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Still-Busting in Flagstaff


Ten-plus years of national Prohibition brought two groups of Flagstaff citizens together – those who made bootleg liquor and those who confiscated it.

Here, members of the Flagstaff Fire Department stand around a confiscated still. A group of curious children gathered for the event. It is 1931, and Arizona has been dry since 1914. Everyone is making bootleg liquor, and Flagstaff and the surrounding ranches are full of moonshiners, bootleggers and customers.

The temperance movement and Anti-Saloon League were active as early as the 1890s in Arizona, but the state did not adopt Prohibition until 1914. Even so, it was five years ahead of the federal law. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor was not ratified until 1919.

The Arizona vote in November 1919 was 25,887 in favor and 22,743 opposed to a constitutional amendment which read as follows: “Ardent spirits, ale, beer, wine or intoxicating liquors of whatever kind shall not be manufactured in or introduced into the State of Arizona under any pretense.”

The crime was listed as a misdemeanor with jail time and fines.

The law had an immediate effect. Thomas Marshall, who compiled statewide statistics on arrests, cost of enforcement, loss of tax revenue and number of saloons shut down, listed 23 saloons in Coconino County in 1914, the year before prohibition. Eight were in Flagstaff and 15 in Williams, which was noted “far and wide for its ribaldry.”

By the end of 1915, the number of saloons was zero; school attendance had increased and arrests for public drunkenness had fallen. Thomas Marshall wrote: “It is impossible to get liquor [in Williams] and Marshal Bobbie Burns has his eye on the only suspicious joint in town. … [You] can scarcely recognize [the town] now without its saloons and drunken men lounging about the streets.”

Around the northland, he said, “Logging camps are filled with men and the saw mills are running full blast. All saloon buildings are now occupied by other businesses.”

By the time this photograph was made, federal agents and local law enforcement officials were spending their days and nights chasing bootleggers and breaking up stills. Usually it was local citizens breaking the law.

A Stoneman Lake rancher was captured after a car chase and running gun battle on Lake Mary Road. He nearly collided with a deputy sheriff who was traveling in the same direction. He was arrested, fined $150 and had his Essex auto and 18 gallons of whiskey confiscated.

As the Great Depression deepened in the early 1930s, business boomed for Sheriff Arthur Vandevier and his crew. There were bootleggers all over the county and the sheriff made arrests weekly. In backwoods barns, stills were discovered made of old gasoline drums, giving the unsuspecting customers a truly poisonous cocktail.

In 1932, a St. Patrick’s Day sheriff’s operation netted more than $1,050 in fines and caught six unhappy vendors who had expected the sheriff to follow if usual procedure of targeting liquor manufacturers, not sellers.

That same year, Arizona decided Prohibition was a losing battle and voted to repeal it. It was one of 11 states to take the first step. Within a year, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted and America’s experiment with Prohibition officially was over.

In Flagstaff, the Coconino Sun heralded the return of liquor with a front page article on the arrival of the first load of 3.2 beer in a “beer-laden motor truck” on its way from California.

Today in Flagstaff, there is little to remind us of the whiskey-running and still-busting days of Prohibition. However, one liquor distributor’s trucks still carry a reference to those times. A slogan reads: “A good neighbor since repeal.”

This Times Past article was originally published on June 22, 2001.                                                                                

Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Northern Arizona Division; research by Joan Brundige-Baker. ©Arizona Capitol Times.

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