Monday, January 19, 2015

Thunder God's White Lightning

January 12, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Moonshiners worked stills through out the Superstition Mountain region during Prohibition, including  small stills at Hackberry Springs, Brad’s Water, Dripping Springs, Whiskey Springs, Fraser Springs, and Tule Springs (file photo).
The Superstition Mountain region has very rugged terrain and many hiding places. Some of the area’s hidden canyons had sufficient water to support illegal whiskey distilling during Prohibition.

Sometime during the late 1970s I recall artist Ted DeGrazia telling me a story about the time he worked for some moonshiners in the Superstitions. He was going to college at the time and jobs were hard to come by. He said he was about twenty-one or so when he took a job hauling wood to a still in a place near La Barge Canyon just down below the Upper Box. I am certain the spot where Ted worked was Whiskey Springs. This would have been around 1924.

Recently, I was looking through some old newspaper articles and I found the headline, “Dry Agents Capture Three Stills In Remote Part Of Superstitions.”

A little research led me to some very interesting facts about the period. The Volstead Act wasn’t passed until January 1, 1920. However, Arizona passed Prohibition January 1, 1915, although it was not seriously enforced until the 1920s when federal agents became involved in the enforcement of the Volstead Act. 

Moonshiners went “underground” at this point. They were looking for remote locations with a sufficient water supply. Such sites were difficult to find in the mountains surrounding the Salt River Valley.

The story reported in the Arizona Republican on May 25, 1924, reported a still located in the picturesque Superstition Mountain east of Phoenix. The still that was captured had a capacity of 100 gallons and was one of the most elaborate setups found to that date.

The Moonshiners had a market of 200 gallons of illegal liquor every five days at ten dollars a gallon. To capture this still, the agents operated strictly at night over rough terrain including deep canyons and cactus studded ridges. The Moonshiners had an ideal spot for a still with plenty of clear spring water. The still was located four miles from the nearest road a vehicle could navigate.

Moonshiners worked stills throughout the Superstition Mountain region during Prohibition 1920-1933. Stories told by old timers identify several locations of stills in the region. There were small stills at Hackberry Springs, Brad’s Water, Dripping Springs, Whiskey Springs, Fraser Springs, and Tule Springs. The springs in the Superstition Mountain region produced much more fresh water in the 1920s than they do today because of the modern practice of pumping ground water in the Salt River Valley.

During the 1920s most of the Moonshiners in the Superstition Mountains operated out of Superior and Mesa. Any place that was remote and difficult to get to with a good supply of water could be used as a still site. Burros were the common animals of burden used by the Moonshiners in the region.

Yes, making illegal whiskey was common in this region. Louis Ruiz, at Bluebird Curio Shop and Mine on North Apache Trail, has what is left of a still that was used at Whiskey Springs. Glen Hamaker hauled the still out of the mountains. The Barkley’s referred to Whiskey Springs in Whiskey Springs Canyon as “Airplane Springs” because of the World War II airplane crash near the springs. There is another Whiskey Springs in the Superstition Mountain region near the Reavis Ranch.

Some years ago I was told about a large Moonshining operation that had successfully operated during prohibition and was never busted by revenuers. This still was located somewhere in the area of Upper Rough Canyon. The still had a hundred gallon capacity and was only operated eight months out of each year. The story is it produced the best “Thunder God’s White Lightning” ever distilled. Some claimed it was the smoothest whiskey they had ever consumed. Now that is something legends are made of.

Moonshining went the way of the Dodo bird when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. Arizona became “wet” again in 1933.

For those who are interested in how Prohibition impacted Arizona there is an interesting study you can read online titled “Prohibition In Arizona” by Thomas K. Marshall. This booklet provides economic data on the impact of prohibition on Arizona culture.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Tribute to a Legend

December 29, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The “Lost Dutchman Monument” on North Apache Trail, just north of the City Focal Point.
The legend still brings prospectors
to the Superstitions.
The legend and lore of Superstition Mountain has prompted a continuous search for hidden gold or lost treasure within the towering spires and deep canyons of this nationally known landmark for the past century. Men and women from all walks of life come to bid their luck against the elements and dangers of a mountain some call “evil.”

A German immigrant named Jacob Waltz supposedly started this contemporary search with clues about a rich gold mine that he allegedly found within the realm of this mountain. These clues, after his demise on October 25,1891, fired the imagination of the citizens of Phoenix and the surrounding countryside. The story of lost gold in these mountains led many on a dangerous and wild search. These stories are a century old now and they still tantalize the imagination of contemporary adventurers. A century of searching has passed since Waltz’s death, yet no rich gold mine has been discovered.

