By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 9: Bootleggers and Moonshine
I first became aware of the terms moonshine and bootleggers when I was about eight years old. A friend and I were exploring the woods along Coulee Kinney one day and we came upon an old dilapidated house that seemed to be falling apart. Not all door frames had doors and those that had doors were open, so we walked in and looked around. In one room we found a kerosene stove with some of the burners on. There was a contraption on top of the stove that looked like some kind of tank and there was a coil of copper tubing that
a clear liquid was dripping from into a big bucket. I learned that the contraption was a "still" (for distiller) and the product was moonshine and the owner was a bootlegger.
A couple of years later I was involved indirectly with the merchandising of moonshine. At the age of ten I was too young to perceive the moral and legal implications and ramifications of aiding and abetting a bootlegger in his nefarious operations.
As was the custom in our culture, on Saturday night parents took their daughters and even younger children to Filbert's dancehall. That was usually the only social outing that young people had. So while my sisters danced under the watchful eye of my mother, I was allowed to roam the dancehall yard and parking lot under the not overly watchful eye of my father, who liked to join one of the groups of other fathers to talk politics, crops, weather, whatever.
The bootlegger operated in the yard and parking lot, wide open. No matter what the weather, he wore a coat. Occasionally he would spread his arms, opening his coat and revealing row upon row of pockets sewed into the lining of his coat, When he started his night's work, each pocket held a one half pint bottle of moonshine.
Business was brisk before the dance started and during the early stages of the dance. Usually three young men would get together, split the cost, which was thirty five cents, and then get off to the side somewhere and share the contents, passing the bottle around until it was empty. Then the bottle was discarded, usually under a car or some other difficult place to get to.
That's where I came in. Me and maybe ten or twelve other kids. The bottles had a value. The bootlegger's confederate, who also was in the yard, bought the bottles at two for a nickel. Some of the other kids were much bigger and stronger than I was, so I was not a big producer, but I did get some bottles. My biggest haul was six bottles, worth fifteen cents. I blew the money as fast as I made it—on hamburgers. The guy who bought the bottles also made hamburgers in a little shack back of the dancehall. Every hamburger was dressed with smothered onions, nothing else. The cost of a hamburger was a nickel.
The bootlegger would let a customer taste the moonshine before he bought it. The bottles were capped with corks that were easily removed. One night several young men conspired to steal a half pint from the bootlegger. They pulled it off. While one pretended he wanted to taste the stuff before he bought it, another came running by and grabbed the bottle and kept running. I thought the bootlegger was going to cry. He turned to a group of the older men who were nearby and explained that he was physically disabled and that what he did was his only means of earning money to feed his family. I think he aroused some sympathy, but no one volunteered to pay him for the stolen bottle.
One afternoon late I was playing in our cow pasture and saw a little pickup truck park near our property line. A man got out of the truck and began to carry objects two at a time and place them in the bushes along the fence. This was very unusual, so I alerted my father, who went to investigate. Pop knew the man, who turned out to be a bootlegger who had been tipped off that the federal agents were in the area and he was hiding his stock of moonshine so he wouldn't be caught with the stuff in his possession. He told my father to take any amount he wanted as he might not ever come back for it. As I remember my father, who did not drink, brought home a ceramic one gallon jug for medicinal purposes. My grandmother, who lived with us, used a mixture of whiskey and camphor as a liniment for her arthritis.
From time to time an airplane would land in one of the pastures nearby. Some people felt that this was a bootleg operation—that the airplane was there either to deliver whiskey or to pick some up. We never got confirmation on that.
Next: Part 10: Families
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron