Excerpt from ‘Cumberland, Maryland Through the Eyes of Herman J. Miller,’ (1978)
During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, so many arrests and convictions were made by dry agents that the Allegany County Jail could not hold all of the prisoners, so some were housed in the Garrett County Jail at Oakland, Maryland.
One bootlegger on North Mechanic Street had a box-like platform built out of a second story window over Wills Creek. If a raid should occur, the operator would just pull a rope and the bottom would drop out and the contents would drop down to the rocks below, for this is where he kept his whiskey. When the glass bottles hit the rocks, the bottles would shatter, and thus, no evidence.
One bootlegger I knew wore an overcoat all the time. People who didn’t know him thought he was an eccentric, but he had a half dozen pockets inside the coat in which he carried his stock of whiskey for sale.
One of the favorite places for good moonshine, to the ones in the know, was a well-known Liberty Street shop. Most speakeasies were ones that you got in, if they knew you, got your drink, and got out. Some were fixed up like club rooms, with chairs, tables and some with slot machines.
People referred to the quality of liquor bought in the prohibition era, calling two dollar whiskey “long life” and the one dollar whiskey, “early grave.” While some bootleggers sold only whiskey, mostly their places sold both whiskey and home brew. Most fraternal clubs were for members only, but had both whiskey and beer for sale.
Some speakeasies stole the idea from the strictly private clubs and had membership cards made for the patrons of their places. As an example of how many wanted to sell liquor when the country went dry, there were thirty-six licenses issued for 1921 for soft drink establishments. Not all sold liquor, but most did. Some bootleggers would deliver to your home. You would use a code over the telephone. If you wanted three pints, you would ask for three pounds.
On April 7, 1933, 3.2 beer became legal. Baltimore, Hagerstown and others parts of the state were selling the brew. Cumberland and Allegany County could not because a bill that had been passed in the General Assembly pertaining to county beer licenses stipulated that the applications became available on the day beer came back, but permits became effective only seven days later. You could buy beer on the first day of repeal in Pennsylvania. A store just over the state line on the Bedford Road was selling beer on the first day. A steady stream of Cumberlanders took advantage of the beer sale.
On Friday, April 14, 1933, beer could be bought in Allegany County. Those who could sell beer reported a good business. There were almost as many women as men customers. With the return of beer, many speakeasies came out in the open, applied for licenses and operated under regulations. It is worth noting that it has been only about two years since beer and liquor could be sold legally on Sunday in Allegany County. Many people of the area would go to Ridgeley, West Virginia, to buy beer on Sundays. Now, restaurants and private clubs in Allegany County can sell alcoholic drinks after 1:00 PM on Sundays.
When it was all over and the country was again wet, there seemed to be no attachment of lawlessness or the stigma of hoodlum attached to the convicted bootleggers who had served time in jail. Some, in later years, joined highly regarded fraternal orders. Others operated successful businesses. William Harvey, who was considered to be the outstanding prohibition enforcement officer in Allegany County, became sheriff of Allegany County for a time.
Herman Miller was a lifelong Cumberland, MD resident, serving on the City’s Advisory Commission on Historical Matters and the Historic Preservation Commission during the 1970s. He was a member of the Cumberland Fire Department until his retirement. In 1978, he was the subject of an oral history by Dr. Harry Stegmaier of the history department at Frostburg State University. The resulting text was entitled ‘Cumberland, Maryland Through the Eyes of Herman J. Miller.’