The bootleg capital of Ohio

Posted by | July 1, 2010

New Straitsville, OH was considered the Bootleg Capital of Ohio during the Depression. Its population of enterprising ex-coalminers concealed dozens of illegal moonshine stills in the area’s hollows and abandoned mineshafts, selling it to a nation desperate for a stiff drink.

Today, New Straitsville’s bootlegging tradition is honored with an annual Memorial Day weekend Moonshine Festival, one of those celebrations designed to attract customers and promote the community. Randy McNutt, while researching “Ghosts: Ohio’s Haunted Landscapes, Lost Arts, and Forgotten Places,” arrived in New Straitsville just in time to experience the Festival.

Unidentified saloon in New Straitsville, OH. No date.

From his book:

On an empty lot near the business district, an older man named Jim Thompson demonstrated a still. The black contraption wheezed and moaned, and Thompson wiped his wrinkled forehead and adjusted a couple of metal pipes. He said, “When my daughter was born, the doctor asked me, ‘Jim, what’ll I put on this birth certificate?’ I told him ‘bootlegger’ was good enough for me.”

Matthews Café is the most well-known establishment in town. Until 1933, it served moonshine at the bar. The bartender always asked, “Do you want imported or Straitsville Special?” Most of the other small towns in the area brewed their own, too, but New Straitsville’s reputation as the bootlegging capital of Ohio was unsurpassed.

Thompson said the miners turned to making liquor in the little towns of Perry County. He said the moonshiners never filled their barrels to the top because they were afraid that rats would fall in. “Rats loved moonshine,” he said. “They liked to sit on barrel rims and dip their paws into the stuff. If it’d leak onto the floor, the rats’d come out and start lickin’ the mash. At first, they was scared of us, and they’d run off. The next time we came back, they’d just sit there, lickin’. We could pick ‘em up and that didn’t even bother ‘em. They didn’t even know where they was.”

State liquor agents raided the hills every few months, but the moonshiners usually heard of their activity and hid the brew. Thompson was much more concerned about the federals.

“Henry Spencer got caught deliverin’ whiskey down in Nelsonville, and he made a deal with a fed named Bush,” Thompson said. “If Bush would let him go, Spencer promised to show where to find four other guys who were brewin’ liquor. Spencer, that dirty son-of-a-gun, was workin’ with us. Well, late one night we saw a car comin’ but we figured it was Spencer comin’ down to check on his mash. We didn’t pay much attention.

“Come six o’clock the next mornin’, the feds come to my door. We had hid our kegs under the chicken coop, see, and they found ‘em and poured ‘em out-three ten-gallon kegs of it. They kept the fourth one. Old Henry Spencer sure was somethin’–told on his own brother and brother-in-law and lost a barrel of his own mash just to save his skin.”

sources:  Ghosts: Ohio’s Haunted Landscapes, Lost Arts, and Forgotten Places, by Randy McNutt, Orange Frazer Press, Wilmington OH, 1996

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