Local History Thursday: Prohibition in Mesa County

In 1909, Mesa County voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol a decade before the rest of the nation followed suit with the Eighteenth Amendment. Within two months, the first case involving the sale of illegal liquor had made it to county court. “Doc” Powell, a retired bus driver living in a barn, was found guilty of selling a bottle of beer to J. W. Schultz, who had been hired by Chief Watson to buy liquor and bring it back as evidence to rid the city of bootleggers. The trial became a circus when Schultz noted on cross examination that the bottle was notably emptier than when he first delivered it to the police chief.

Powell, for his part, testified that he didn’t sell the bottle to Schultz, and believed he was doing a favor for a friend in desperate need of a drink. He explained that he took a dollar from Schultz and left it in an alley in a nondescript spot. Twenty-five minutes later, the dollar had been replaced with the beer. His lawyer successfully argued that Schultz had enticed him into committing the crime, and was even able to get the tampered bottle removed as evidence. Even still, Powell could not escape the long arm of the law, and the guilty verdict was upheld. The message was clear: if you break the law, you will spend exactly ten days in county jail before being released. Better sleep with one eye open, bootleggers.

Let’s back up a bit. My two most recent Local History Thursday posts, Temperance and the Colorado Frontier and Ute Removal and the End of the Colorado Frontier, both centered on the temperance movement in Colorado during the 1870s and its impact on immigration, town building, and Ute Removal. William Pabor, one of the temperance advocates discussed there, went on to found the town of Fruita as an agrarian temperance colony in the former Ute reservation. From its very foundations, Mesa County was a friendly environment for like-minded tee-totalers.

Illustrated poster urging voters to "Vote Yes for Dry." On the left, it depicts a wealthy potbellied brewer saying "Vote wet for my sake!" On the right, it depicts a concerned mother and her three children, saying "Vote dry for mine!"

Prohibitionist propaganda often highlighted the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse on the family. [Ohio State University]

As the founder of the Colorado Editorial Association and editor of many different newspapers in the valley, Pabor had considerable influence on the early media landscape of the Western Slope. He was a founding member of the Colorado Prohibition Alliance, and his wife was a founder and Vice President of the Fruita chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.). The W.C.T.U. was particularly influential nationwide, and within Mesa County they took an active role by visiting Sunday and public schools to provide lectures on temperance. The W.C.T.U. also secured a weekly column in the Palisade Tribune which communicated the organization’s goals and plans to the public.

Colorado gave women the power to vote in 1893, and they relied on the W.T.C.U. and church organizations to exert political power. At the time, public drinking was considered a strictly male activity. A saloon, with its gambling, prostitution, and other vices was simply no place for a lady. In contrast, women and children were often the primary victims of a husband abusing alcohol. In an era where women were economically dependent on their husbands, prohibition was a major priority.

The prohibitionist cause was also aided by old-fashioned racism and xenophobia. The saloon was a place where America’s working class, immigrant, and nonwhite communities could gather, converse, and develop political consciousness. From 1880 to 1930, more than 23 million people immigrated from places like Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, and Poland – all of which were stereotyped as lazy, stupid, and drunk. The urban slums and working class neighborhoods these immigrants flocked to were looked down upon as hives of immorality. Black, indigenous, and Hispanic working class communities were also frequent targets of prohibitionists. It’s no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a dominant political force during the era of national Prohibition; both the KKK and the prohibitionists were primarily white Protestants who felt threatened by the growing political power of the nation’s underclass.

By 1909, the prohibitionist cause had grown large enough to appear on the ballot in Mesa County. Despite heated discussion surrounding the measure, it ended up being a blowout for the prohibition side. Of the 2,392 votes cast, 1,823 (76%) voted to make Mesa County dry, with only 569 (24%) voting against. Due to its population, Grand Junction was excepted from this initial vote, making it the only “wet” territory within the county. It only lasted five months, when Grand Junction voted 1,480 (59%) yes to 1,009 (40%) no in April 1909. The wets suffered further losses in November that year when Grand Junction voters elected a prohibitionist mayor, city clerk, and four aldermen.

An illustration depicting a lawman kicking a humanized bottle of alcohol out of the state of Colorado. The lawman says "Git!" while the bottle walks away, despondent.

Mesa County voted to prohibit alcohol in 1909, and the State of Colorado followed suit in 1915. [Idaho Springs Siftings, March 3, 1916]

The city’s saloons were given until April 17, just ten days, to conclude their business. A flurry of customers eager to get in one last drink and stock up on liquor helped to offset some of the losses from closing shop, but on midnight, April 18, the last bar in Grand Junction had closed for good. Some saloon owners, like Ed McKinney, tried to pivot his business into an ice cream parlor, but by July he had declared bankruptcy. Others simply moved their business underground.

