officers pose with confiscated liquor outside the Police Department in this Prohibition-era photo from the 1920s.

Photo provided by the Ferndale Historical Society archives


When metro Detroit went dry

Looking back as Prohibition turns 100

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published February 25, 2020

 There is a front, pictured, and back stairway that both lead  to the basement of the Eastside Tavern in Mount Clemens.  The basement bar was once a speakeasy during Prohibition.

There is a front, pictured, and back stairway that both lead to the basement of the Eastside Tavern in Mount Clemens. The basement bar was once a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Once your way is made into the basement, you become part of the Eastside Tavern family in Mount Clemens, a basement bar that was once a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Once your way is made into the basement, you become part of the Eastside Tavern family in Mount Clemens, a basement bar that was once a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Visiting the Eastside Tavern, in Mount Clemens, is always a good time. With a ceiling height of just 6 feet 2 inches, the tavern was once a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Visiting the Eastside Tavern, in Mount Clemens, is always a good time. With a ceiling height of just 6 feet 2 inches, the tavern was once a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 A photo that hangs inside the Eastside Tavern depicts a man dumping out confiscated liquor that was seized at the bar. The alcohol was destroyed at the rear of the Macomb County Jail.

A photo that hangs inside the Eastside Tavern depicts a man dumping out confiscated liquor that was seized at the bar. The alcohol was destroyed at the rear of the Macomb County Jail.

 Blossom Heath Inn, 24800 Jefferson Ave. in St. Clair Shores, was built in 1911 as a roadhouse and acquired its name when it served as an inn in 1920. During Prohibition, it was used as a gambling house, but it declined in the 1940s. Since then, it has been used as a civic center, a recreation center and is now a banquet hall. It is seen here in an Aug. 20, 1984, photo from the St. Clair Shores Local History Archive.

Blossom Heath Inn, 24800 Jefferson Ave. in St. Clair Shores, was built in 1911 as a roadhouse and acquired its name when it served as an inn in 1920. During Prohibition, it was used as a gambling house, but it declined in the 1940s. Since then, it has been used as a civic center, a recreation center and is now a banquet hall. It is seen here in an Aug. 20, 1984, photo from the St. Clair Shores Local History Archive.

Photo provided by the St. Clair Shores Historical Commission

 A rumrunning boat is raised in 1991 from the Detroit River by a crane outfitted on a barge.

A rumrunning boat is raised in 1991 from the Detroit River by a crane outfitted on a barge.

Photo provided by the Detroit Historical Society

METRO DETROIT — Let’s turn the calendar back 100 years to Jan. 17, 1920.

Jazz music is about to take over and it’s time for Americans to say goodbye to their favorite spirits as drinking publicly becomes illegal.

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of when Prohibition began in the U.S.

Prohibition — the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor and beer. The only way for people to sip their favorite drink was in the privacy of their homes … until personal booze supplies ran out.

However, the new law didn’t proceed as planned. People got around Prohibition any way they could. After all, it was the Roaring ‘20s.

“Prohibition was an experiment that didn’t work. When you tell people they can’t have something, they want it,” Detroit Historical Society senior curator Joel Stone said. “The big reason they got away with it — because everybody was on the take.”

The consensus was that booze was destroying the nation. And in those days, “good” women didn’t consume liquor.

“Women felt the burden of alcohol,” Macomb Community College American history professor Michael Placco said. “They felt alcohol made husbands violent, cheat on you, be lazy and not provide for the kids” or “put them in an early grave.”

“The passing of Prohibition was supported by the very wealthy and people trying to improve the moral base,” Stone said. “In rural areas, there was a lot of support for Prohibition. There was support among the religious in Detroit, but it didn’t run very deep.”

“The Ku Klux Klan endorsed Prohibition,” Placco said.

“Detroit had several breweries that permanently went out of business, shuttered their doors or tried to come up with a different product,” Stone said. “Stroh’s stayed in business because they could sell you everything you needed to make beer … hops, yeast.”

Canada also had its own version of the law.

“In Ontario, they were allowed to keep the distilleries and breweries open, but were not allowed to sell into Ontario,” Stone said. “They closed all the taverns. You could have it at home, but you had to order it through Quebec.”

Which brought on the rumrunners.

“Right across the way was Detroit and Michigan,” Stone said. “The Canadians turned it over to the rumrunners. Rumrunning became the second-biggest business in town after the automobile industry.”

Bootleggers smuggled hooch from Ontario to Michigan via the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair.

“Michigan in general was a hotbed for bootleggers,” Placco said.

One way to bootleg was to secure liquor in torpedo-shaped boxes, which rumrunners hauled across the waterways. Smugglers also hid their stash in hot water bottles and in Christmas tree branches.

“You put liquor in old rowboats behind your speedboat,” Stone said. “You would cut the line and take off.”

Another method: large vessels docked in Windsor, Ontario, on the Detroit River, with false documentation for South America. The captain had a permit, stamped by a bribed customs officer, but he would take his cargo to Detroit.

When the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair froze, rumrunners drove across the water in cars with smaller engines known as “whiskey sixes.” They also used sleds to transport booze. According to Placco, it was “a 30-minute walk across the ice.”

“(People) made a fortune off this … rags to riches,” Placco said.

If bootleggers got caught?  

