Nearly a century ago, the bootleg trail from Canada to New York City ran smack through the Adirondacks. Bootleggers risked life and limb transporting locally distilled hooch and smugglers ran whiskey from Canada, eluding dry agents and spawning crime and corruption. Chestertown and its surrounding communities recently commemorated this period in history with related activities.
It was a damp and drizzly Thursday night at Warrensburg’s Luck E Star Cafe where the Greater Warrensburg Business Alliance hosted a 1950s-era Car Hop. Among the vendors, we hawked books and passports as the drama unfolded. Those gathered were whisked from the 1950s to the roaring ‘20s when a carload of rumrunners screeched into the parking lot and piled out of their Model A. Within seconds, the law appeared on the scene in pursuit. Smugglers scattered like rats, slipping into any hiding place they could find. Perhaps the heat considered our Happy Hour in the High Peaks booth a likely refuge for Prohibition outlaws – they were on our tent like feathers on a flapper. We decided to scram before the bulls started asking questions and we were long gone before the feds pinched Wesley, his moll Giselle, and the rest of their gang. We’re no stool pigeons.
Later, holed up at Pammy’s Pub, we nibbled one while spittin’ about the night’s turn of events. All indications were that something was going down in Chestertown, masterminded by thugs from the Tri-Lakes Business Alliance. Finding it necessary to infiltrate without calling attention, we hit the thrift store and dug up grandma’s furs and jewels to costume ourselves in high style.
Friday night we dolled up with feathers and fringe. Piling on marbles and paste, and acting on an informant’s tip, we headed to the Panther Mountain Pub where we found a packed parking lot. This juice joint was jumping. We staked out the door until we purloined the password from a fella with a doll on his arm. “Donnie sent me,” we whispered to the bouncer when he slid the false window open. He opened the door and we passed through time into the speakeasy.
Flappers and dandies, thugs and dames, all in swanky threads, filled the pub. Jazz from the Jive Five could be heard over the gum flapping. Blending in, we grabbed some corn from the Jane at the bar. Wesley, the butter and egg man, was putting on the ritz, surrounded by lookers and waving a fat stogie. Hoping to get a handle on what was going down, we picked up a copy of the Rum Runners Weekend scandal sheet from a nearby table and overheard plans for a Saturday morning rum run from Pottersville. People were talking about a vaudeville show and Babe Ruth Battle of the Bats scheduled for Saturday. So as not to blow our cover, we joined the flappers on the dance floor and showed off our Charleston moves. Soon the band called it quits and made a clean sneak out of there.
Saturday morning in Chestertown began with a rumrunner car chase from Pottersville to Chestertown. After the excitement was over, the townspeople gathered at the rec field to relax and enjoy a few hours at the Babe Ruth Battle of the Bats Homerun Derby. Then it was off to the vaudeville show at the Carol Theater (a.k.a. The Strand). A leisurely chew at a local hash house was followed by a couple of drinks at the P-House speakeasy.
Saturday night the same bruno at the door admitted us to a mobbed house at the speakeasy. If the hooch flow was any indication, we could conclude that the morning rumrunners had eluded capture. An unidentified source told us that an earlier raid by feds looking for Donnie, the big cheese, who was on the lam at the Strand Theater, led to the mistaken collar of a decoy. Somebody fingered Donnie and he was taken into custody, but he must have given the coppers the slip because he was here in the thick of it. Another big shot from the Tri-Lakes Business Alliance, Cindy Mead, was on hand snapping souvenir photos like she was the bee’s knees.
The Jive Five jazz band played to a full house of hoofers competing for top billing in the Charleston contest. Though they were behind the eight ball most of the time, the judges, John, Joan, and Julie, finally picked the winners and first place went to Jeni Ferguson. Adirondack newshawk John Warren and his squeeze were among the dignitaries tipping a few that night. Grand-nephew of Denis Warren, John was flapping his gums about the exploits of Denis, who was left for dead on the side of the road on his return from a Montreal run.
By the time the Temperance Society women showed up with their placards declaring war on demon liquor with such slogans as Girls, wait for a temperance man and lips that touch alcohol will never touch mine, the crowd, wary and suspicious, began to dissipate.
When it comes to Prohibition and the denial of the public’s thirst for intoxicating beverages, we are historically on the wrong side of the law. Smugglers, bootleggers, moonshiners, outlaws, miscreants, vagabonds, ruffians, scoundrels, and hooligans are revered as mythical superheroes when keeping the public’s supply booze was (ineffectively) curtailed during Prohibition.
If Chestertown’s recently observed Rum Runners Weekend is any indication, with its reenactments of lawlessness and the idealization of thwarting the nation’s efforts at temperance, then we can say with fair certainty that drinking is popular again. We’re not just kissing our onions when we tell you the overwhelming success of this year’s Rum Runners Weekend ensures that it will be back next year. Hope to see you there. Tell ‘em, “Donnie sent me.”