Pensacola, Florida
Monday May 28th 2018


It Happened Here 12/20/12

Prohibition in Our Port City: Nothing ‘Dry’ About It
by Jessica Forbes

Like everywhere else in the United States, the Prohibition of alcohol did little to discourage alcohol consumption in Pensacola. “The Noble Experiment” instead created networks of smugglers, compromised officials, organized crime, and enterprising citizens determined to distill or brew their own.

Federal and/or state Prohibition laws existed in Florida from January 1, 1919 through November 7, 1934. State laws kept legal booze out of the hands of Floridians almost two additional years beyond federal prohibition. Pensacola was a busy international port during the “Roaring ‘20s,” but liquor was most commonly reported as being seized from ships traveling from nearby Cuba or the Bahamas.

Ships large and small transported the illegal cargo, and Pensacola had at least one known Rum Row-style stop. Portions of the battleship Massachusetts, which the U.S. Navy sunk two miles offshore in 1921, became a storage and transfer point for cargoes of liquor. Prohibition officers received a tip about such activity in 1922 and found the site freshly abandoned, littered with labels, broken bottles and crates.

Local and federal officials alike were busted for involvement with smuggling operations in and around Pensacola. The caretaker of Pensacola’s Quarantine Station was arrested for storing approximately 900 quarts of liquor in the loft of the building in 1921. Pensacola made national headlines when a group of 16 people, including a former sheriff of Okaloosa County, were indicted for smuggling liquor and illegal Chinese immigrants from Havana to Philadelphia via the Panhandle. In a similarly Boardwalk Empire-esque turn of events, after alluding authorities for one year, a federal prohibition officer committed suicide in Seattle upon his arrest for the sale of liquor and assault on another agent while working in Pensacola.

Pensacola’s large and—dare we say—thirsty military population contributed to the local demand. A 1931 Tampa Tribune article noted: “Conditions in Pensacola are not encouraging…the Naval Air Station with its large personnel creates a market in the city itself for liquor.”

“The Barn” was a particularly popular watering hole among naval officers.  Still standing at 105 West Jackson Street, the building was originally used as a barn, then remodeled into a home in the mid-1920s, and later rented as an Officers’ Club from 1928 through 1933. One employee’s relative recalled drinking local bootlegger Sam Clipper’s brew (commonly known as “Shinny”) at The Barn saying, “We had some wonderful parties and the Feds never bothered us.”

The rural, wooded areas surrounding Pensacola were also havens for moonshiners. One still raided in Molino in 1928 became a showpiece in the office of then Escambia County Sherriff Mose Penton.  That still had a capacity of twenty gallons; larger operations like one discovered at Seven Mile Creek in 1926 could produce up to two hundred gallons at a time.

Smaller levels of production were evidently occurring in homes and bars throughout town. In the late 1920s, the demand for home brewing supplies was so great that one druggist estimated Pensacolians were buying enough malt extract to brew 1,000 bottles of beer a week, adding, “We can’t get enough beer bottles to supply the demand.” One officer who frequented The Barn recalled the owner’s wife throwing parties there in which the program was to “make a batch, bottle a batch, and drink a batch.”

By the early 1930s, it was evident throughout the U.S. that enforcing Prohibition was a failed experiment. In 1932, newly appointed police chief Albert Anderson estimated there were 250 speakeasies or other establishments selling liquor in Pensacola. Though the 18th amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, ending Prohibition at the national level, Floridians had to wait until November 6, 1934 to vote to repeal the state’s dry laws. Days later, Lewis Bear Company obtained the first license to distribute alcohol in Escambia County in the new era of legal booze.

Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her doing production support at a local architecture firm.