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Bribes, Breweries and Moonshine: Prohibition in Manatee County

By: Melissa Morgan, Curator

At midnight on January 17, 1920 the United States of America officially went dry. A long protracted battle had been fought by groups across America to bring this “great experiment” to fruition. The National Prohibition Act, informally known as the Volstead Act, was enacted October 28, 1919 in order to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment which established Prohibition. The Volstead Act stated that it was an act “to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes.”

In Florida, ratifying the 18th Amendment was a relatively simple task. Florida was already in the midst of enacting statewide prohibition, many counties had already voted dry, and in 1916 Sidney J. Catts was elected Governor under the Prohibition Party Ticket. However, as in the rest of the country, Florida would become a state where the laws regarding prohibition were frequently broken, and corruption reigned.

In Manatee County, prohibition came much earlier than the rest of the state. In 1897 a wet/dry election was held and by an overwhelming majority (417-58) the votes opposed the sale of intoxicating liquors. Yet not too far away in Ybor City in Tampa, the Florida Brewing Company was just beginning a booming brewing business. They prospered throughout the early 1900s with a brewing capacity of 30,000 barrels. They had a high demand for their product not only from locals in Tampa, but also exported many barrels to Cuba. Even after Prohibition was enacted the Florida Brewing Company continued to brew and utilized creative advertising to sell their product.

Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.

Armed men stand beside moonshine still, jugs, and barrels in the woods near Riverview, 1920.

Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.

In 1924, a federal raid was conducted and 12,600 gallons of beer was seized. They were forced to temporarily close. Brewery Manager, George Willis reported that he was solicited for a bribe. Once that accusation was revealed, officials were reluctant to further pursue charges against the brewery. The brewery was able to continue to make, sell, and transport beers with relative ease.

Moonshine also became a huge industry in Florida especially in sparsely populated areas. Moonshine was an relatively easy way to convert agricultural commodities like corn meal, molasses, fruit, and sugar into a high value product. In the Manatee County Agricultural Museum’s collection there is the Lundy Moonshine Still, confiscated in 1984 by state agents from Crawford Lundy’s front porch in Parrish. It originally belonged to his grandfather William “Tubb” Augustus Lundy. A story was told by one of Lundy’s children about Palmetto’s police chief in the 1920’s, James “Pistol Pete” Bowden, who was infamous for hunting stills with a huge spotlight throughout the unincorporated areas of the county. One night Tubb and some other men were in a field when they saw Pistol Pete coming. They ducked into a stand of trees and when Pete got close enough, Tubb shot the spotlight out with his Winchester rifle. Pistol Pete never came back!

Crawford Lundy to the right of the Moonshine Still along with State and County agents when the arrangement for the Still to come to the Manatee County Agricultural Museum was made.

Even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, moonshining was still big business in Manatee County. One famous sheriff who was always on the hunt for more stills to bust was Roy Baden. He and his deputies would break up stills with dynamite and chop them up with axes, then take the moonshine to the front of the courthouse and pour it down the sewers. Crawford Lundy remembers how the whole county would smell like moonshine after they did that. Despite Baden’s frequent and publicly spectacular still busts, it was rumored that Baden himself had stills throughout the county from which he may have taken the moonshine to pour down the sewers.

Lundy Moonshine Still from the Manatee County Agricultural Museum’s Collection

Today, almost 85 years after the end of Prohibition, home distilling of liquor is still against the law. However, home brewing of beer and wine is allowed and has resulted in a resurgence of local craft breweries throughout our area. Manatee County and the Tampa Bay region have become rich with these local offerings including breweries, beer pubs, and wineries.

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