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.