Only one other man has created such an interest and lust for lost gold since Waltz’s death. This was Adolph Ruth. He did it by dying in the summer of 1931, alone in the heart of the Superstitions. 

Ruth’s sudden and violent death in mountains quickly replaced the headlines of “depression” in major newspapers across the nation.

Across this nation newspaper headlines echoed the story of Ruth’s mysterious death in the Superstition Mountains while searching for gold. Soon after these stories appeared authors and journalists capitalized on the story of Superstition Mountain and the infamous Lost Dutchman’s mine.

The story caused temptation on the part of readers to pack their bags and head for the Superstition Mountains in Arizona and begin the search for gold.

The list is endless of those men and women who have searched and died in this barren and rugged wasteland known as the Superstition Wilderness Area. Some threw their fortunes away just for an opportunity to search for this hidden wealth.  All of them believed they would find that single solitary clue that would lead them to the golden cache, riches beyond the dreams of kings.

The Lost Dutchman mine is one of the most often found mines in the world and yet still remains lost. Since 1895, the mine has been found at least 150 times by a variety of individuals from all walks of life. The annual winter migrations of prospectors descending on the Superstition Wilderness Area only proves the interest still exists in the mine’s story today. This story is still America’s most popular lost mine story and continues to captivate the imagination of dreamers.  This fanatic search for lost gold has driven some men to the brink of insanity and some even to suicide.

Some of these individuals have even organized complex corporations and implemented sophisticated electronic equipment to aid in their quest for the gold they believe is contained within the rocks of Superstition Mountain or its wilderness.  Even with the advent of modern technology and the advancement of electronic metal detection equipment the legendary Lost Dutchman’s mine continues to elude the prospector’s pick or shovel.

The hunting of lost mines, in particular the legendary Lost Dutchman’s mine, is like chasing a rainbow, “so close yet so far away.” 

The search itself is a solo avocation among the most ethical and honest lost mine hunters. These men and women share no information and ask nobody for assistance. Maybe it is not the finding that is so important to them, but the searching. It is a documented fact many an old timer found pay dirt, only to sell it or lose it so he could return to his wanderlust way of life prospecting in the hills. The source gold and legends are where you find them, “out in the hills.”

The true Dutchman aficionados are definitely blessed with a certain amount of happiness and the rewards of adventure in the great outdoors.  They spend countless hours, days, months and years around campfires speculating about the location of Superstition Mountain’s hidden wealth. 

As long as there are those who dream there will be Dutch Hunters and treasure hunters probing the towering spires and deep canyons of the Superstition Wilderness Area searching for lost gold and treasure. This is the story of those who search for gold in the Superstition Mountain region.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Unforgettable Christmas

December 22, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

After 50 years, Tom and Sharon Kollenborn still
decorate and enjoy a Cholla cactus
skeleton for Christmas along with their traditional tree.
The spirit of Christmas was in the air in late December of 1955. The first snows had fallen in Arizona’s high country and winter had announced its arrival in the Superstition Wilderness. Low stratus clouds engulfed the towering spires of Superstition Mountain and a slow, drizzling rain fell, meeting with the approval of local cattlemen. 

Deep in the Superstition Wilderness there lived an angry, bitter and lonely old man who had chosen isolation rather than the kindness of friends. “Old Ben” had been prospecting the mountains for more than a decade. He believed the old Dutchman’s lost mine existed and he wanted to find it. His search for the Dutchman’s gold had become as strong for “Old Ben” as anyone’s devotion to Jesus Christ.

My father and I visited Ben over the years because he and Dad had something in common besides the gold of Superstition Mountain. They were both veterans and had served with General John Pershing, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, during World War I. Both men had witnessed the slaughter in the trenches along the Western Front and had survived the horror of the war in Europe. 

Each year Dad and I tried to visit Ben’s Camp a couple weeks before Christmas to say hello. Ben functioned well in the mountains, but within society he was a misfit. His experiences, no less than that of my father’s during the war, had left his heart laden with hate for those who were associated with the production, distribution and application of war materials designed to destroy thousands and thousands of lives during that terrible time etched in Ben’s mind.

