The Prohibition Era in Telluride
By Paul O’Rourke
JOHN BARLEYCORN IS DEAD
Promptly at midnight on January 1, 1916, the operators of Telluride’s numerous saloons, gambling houses and dance halls performed, albeit reluctantly, an unusual task: They halted liquor sales. On that morning, prohibition went into effect throughout Colorado*. Though both had previously run editorials against the “dry” initiative, The Daily Journal and the San Miguel Examiner stood firmly-or so they said-for adherence to and enforcement of the new law, predicting that the town’s saloon and drug store men would “abide strictly by the law no matter what the loss.”
For its adherents (few of whom lived in Telluride), prohibition was a righteous triumph over lewdness and lawlessness, a progressive and a providential step forward in remolding American society. Not surprisingly, Telluride, long accustomed to marching to the beat of a different drummer, chose to deal with the new era on its own terms.
Prohibition laws were observed in Telluride, but enforcement was selective, at best. Telluride essentially survived the nearly 18 years of prohibition with a simple maxim: If the moment calls for a bit of the “mountain dew,” don’t get caught!
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Mrs. Angelo Rattini, whose husband operated the Brunswick Saloon, was charged on March 22, 1916, with selling two bottles of wine to Gio Deromedi, who ran an establishment called the “Leisure Parlor” on East Colorado Avenue. A large quantity of liquor, possibly removed from the Brunswick pool hall on New Year’s Eve, was also confiscated from the Rattini residence and impounded at the courthouse, pending a decision for its proper disposal. Speculation was that by the time the order to destroy the contraband was finally given some two weeks later, a good portion of the evidence had disappeared mysteriously.
From the beginning of statewide prohibition, regional law enforcement officials-such as District Attorney William Weiser from Grand Junction-had their collective eye on a few individuals and “soft drink parlors” they suspected of perpetuating Telluride’s social life. Fred Breche from the Cosmopolitan, Carlo Girardi from the Roma, Antone Rella from the American House, Marcello Nicolino from the Corner, and Gio Oberto from the Pastime were charged with and tried for bootlegging in July 1917. Considerable testimony was submitted to substantiate the charges, but the trial went badly for District Attorney Weiser. A jury made up of Telluride citizens would not convict their own, especially when it was learned that the evidence against the men was supplied by a paid informant from Grand Junction.
If the first few years of dry law enforcement were hit and miss, legally speaking, the local authorities at least found themselves a prohibition poster boy. Frank Jacobsen, known commonly as “Swede” Frank, lived in a cabin on South Spruce Street, east of the Gold Belt Dance Hall. He was implicated in the trial of Fred Breche but, like Breche, escaped prosecution.
Telluride Marshal Clarence Tyler had had his eye on Frank. More than once, a trail of men seen wandering up Spruce Street, less sober than when they had gone down, seemed to lead to Frank’s doorstep. Frank and his brother, Oscar, were arrested in March 1919 for the manufacture and sale of an alcoholic concoction that the San Miguel Examiner called fit for “those with a cast-iron stomach and a ‘No. 4 head.’”
Out on $500 bail and awaiting trial for his March offense, an unrepentant Frank was again arrested for bootlegging in April 1919. The new bond was set at $1,000, but $5 per pint was a temptation Frank couldn’t resist. He went back to work immediately and right back to jail in October of the same year. The Examiner suggested, “If he doesn’t go to the penitentiary this time, we will always think he should.”
Telluride’s law officers were never accused of being overly aggressive in their pursuit of each person they knew to be making or selling moonshine; at the least, jail space would have been insufficient. But when Sheriff Pilcher, Undersheriff Kracaw, and Town Marshal Grover Brittain happened into the Pioneer Soft Drink Parlor on a Friday evening in mid-September 1919 and caught W. H. Parsons red-handed, pouring an alcoholic drink into a customer’s glass, they were fairly well obliged to arrest the bartender, who, as it turned out, also served as alderman for Telluride’s second ward.
If local officials-such as San Miguel County Sheriff George Wagner-chose a benign approach to prohibition enforcement during the early 1920s, federal authorities employed methods that were, by comparison, decidedly more heavy handed. On Valentine’s Day 1923, ten federal agents, accompanied by two Denver newspaper reporters, invaded Telluride, apprehending 26 individuals, closing down 9 soft drink parlors, and seizing 70 gallons of whiskey and 40 to 50 gallons of “red eye” wine. Making matters even more offensive to the locals were reports that the “revenuers” took some of the confiscated bootleg and staged an all-night party at the Pick and Gad. To the relief of many, The Daily Journal reported that “no stills were captured in the raid,” federal officers believing that “the raid was tipped off and that practically every one of the places pinched had information that the raid was scheduled.” The Journal also quoted an unidentified federal agent confessing that the captured liquor was “by far the best moonshine we have found anywhere in the state of Colorado.”