If Doc Powell’s sentence of ten days in county jail was intended to dissuade bootleggers, it had the opposite effect. By banning the sale of alcohol, prohibitionists inadvertently created a thriving black market willing to meet the demand at any price they wanted. Even when convicted, the harshest sentences were no more than ninety days in jail or $200 in fines for each charge. While $200 was nothing to sneeze at (roughly $6,300 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation), it also wasn’t enough to deter a sufficiently profitable rum-running operation, especially if the bootlegger was back on the street within three months. There was serious money to be made.

An illustration depicting two officers of the law carrying an enclosed carriage with three men inside. The carriage, held up by poles, is labeled "Convict, Lunatic, and Pauper, made by liquor traffic, supported by taxes of sober men."

Even when bootleggers were caught, charged, and imprisoned, it was up to the taxpayer to foot the bill. Abe Ong was once described as “an expert in at working the county for a free meal ticket.” [The Shadow of the Bottle, pub. 1915]

The law’s inability to restrict bootlegging was made apparent by one infamous repeat offender, Abe Ong. Abe was a pioneer of De Beque and a relative of Judge Joseph Ong, who briefly served as a state representative. What Abe lacked in his cousin’s inclination towards the law, he made up for in sheer determination to peddle hooch. For over twenty years, starting in 1911 when he was aged 50, he was in-and-out of the courts on bootlegging charges. He would sell liquor, get caught, have the charges dismissed, return to selling liquor, get caught, get convicted, serve out his sentence, and then return to selling liquor: rinse and repeat.

In one raid in which Abe and nine co-conspirators were arrested, police discovered bottles of whiskey stashed away in dresser drawers, a sewing machine, under floorboards and heaps of coal, in typewriter desks, and even under a sleeping baby resting in a carriage. In another case, Ong tried unsuccessfully to flip the script and have the Chief of Police arrested for burglary after he seized a barrel of beer, several bottles, and a revolver from him. By my (admittedly incomplete) survey of arrests recorded in Colorado Historic Newspapers, Ong was arrested at least thirteen times at his peak between 1911-1918, during which he spent a minimum of fifty months behind bars.

Newspaper clipping from the Daily Sentinel titled "Abe Ong Here to Be Arrested." The body of the text reads "Abe Ong, lovingly known as 'Father Abraham,' came down today noon, and accompanied by his attorney, visited the courthouse, gave bond for the 10 indictments against him, which totaled $2,000 and hurried back on the Midland to take care of his prosperous business. Mr. Ong says he didn't want to wait to be arrested, but just ran down to formally take care of the little matter and will get home as soon as possible."

Rather than wait to be arrested, Ong once made a trip down to Grand Junction to pay a $2,000 bond (about $62,466 adjusted for inflation), then immediately returned back to De Beque to “take care of his prosperous business.” [Daily Sentinel, October 27, 1913]

He became so well known through his frequent appearances in the news that the Rifle Telegram suggested “It cannot be logically refuted that he has well earned the distinction of being Mesa County’s foremost citizen.” While notoriety is generally a bad thing for a career criminal, Abe seemed to prosper from the attention. According to the Rocky Mountain News, his bootlegging operations pulled in an average of $200 per week, or roughly the equivalent of $324,825 annually, adjusted for inflation, and his business continued to flourish even during his absence. While most bootleggers benefited from poor enforcement of the law, Ong showed how more aggressive enforcement could be twisted to raise the profile of a rum-running operation and make a mockery of the legal system. If someone like Ong could get away with it, then what did any of his customers have to worry about?

That said, the legal system hardly needed someone like Abe Ong to expose its failures. In some cases, the detectives hired to catch bootleggers were far worse than the bootleggers themselves. Take Perin Dewey, a brick mason who moved to Grand Junction in 1911 after serving time in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. At the age of 27, he married Dolores Harris, a 16-year-old waitress whom he had only known for a single week. Within three weeks, he threatened to blow her head off in a drunken rampage for going to Salvation Army meetings, then nearly drank himself to death after she asked for a divorce. For whatever reason, the City of Grand Junction then chose him for detective work just a few short weeks later.

As a detective, Dewey’s job was to purchase liquor and turn it in to the Chief of Police. Dewey was great at the first part, but was less reliable on the second. On August 22, 1912, several bootlegging cases were dismissed after Dewey drank all of the evidencea screw up so bad that it even got him chastised by the defense attorney, “You ought to be back in the Oklahoma penitentiary.”

A clipping from the Daily Sentinel with the headline "'Bootleggers Revenge' or 'Ditching the City Sleuth.'"

[Daily Sentinel, August 31, 1912]

About a week later, Dewey was in the news again, this time due to a cruel joke by some bootleggers. The Daily Sentinel reported that he was “enticed into a room, given enough ‘evidence’ liquor to get him badly intoxicated; his money, earned from the city as a bootlegging detective, taken from him to buy a railroad ticket to Kansas.” He was then dragged to the station in “a maudlin state” and was sent on his way. Allegedly, he had promised to swear an alibi for the bootleggers, but failed to do his part. Even though the charges were dismissed due to his tampering, he still double-crossed them, so he had to go.