Ben chose to live apart from society because he couldn’t forget the rattle of machine guns, exploding artillery shells, fumes of poison gas, and the screaming agony of the wounded and dying soldiers. The war had been over for almost forty years, but Ben still lived in the shadow of its horror and terror. His mind was scarred for eternity.

Dad had also survived the battlefield of that war and for that reason he understood Ben and was his friend. Ben and my father spent many hours in idle conversation discussing the Dutchman’s lost mine, each being careful not to reveal any important information about its possible location. We often sat under a large boulder in Petrasch’s old camp in La Barge Canyon talking about the Dutchman, Jacob Waltz. Sometimes Dad and Ben would hike up to Petrasch’s old camp on Tortilla Mountain and spend the day. 

Christmas was once again coming to Ben’s Camp in the Superstition Wilderness, but he never celebrated Christmas because he didn’t see any real value in it. He said there was no God or Jesus Christ at Meuse-Argonne, Verdun, or the other battlefields of Europe.

Once again we bid our farewell to Ben and began our hike out of the mountains, leaving the lonely old man to cope with his misery. As we drove home that day I thought of old Ben and his lonely existence.

Arriving home we found Mother had decorated a beautiful tree for our house. The spirit of Christmas filled our home as friends dropped by with a friendly “Merry Christmas.” My mother was always full of the Christmas spirit and she wanted to share it with everyone who would listen or sing carols with her.

On Christmas Eve morning I got up early and talked to Dad about our friend Ben. I kept thinking about Ben and finally suggested to Dad that I wanted to hike back into the mountains and spend Christmas Eve and Day with the old man. I was young and very impressionable at the time. My father’s first concern was my mother and our traditional family Christmas get together.

“What is Christmas, if it is not about sharing one’s friendship, didn’t you teach me this dad,” I inquired?

Mom and Dad decided to allow me to share my Christmas spirit of friendship and giving with Ben on Christmas Day. Mom provided me with a couple of quickly wrapped Christmas presents for Ben and I grabbed a colorful ornament from the tree. I prepared my hiking gear and I was on my way to First Water Trailhead with dad driving and advising.

I arrived at First Water about noon and began my hike. A light drizzle fell as I hiked along the trail toward La Barge Canyon. By the time I reached Ben’s Camp near Charlebois the daylight was rapidly disappearing. I called out for Ben as I arrived in his camp, wishing him a Merry Christmas. He called back inviting me into his camp. He immediately scolded me for leaving my parents on Christmas Eve and coming into the mountains. I handed him the two small packages mother had wrapped for him. The delicate glass Christmas ornament had survived the hike in my backpack. I handed him the ornament and then suggested we needed a Christmas tree.  Ben laughed and said, “Your not going to find many pine trees in this desert.”

At that moment I could see that Ben enjoyed having my company. He ended his comment with, “The only trees around here are those devilish Cholla.”

Near Ben’s camp, in the dark, using a small flashlight, I found a Cholla cactus skeleton that would serve as our Christmas tree. The Cholla skeleton made a fitting desert Christmas tree. I piled some large rocks around the base of our tree to hold it in place. Once the Cholla was secure Ben and I went about decorating it. 

We placed the Christmas bulb from my mother’s tree on top of the Cholla. We added a few pieces of tinfoil here and there. We then made some ornaments out of empty Sardine and bean can lids. Ben had a plentiful supply because he loved Sardines and beans. We made a simple garland out of bits of colored string we found in camp.

The tree was not an ordinary one, but then Ben was by no means an ordinary man. This was also no ordinary occasion for Ben. The meaning of Christmas had found its way back into Ben’s heart in that odd appearing Christmas tree. We laughed together of our effort to create a Christmas tree. We had found the spirit of Christmas together.

We sat admiring our handy work when Ben reached into his bag and removed a very old Bible, then placed it under our tree. He looked at me with a tear in his eye, and said, “Isn’t this what Christmas is really about?”

Yes, we were celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in the simplest manner. I will never forget the happiness of sharing our friendship on that Christmas Eve.

This lonely old man taught me that it is not how much you have, but the sharing of your friendship with others that is so important.

Since that time many Christmases have come and gone, but few of them are remembered as this one.

My father eventually talked Ben into returning to society and being a friend to others. Ben returned to the world of the living and each Christmas for many years, until his death, we received a card from him addressed to “My Desert Christmas Friends,” and simply signed “Ben”.

After fifty years, Sharon and I still decorate and enjoy a Cholla cactus skeleton in our home for Christmas along with our traditional tree.