SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - It was just last Friday that we were talking about it being the anniversary of the beginning of Prohibition.
On January 17, 1920, the 18th amendment was passed prohibiting the sale of alcohol. That lasted until December 5, 1933, with the 22nd amendment passing.
WTOC decided to check in with the Georgia Historical Society and the Prohibition Museum for a look at Savannah during that period.
It seems like Savannah has always had a reputation for being a drinking town. Preacher Billy Sunday once called it “The Wickedest Place in the World.” Like many places in America, prohibition hit the Hostess City hard.
“The idea that people could no longer go into an establishment and get a drink was shocking to a lot of people, it seemed like something that was very intrusive, so you can imagine in Savannah,” said Stan Deaton, Georgia Historical Society Sr. Historian.
Many Savannah establishments found a way to work around it, like the Crystal Beer Parlor, which had two hatch doors on their floors. Locals found a way to drink and Savannah also became a major hub for bootlegging across the country, and the Feds claimed many victories here. But locals also found a way to win a lot of the time.
The local geography was perfect for it. A line of vessels up and down the East Coast lay just outside the three-mile international waters line, and aptly named, “Rum Row.” Locals would run the rum inland, losing the federal agents and Coast Guard on the rivers through the barrier islands in their skiffs, or small boats.
“These rum runners, they’re local boys, they know these rivers like the back of their hands. So, once you get into the marsh, you’re good. And then you get it on land, you get it in the car, and it disappears into the night,” said Travis Spangenburg, Prohibition Actor/Supervisor.
And those cars needed to be fast. Even one of the big named national guys found a great mechanic in Savannah, as it was a stop along the way to Miami for gangster Al Capone.
“An old story goes, that Moose Helmey is a guy that owned a shop here in Savannah, and Moose got a mystery car that he had to fix up one day. He fixes it up and brings it back to the old Desoto Hotel, Al Capone walks out, Al actually put him on his payroll, he was so happy with his work. He had him fixing up rumrunner cars and installing the hiding holes for some of the bootleg liquor,” Spangenburg said.
So, you can add that legend with another as Al Capone once asked Crystal Beer Parlor Owner Blocko Manning to come work for the crime boss.
Also interesting in the Ken Burns series on Prohibition, they said that the gentleman on the wrong side of the law in Savannah was so unconcerned about Federal Interference, that they fielded a baseball team and called it, “The Bootleggers.”