The threat of additional raids notwithstanding, bootleg did not become hard to find in Telluride. Anyone who had the inclination to take a nip was able to do so, either at home or at one of the many soft drink counters in town. But when Marcello and John Nicolino were arrested on May 3, 1923, for serving underage boys at The Corner Soft Drink Parlor, something, at least outwardly, had to be done. The brothers pled their case in The Daily Journal to no avail, reasoning that they had “always been careful to whom they sold liquor,” apparently forgetting that selling alcohol to anyone was against the law. The Nicolinos were tried, convicted and sent off to jail in Pueblo for four months. In the Nicolinos’ defense, The Journal editorialized that it wasn’t “fair to pick up one or two individuals and give them a jail sentence when possibly 20 others are running places where it is presumed liquor is being sold, and no effort is being made to stop them.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL
In its April 21, 1924, meeting, Telluride Town Council refused to grant a soft drink parlor license to John Nicolino, stating that no licenses would be granted to individuals who had been convicted of liquor-law violations. It would appear to be right and proper action, but it was shortsighted: Andrew Johnson and Albert Carlson of Clipper Pool Hall were tried and convicted of bootlegging in October 1923, and at the same council meeting where Nicolino’s application was denied, Carlson was granted a license to operate a soft drink parlor at the Clipper. Town council granted 17 licenses at that April meeting. Among the recipients were Barney Gabardi of the Senate, Carlo Girardi of the Roma, Antone Rella of the Hub, Frances Leslie of the Pick and Gad, Tony Vanoli of the Gold Belt, Tom Kukulan of the San Juan Hotel, and Fred Ferganchick of the Diamond.
After arriving in pseudo delivery trucks, two-dozen federal agents fanned out over Telluride’s business district on October 24, 1924, and after searching every soft drink parlor in town, officers arrested Girardi and Kukulan. Girardi was apprehended after agents claimed they found 800 gallons of wine and mash at the Roma. Kukulan was said to have had two one-gallon jugs and two quart bottles of “hooch” in his safe at the San Juan Hotel. Two weeks later, federal agents again visited Telluride, arresting Ferganchick and John Pressler, who had taken over the Senate one week before the raid. By mid-April 1925, Kukulan and Ferganchick were back in business, as was the Senate. Telluride judge John M. Woy summed up the prevailing attitude in town when he was quoted in The Daily Journal, “…there is only a very small percentage of the people here who wish to have this city cleaned up.”
IT’S STRICTLY BUSINESS
By the late 1920s, Telluride’s population had dropped to approximately 500; both banks had folded by the end of 1929; the mines were closed; and the town’s two newspapers had consolidated. Of the six pages that comprised the weekly Telluride Journal, four were devoted to the publication of the county’s tax delinquency list. Yet the pool halls and soft drink parlors continued with their “behind-the-counter” business, the annual $150 tax on each license a much-needed source of municipal revenue. As William “Senior” Mahoney, longtime Telluride local, sees it, “…bootlegging was a lot like high-grading. A lot of people, good people, did it, and it wasn’t right, of course, but it was a matter of survival. During the Depression, with all the mines closed down, bootlegging was one of the only ways to earn a living in Telluride.”
Don O’Rourke, in Conversations at 9,000 Feet, recalled that he and others “brought two trucks over from Telluride [to Delta], and got about 25 tons of sugar at the sugar factory and took it to Telluride.” One truckload was sold to Elskamp’s grocery, the other to the bootleggers in town. “The people in Delta knew darn well where it was going,” he said. “But they would say, ‘Oh well, Telluride is just opening up their jelly factory.’”
According to Ed Ress, also in Conversations, “Everybody was bootlegging.” Ress-whose father, August, owned and operated the City Bottling Works on South Pine Street and had an ownership interest in the Senate during the early 1920s-admitted to transporting bootleg “for two different outfits,” delivering “fifty gallons of whiskey three times a week to Grand Junction.” Ress recalled he “didn’t get caught but maybe I was lucky.” Or maybe smart. According to one historian, the Ress house (on East Columbia and North Alder) was redesigned with special shelving, ostensibly stocked with fruit, that when opened, allowed entry to a private and extensive cache of wine. Unlike many businesses in Telluride, Ress’ City Bottling Works weathered the prohibition years with remarkable resilience.
One explanation for why many of the bootleggers avoided the long arm of the law during prohibition was offered by John Walter Larson. “They had spotters down at Placerville,” Larson stated in Conversations. “And by the time the ‘Prohis’ got to Telluride the people here had ditched their stills and got rid of the liquor, and they didn’t find anything.”
Even with help from the Placerville spotters and over 15 years of practice, not everyone in Telluride escaped the federal dragnet. On June 16, 1932, agents from Durango and Grand Junction seized two stills, 200 gallons of mash and 200 pounds of sugar at a vacant house near the cemetery. During the same raid, Manford Carlson was arrested at a residence on East Galena, where officers found 29 gallons of whiskey and 184 pints of beer. On that same day, Vincent Matson was nabbed in the act, operating a 55-gallon still at the home of Barney Aire on North Alder, where 75 gallons of whiskey and 450 gallons of mash were found. Aire and Matson went to trial in April 1933; both were fined in a Grand Junction courtroom and received jail time. Charges against Mrs. Edith Aire were dismissed when prosecutors agreed that she had been connected to the liquor business only through her husband.
FIRST ROUND’S ON THE HOUSE
As Matson and Aire awaited trial that April, legal beer was delivered to Telluride after a law permitting the manufacture and sale of “3.2” beer was passed by the state legislature. A barrel from the Tivoli Brewery in Denver was joyfully tapped at Severino Grosso’s Sheridan Pool Hall at 201 East Colorado Avenue, causing, as the Telluride Journal reported, “considerable excitement.” That long-awaited shipment was drained completely by the following afternoon.
On September 12, 1933, the citizens of San Miguel County voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Telluride voted 199 to 19 in support of the ballot measure. And in almost footnote-like fashion, on December 6, 1933, prohibition officially ended in the United States. In Telluride, it may have seemed like it had never really begun.
*Colorado was one of the first states to prohibit the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. The nation didn’t go completely dry until Congress approved the Eighteenth Amendment and passed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919.