“You got raided, stuff got seized,” Placco said. “Feds would dump it out.”

There still was some legal public drinking here and there — sacramental wine used for religious rites and doctor-prescribed alcohol for toothaches, tuberculosis, headaches, high blood pressure or anemia.


Cheers and crime
Since Prohibition was ratified one year earlier on Jan. 16, 1919, it gave people the opportunity to stock up on their liquor before the new law took effect in 1920. When everyone’s stash ran out, “that’s when the criminality kicked in, in 1922-23,” Placco said.

Blind pigs, speakeasies and basement bars started popping up. “Blind pig,” Stone said, was a derogatory term for a police officer turning a blind eye to speakeasies.

“If you owned a blind pig, you would charge people a nickel to go in,” Stone said.

“They were hidden in plain sight where you had a lot of business,” Placco said. “You didn’t have to be that secretive about it.”

The speakeasies were illegal drinking saloons or nightclubs where patrons whispered code words to enter and guzzle up the good stuff. But problems arose. Along with the blind pigs came prostitution, narcotics, gambling and organized crime.

It was the Purple Gang that became Detroit’s most notorious organized crime gang in the 1920s and 1930s, according to the Detroit Historical Society website, www.detroithistorical.org.

The Purple Gang began by hijacking alcohol smuggled by others across the Canadian border.

“Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, chose to use the Purple Gang to supply whisky rather than battle them for Detroit territory,” the website states.

About 70% of all the hooch that was brought into the United States during that time was smuggled across the Canadian border into Detroit, and whether or not Purple Gang members were doing the hauling, the group oversaw the whole operation, according to Scott Bernstein, an author and local true crime historian.

“Anyone that was doing business in bootlegging throughout the country had to have connections with Detroit criminal factions. Purple Gang was at the head of all of it,” he said.

While the gang was of course founded in Detroit, born of the Oakland Sugar House Gang named for Oakland Avenue in the city, there are legends of the violent group’s activities even into the suburbs.

Bob Waun, a partner with Pontiac’s The Treasury event venue, said the now-private community of Turtle Lake was a popular hangout for the Purple Gang, and members used to drag race their cars and boats out by the water to see who was fastest — and most likely to evade the fuzz during a rumrun.

“They tested their engines right down the road at Turtle Lake to make sure they could outrun the one or two police boats,” Waun said of the space on North Saginaw Street. “With 25 or 30 smuggler boats at a time running from one side of the border to the other, the fastest ones made it across with no problems.”

Bernstein said the Purple Gang was notoriously the most violent organized crime ring in the county’s history, but the brutality was largely aimed inward.

That’s how the gang came to allegedly murder two of their own on Quarton Road, just off of Telegraph Road, in November 1933, according to John Marshall, of the Bloomfield Historical Society.

“Two of their own hitmen were executed in the back of an automobile,” Marshall said. “Two articles right after the murder said the bodies were found east of Telegraph, but an anniversary article about a year later said it was on the west side. So we don’t really know for sure.”


Local flavor
There’s an important piece of Prohibition history nestled in the basement of the Eastside Tavern, located at 126 Avery St. in Mount Clemens. The local gathering place known for mouthwatering hamburgers, cold beers, friendly camaraderie and live music, was a speakeasy.

According to the Make Macomb Your Home Facebook page, Prohibition “made the covert basement bar an ideal location to sneak a drink without the feds knowing your business. The bar supplied the community with a good time throughout Prohibition.”

With a ceiling height of just 6 feet, 2 inches, the Eastside Tavern is 33 feet by 14 feet. Frank DeBruyn purchased the building in 1991 and ran it until his death in 2017. His daughter, Heather DeBruyn, is now the owner.

There are still remnants of its speakeasy days. A Prohibition-era Tiffany lamp hangs in a cove.

With just a 49-person capacity, the bar is still popular today.

Other blind pigs might be in your backyard. The Cadieux Cafe, in Detroit, might have been a speakeasy. Former owner Ron DeVos, who sold the club last year, said his parents bought the bar in 1962. Regular customers at the time talked about its speakeasy days.

“We heard it was once a speakeasy, but there was no documentation,” DeVos said. “Just word of mouth. That was pretty much it.”

According to legend, a blind pig once stood at 10 Mile Road and Dequindre roads in Hazel Park. Blossom Heath Inn, in St. Clair Shores, also was once a speakeasy, according to its historic marker, which reads “Blossom Heath became notorious for illegal drinking and gambling during Prohibition and the Depression.”


Gin and juice
People became so desperate for a drink they began buying industrial alcohol used for cleaning to make their own concoctions.

“If you water it down, color or spike it, it could give you a buzz,” Stone said. But that’s not all. “It could make you sick.”

They also produced their own “bathtub gin” at home. People mixed ingredients in their tubs to make liquor.

“Anybody with sugar and 15 minutes can make their own stuff,” Placco said. “People started throwing in cherries or orange juice. People would cut it with chemicals and it would poison them. There was a rash of people going blind.”

The number of people getting killed by gang warfare and from drinking toxic booze caused the feds to rethink Prohibition, which officially ended Dec. 5, 1933.

“It was designed to fail,” Placco said. “Alcohol is as ingrained in America as the stars and stripes.”

Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki contributed to this report.