On September 5, it was reported that Perin Dewey died after falling beneath a moving freight train in Pueblo. His remains were mangled beyond recognition, and were only identifiable as Dewey due to a letter found on his person. On September 12, however, Perin Dewey defied death to vow vengeance on whoever drugged him. As it turned out, his alleged death was a hoax perpetrated by the same bootleggers. It’s not clear if he ever enacted his vengeance on the perpetrators, because he seemingly disappears from the newspapers after this. Perhaps he was intimidated into staying out of town, or perhaps those bootleggers found a more permanent means of disposing of the troublesome detective.

There were no shortage of corrupt officials willing to turn a blind eye to bootlegging. In Palisade, the town’s mayor, four aldermen, and town marshal were all opposed to enforcing Prohibition. Marshal Moore was frequently spotted wandering the streets in such “an intoxicated condition” that “he could not keep on the sidewalk.” One restaurant in Palisade, the Eagle Cafe operated by James and Charles Ferguson, sold liquor in plain daylight to anyone willing to pay. Certain townsfolk grew frustrated with the inability of their officials to enforce the law, and on the evening of July 10, 1911, a group of fifty masked men armed with rifles and shotguns arrived at the Eagle Cafe to deliver an typewritten ultimatum:

“Warning to James M. Ferguson: Within ten days from July 10, 1911, you MUST close your business, and take your family and leave this town and NOT return. You will be dealt with AT ONCE for any insult, abuse, or violence by yourself or wife towards any citizen of this town during the ten days. GET BUSY.” Signed, Law and Order League (Wicked Western Slope, p. 66-67)

As the word spread quickly around the Valley, Sheriff Schrader assured everyone that mob violence would not be tolerated in Palisade. The scandal even caught the attention of the Governor, who demanded that Schrader keep things under control. The Fergusons appealed to the town council for protection, but one alderman, G. M. Hand, reminded the men that they had once before assaulted him in his own office for interfering in a previous bootlegging matter. While the Fergusons insisted they would not be intimidated into leaving, when the deadline came on July 20, they were gone. Citizens had to face the uneasy reality that violent bands of armed men were more effective at enforcing the law than their own local government.

An illustration depicting three men, a bootlegger, a corrupt officer, and a moonshiner. The trio are huddled behind a book labeled "Prohibition And Its Enforcement" while gleefully singing "How dry we are, how dry we are! Nobody cares how dry we are!"

[Scanned from my personal collection, originally from The Brooklyn Eagle]

By the time prohibition went statewide in 1916, then national in 1920 following the Eighteenth Amendment, Mesa County was already disillusioned with the futility of enforcing such a law. Alcohol remained abundant to those who sought it out, all while criminals profited and made a mockery of the justice system. Did 16-year-old Dolores Harris feel safer knowing that the liquor her husband drank before threatening to kill her was now illegal? Did the masked vigilantes who marched through the streets of Palisade bestow a sense of law and order? Did citizens feel confident in their justice system after watching Abe Ong walk free again and again?

Illustration titled "Let Loose!" depicting the opening of the floodgates after the ratification of the 21st amendment. The floodgates are labeled "18th Amendment" and the floodwater is primarily made up of liquor bottles.

The ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment in December 1933 marked the end of Prohibition. [Palisade Tribune, December 8, 1933]

Still, few public figures were willing to take an outright stance against it when Colorado voted to implement prohibition statewide, “We believe that, after the readjustment that must necessarily follow is brought about, Colorado will be far better off.” Commented Walter Walker, editor-in-chief of the Daily Sentinel, “The Sentinel has no tears to shed over the passing of liquor traffic in Colorado.” (Daily Sentinel, January 31, 1915). And yet, when Prohibition was finally repealed with the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933, Walter Walker took a decidedly different tone:

“We know of nothing that has developed such hypocrisy as the prohibition era. Now it will no longer be necessary for some of our prominent citizens to lead double lives, addressing W.C.T.U. meetings by day and ‘partying’ by night. It will no longer be necessary for a politician to vote dry as he drinks wet.” (Daily Sentinel, December 8, 1933)

For Walter Walker – arguably the most well-connected man in Grand Junction at the time – to admit that even some of the law’s most prominent supporters were drinking in secret, it meant that Prohibition was truly a failure. The same lips that paid service to the dry cause in public were paying to get drunk in private. In the end, the only ones left to mourn the demise of Prohibition were the career bootleggers forced into an early retirement.


Thirsty for more? I recommend the article “Women, Politics, and Booze: Prohibition in Mesa County, 1908 – 1933” by Jerritt Frank from the Fall 1999 edition of the Journal of the Western Slope and the “Prohibition Punch” chapter of Wicked Western Slope by D.A. Brockett. Additionally, the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection and the Mesa County Oral History Project are, as always, invaluable resources for this type of research. I think there’s still more to say here about Prohibition, so maybe we’ll revisit this topic some time in the future.

Any thoughts to share, perspectives to add, or anecdotes to offer? Please let us know in the comments!

Thank you for reading, and please drink responsibly!


Thank you to the Friends of Mesa County Libraries for supporting Local History blogs like these.

Posted in General, Local History.

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