Monday, October 1, 2012

Grandpa Was A ..........Bootlegger?

One of my favorite songs that gets my toes tapping is "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  It's one of those songs I pop into the car stereo when I'm on the road.  People passing by tend to look at me in a strange way.  Here's an old lady singing her heart out and tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.  They don't stay in the passing lane very long, but goose their vehicle quickly down the road.

In my family, Grandpa was a BOOTLEGGER.  Somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it ...  I've always known that Grandpa Bill Noss tended to enjoy his liquor and dabbled in bootlegging, but had only heard bits and pieces of the story.  Last month I made a trip to northern Iowa to spend a couple days with my mother.  At 94 years of age, she has good days and bad days; but most days she doesn't like to talk about her father.  It wasn't easy growing up in a large family of eleven kids with a father who enjoyed his liquor.

                                              William Noss  (1890-1979)  ca.1915

One Sunday morning, Mom and I sat around in our jammies, drinking coffee and chatting.  She started reminiscing and I dashed for my laptop to take notes .. hoping she wouldn't lose the mood by the time I was through booting up.  These are Mom's memories:

                                                          Julia Noss Kornegor Witter

It was 1929 ... the beginning of the Great Depression.  Grandma Angela Noss died in December of that year.  At the time of her death, she owned the farm where her youngest son farmed. The farm had to be sold as part of the estate.  Bill did not have the money to purchase the farm so he and his family moved down the road to a vacant farm house (one mile west of the home place).  They occupied that house for one year.  Then the family moved to the Ballhagen farm south of Rockford on the Shell Rock River and Bill started farming again.

These were hard times for farmers and everyone moved from farm to farm trying to make a living and provide for their family.  Most men did not own the farm they lived on, but only rented from the owners.  When they couldn't come up with the rent money, it was time to move down the road to the next vacant farm.

During this time, Bill started bootlegging.  The large family needed to eat and this was the only way he knew how to make money.  Grandpa had very little education.  He was a good farmer, but a farmer needs land.  Bill turned to what he knew best ... booze.  Bootleggers were making good money as those were prohibition years in Iowa (1920-1933).
Of course, he spent most of the money on himself as he drank most of the profits.  Mom and all her siblings had to help wash the empty bottles and crocks.  Grandpa fixed up the basement so men could stop by and drink beer.  Some days there were several cars parked in the farm yard.

Mom remembers one day when her folks and all the kids left the farm for the day.  She couldn't remember why or where they were going, but it must have been a special occasion since they didn't go many places all together as a family.  She remembers that her oldest brother, Toby, stayed  home; but that he later left the farm for a few hours.  As he was walking down the road on his way back home, he noticed the farmyard was full of police cars.  The police were breaking all the jars and crocks that Bill used in the brewing process.  Toby just kept walking past the farm quickly so the cops wouldn't notice him.  Then he crawled down in the ditch so he could spy on them, but they couldn't see him.  He watched one of the policemen use his pistol as target practice on the liquor jars.  Later this would prove to be very helpful as they were informed by the lawyer this was illegal.  Officers were not allowed to use their pistols to randomly shoot in this manner.

Grandpa Bill was arrested for bootlegging and went to trial.  During the trial, Toby was called to testify.  He showed the judge a piece of crockery that had lead residue on the side.  This proved that the officers had used their pistols improperly.  End of trail.  Billy went home.

Of course, this did not deter him from bootlegging. The family moved into the town of Rockford.  Bill had a thriving business as the men no longer had to drive out to the farm to buy their beer.  He knew how to make good beer and there were men with money waiting to buy his product.

Later he was again nabbed for bootlegging and this time he was convicted.  He worked off his sentence by helping with farming at the Floyd County Home in Charles City.  He stayed there until his  sentence was complete. My mother still remembers how embarrassing it was as everyone in town knew her dad was in the hoosegow for bootlegging.  Thankfully, prohibition was winding down and his special services were no longer needed.

I need to find someone who can pick a banjo ... hum along with me:

Grandpa was a bootlegger - he brewed beer for all his friends - drank up all his profits - now he's in jail again ......twang.