February 23, 2024

Booze Flowed Freely Through

May 24, 2015

Nothern Michigan During Prohibition

Ever wonder what the booze scene looked like around northern Michigan during those dark days of Prohibition? We did too.

Authorities in here enforced Prohibition with as much zeal as they did elsewhere in the country. For much of the 1920s, police in the Traverse City area made many Volstead Act arrests, but it appears most attention was paid to out-of-town bootleggers or moonshiners who peddled poison.

Around Little Traverse Bay, posh resorts offering booze and gambling appear to have catered to the wealthiest visitors and notorious gamblers, but these establishments operated invisibly to local police.


Traverse City’s Sleder’s Family Tavern boasts of its speakeasy past.

"By the time Prohibition rolled around, [owner Louis Sleder’s] business savvy helped him manage to keep the tavern open for loyal customers," according to the restaurant website. "He kept barrels of special "˜root beer’ (bourbon and rye), which he served in tea cups and for free, of course, to law enforcement officials."

These practices enabled Sleder’s to remain open through the dry years, allowing it to become the state’s oldest continuously operating saloon, said Sleder’s current owner, Deb Cairns.

"They definitely continued to serve throughout the entire time, with the blessings of whoever needed to bless it," Cairns said.

Newspaper accounts from the period show sporadic enforcement of liquor laws in the 1920s, according to indices of articles in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. At least until 1930, when Michigan State Police troopers stopped turning a blind eye. Louis Sleder was arrested that year when a raid of his bar turned up a truckload of booze.


In the decade before the Sleder’s raid, front-page liquor violations often involved out-of-town rumrunners or someone who’d made a bad batch of hooch.

An article published in November 1922 announced the bust of "one of the worst bootleg nests in the county."

Four teens, ages 16 to 19, sought whiskey at a Paradise Township farm and the farmer obliged, retrieving some bottles from his barn. One of the boys took a sip and became violently ill. The newspaper reported that he "may not recover from poisoning."

The sheriff boasted that, once the farmer was put away, "one of the wettest spots in the county will have been mopped up."

The next year, police busted Claude Fairman, a 38-year-old bootlegger from Chicago who attracted attention by setting up house with a pretty 18-year-old "housekeeper" he had met in Boyne City. Police visited the couple’s Spruce Street home after they learned it was the source of merriment for several New Year’s Eve revelers.

When Fairman pleaded guilty and was given the maximum prison sentence of two years, he was reproached by the judge not only for his bootlegging, but also for his outof-wedlock living arrangement.


If local police were less than enthusiastic about busting local speakeasies, it appears some people took notice. In January 1923, the reappointment of Traverse City Police Chief John Blacken was uncertain amid outcry from church groups calling for him to be replaced.

Although an article about the protest does not include the words "Prohibition" or "liquor," it seems clear what Blacken’s opponents wanted. They submitted petitions with 450 signatures to city commissioners that demanded police "exercise a higher regard for the moral protection of the youths of our city and a more thorough enforcement in dealing with violators of city ordinances, federal and state law."

Despite the skirmish, Blacken was reappointed. Dan Hill, a retired Traverse City Police Department detective who researches local police history, said Blacken managed to stay in office until 1935.

Hill said he has been unable to find a lot of information about the police department from Prohibition years. He’s studied TCPD logbooks that describe liquor, and even drunk driving, arrests during Prohibition. He said he doesn’t know whether officers ignored liquor violations during the period, but he wouldn’t rule it out.

"Back then, things were totally different than they are now," he said.


If police were willing to look the other way in some cases, they couldn’t afford to ignore bootleggers who made dangerous alcohol. An inexperienced distiller was apt not only to make something that tasted bad, he was likely to make something that could kill, said Perry Harmon, retail manager at Grand Traverse Distillery.

"They didn’t know what the heck they were doing, which is why during Prohibition so many people dropped dead," Harmon said.

The distillery process begins with mash that’s stored in a barrel to ferment over time. Harmon said mash would have likely contained corn, wheat or rye.

The danger comes when the mash is distilled. As the mash is boiled down to heighten alcohol concentration, what’s produced comes in three phases: heads, hearts and tails. It takes an experienced pallet (and today, hydrometers) to tell the difference, which is important to do because the heads are not meant for human consumption, he explained.

"Heads are the things, still to this day, that make people sick and kill people," Harmon said.

Liquor should consist primarily of hearts from the middle phase of distillation. It should contain just a little bit of the tails, Harmon said. Too much tails and the liquor might contain a dangerous amount of alcohol and could cause alcohol poisoning.


This danger might have been why many in northern Michigan preferred to stick to homemade cherry wine or why some tavern keepers dealt with rumrunners from Sault Ste. Marie who would drop off jugs of Canadian liquor in Grand Traverse Bay, said Richard Wiles, a retired Petoskey English teacher and local historian. The practice spawned the term "jug bobbing," Wiles said.

Little research has been done about Prohibition in Traverse City, according to Wiles, while more exists regarding the Little Traverse region, probably because there is a clearer connection between that area and famous gangsters.

Emmet County greeted Prohibition with a yawn. On Jan. 16, 1920 – the day the 18th Amendment took effect – the front page of the Petoskey Evening News had just one story about the new reality headlined "J. Barleycorn Now Buried."

The lack of excitement could be explained by the fact that northern Michigan had already long been dry. Michigan enacted a state Prohibition amendment in May 1917. Some counties like Emmet had banned liquor and beer even earlier than this via what was called "the local option."

Wiles said there were two realities around Petoskey: one for the rich and one for everyone else. Luxury casinos opened around Harbor Springs and Charlevoix where the wealthy could gamble and drink.

"Prohibition didn’t mean anything to the rich," he said. "That was for the little guy. That was for the middle class."

Locals were not allowed to frequent either of the Harbor Springs clubs: the Ramona Park Casino or Club Manitou. That was enough to keep the police away, Wiles said.

Wiles believes Club Manitou was opened by a front man for the Purple Gang, and that the gang was responsible for the slaying of the Ramona’s manager – a mob-connected gambler from Toledo – in a Detroit alley.

Wiles said local corruption enabled the clubs to thrive. According to a 1935 FBI report, agents determined the local sheriff was protecting the gangsters and "no doubt is receiving some remuneration in that connection."


By 1930, a crackdown came to Traverse City when State Police decided to do what local police wouldn’t.

That August, troopers arrested Detroit bootlegger Joseph "Frenchy" LeBlanc after a 25- mile chase that ended when police shot at his car in the woods near Lake Ann. The newspaper called LeBlanc one of the most prominent bootleggers ever busted in the area.

State police also focused their sights on one of the town’s best-known taverns, Sleder’s. On Sept. 11, 1930, the Record-Eagle reported that Louis Sleder, "soft drink dealer," was bound over to circuit court to face trial on liquor violations. At the time, his bar was known as Sleder’s Soft Drink Parlor.

Sleder had a clean record, but police hauled a truckload of booze and a still from above the Randolph Street establishment. The prosecutor authorized the raid and the newspaper took pains to note that local police were unaware.

"Replying to a reporter’s question, the prosecutor explained that he telephoned Sheriff Fred Johnson as soon as the search warrants were ready, but the sheriff was out and, not wishing to delay raids, he called the state police," the paper reported.

Police found 6 quarts of moonshine, 231 pints of beer, 50 gallons of mash and two stills.

In the end, Sleder was charged with possession, not bootlegging, and he was given leniency by the judge, who fined him $600.

"Sleder," the judge told him, "this is your first offense and you’re charged with possession. As near as I can understand, you have always borne a good reputation, and though a still and some mash were found, I won’t send you away."


Michigan soon legalized 3.2 percent beer, marking the beginning of the end for Prohibition. At 6pm on May 11, 1933, beer could be legally served. The newspaper kept a close eye on the city’s legal beer supply as the date approached.

"Two carloads of the new 3.2 percent beer rolled into the city this morning over the Pere Marquette, the first of the new legal brew to reach the city outside of stray bottles brought from Frankfort and Ludington and Manistee during the past two weeks," a reporter wrote on May 8, 1933.

A "Prosperity Party" was planned at the Park Place Hotel. Another celebration was planned at the Hotel Traverse. The city commission received 14 applications for beer sales licenses.

"The fellow who has the money can sit down to supper Thursday night and enjoy a pint of beer, provided his wife will hold up the evening meal until friend husband can hustle a bottle or two home from the store after 6 o’clock," the newspaper reported.

Beer would be more expensive than people remembered. It would cost $3.25 for a case of 24 pints. When beer was last legal in 1918, it had cost $2 for a case of 36.

When the big day arrived, several establishments around town sold bottled beer, but only one managed to obtain a supply of draft beer. One restaurateur had "driven all night" to obtain a keg or two for his restaurant, located where Union Street Station is today.

Reviews said the big night was celebratory, but didn’t get out of control.

"The beer was generally accepted as being good to the taste and containing a potential glow, in spite of the congressional decision that it is non-intoxicating," the paper reported.


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