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Feather's Miscellany: Dogwood Falls Distillery

John Waddington-Feather tells the tasty tale of how the Feds were tricked when they came to raid a small distillery in a Kentucky town during Prohibition days.

There’s a sleepy little town in the backwoods of Kansas, which we’ll call Dogwood Falls (for it doesn’t do to give it its real name) which didn’t take kindly to the Prohibition of liquor in the 1920s and 30s. Two families lived there then: one was the Bradys, who lived a mile or two out of town on a tiny ranch where they raised hogs. An uncharitable person would call them ‘hill-billies’; but I’d prefer to say they were laid back, easy-going, neighbourly folks, who’d pass the time of day with most folks who chanced along. They’d work hard on their ranch then, after they’d tended their hogs, would spend the rest of the day just mooching around before dozing away the heat of the summer in a rocking chair on the shady veranda outside.

Old Mac Brady had four boys and the brightest and liveliest of the lot was the youngest, Chuck. He did well at school, but didn’t go to college as he ought to have done, which was just as well as it transpired. He stayed at home helping his pa run the ranch and rear hogs. The rest of the family grew up, married and left Dogwood Falls to work elsewhere

Now all the way through school and later, Chuck had a great friend, Wilmer , the only child of the sheriff, Pete Richards, a real gentleman of the old school of sheriffs: tolerant but firm, and very much a part of Dogwood Falls. He came down on young delinquents, but instead of hauling them straight to court, he’d take them home and hand them over to their parents to mete out justice, which in the general way of things worked very well. Only the very worst, consistent offenders (and you could count on one hand their number in all the years he was sheriff) were hauled before the court and sent away to reformatory school.

Pete Richards was a widower, a tall, well-built guy, going grizzled grey now he’d reached his fifties. He’d a warm, homely face, but he was as tough as they come. He’d match any drunk who dared square up to him, and those too boozed up to stand he’d cart off to the cop-shop and lock them in there to sober up overnight. The next day he’d release them with a caution. If they became over-regular lodgers, he’d hand them to the county judge who sent them down for a month or two to dry out and give their families a break.

Very occasionally a wandering English tourist would drift into town to look up the old home of a well known Kansas lady novelist, who had fans across the world. But as is the way of the dreamy English abroad, they’d wander round crossing and re-crossing from one sidewalk to the other, across a truck-busy highway cutting through the town, till Sheriff Richards came out of his office and firmly but politely pointed out the highway-crossings to them and explain what jay-walking was. Then he’d invite them into his office for coffee and sound them out about the Old Country; especially if they came from Yorkshire, asking about a place called Keighworth where his family hailed from way back.

Life was never hurried in Dogwood Falls where everyone knew everyone else and had done for generations. There was an accepted pecking-order beginning with Judge Smithson, when he visited the township, through the sheriff, then all the way down (if ‘down’ is the right word) to Mac Brady and his rickety homestead just outside town.

Now although Mac’s place was pretty basic it was sufficient and he reared some fine hogs, the best in the county. They won prizes at the State Fair and they made very tasty bacon and pork which Dogwood Falls was partial to; especially . Sheriff Richards who enjoyed Brady’s bacon and was a regular visitor to Mac’s ranch most mornings where Ma Brady cooked him his eggs and bacon, paid for of course. The sheriff was no cadger. He’d also drop by most evenings for a sun-downer at the end of the day, sitting with Mac sipping whisky as they yarned about this and that and what made the sleepy town tick over. I might add that Dogwood Falls had its saloon, but Sheriff Richards rarely drank there, only popping in when there was trouble caused by the odd sot which every place has. When he became too much of a nuisance the sheriff was called and Pete Richards did the rest.

The friendship between Mac and Pete grew as the years went by; so did the friendship between their sons, Wilmur and Chuck, and all went well in the township till Prohibition swept through the country. It had started in Kansas itself forty years before in 1881 when the state became the first State in the Union to outlaw alcohol.

A strong-minded lady called Carrie Nation launched an anti-alcohol group, which rampaged through the city bars in Dodge and Kansas City smashing bottles and tongue-whacking the customers. Sometimes they’d sing and pray in the bars till the saloon-keepers had had enough and shut up shop. By 1920 hostility to the saloons became a political issue and Federal Prohibition Agents started enforcing the Prohibition Laws. It mightily upset the likes of Pete Richards and Mac Brady, who regarded their sun-downers as a kind of eventide offering to the Almighty for his many blessings throughout the day. When the town’s saloon closed down and their pas couldn’t buy any liquor, young Chuck and Wilmer came into their own.

Since Wilmer’s mother’s death, young Wilmer had spent a deal of time at the Bradys, till he and Church were like brothers. At school, they were both pretty smart at science and had learned how to distil alcohol. It needed only a little reading of commercial whisky distillation books for them to set up a basic still in one of the barns. Since they were beneficiaries, the sheriff and his deputies turned a blind eye to it, but made sure the boys never drank. What they produced was for adults only. None of the townsfolk had voted for Prohibition, but all of them were suffering from it; especially Dr Winthrop, the town’s physician, who’d prescribed alcohol for years for therapeutic purposes for his patients - as well as himself. He lobbied hard for the repeal of the Prohibition Act but to no avail. Kansas went dry – all except Dogwood Falls which stood an oasis in a barren waste.

The little distillery thrived and Chuck and Wilmer worked overtime to supply the town’s needs. I’ve got to say it all stayed within limits. Their pas saw to that. There were no speakeasies and most of the liquor they made was consumed at home within the town’s limits.

Yet it was bound to happen as more and more of the Brady and Richards liquor began to find its way further afield, till in time it came to the attention of the Prohibition Law Enforcement Agency, spying everywhere for liquor smuggling and speakeasies, which were running wild in places like Chicago. The South became dry very unwillingly. It liked its liquor and when voting was taking place, one joker commented that the South would vote dry – that is everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls. One result of Prohibition in the North was the increase in crime when gangsters fought one another to run the speakeasy saloons; yet Dogwood Falls remained peaceful. It had no need to smuggle in liquor. It distilled its own. Then the Law Enforcement Officers descended in force on the town.

What happened afterwards passed into folklore. The Law Enforcement Agency had to liaise with Sheriff Richards, who in turn liaised with his son. Being the honest, upright law-man of the town, he arranged with the liquor police to raid Mac Brady’s ranch one night and catch the culprits red-handed.

The Law Enforcement Officer was one Lieutenant Bowper, city slicker and mean-looking, very full of himself. He was long and lean with a swarthy complexion. He had steely eyes which were never still and he was a rabid teetotaller. When he arrived at the sheriff’s office he made a great show of his federal warrant and spoke down to Pete Richards as if he were a bumpkin. Pete didn’t like that at all.

“I’m Lieutenant Bowper,” he began loudly, flashing his warrant. “I’ve spoken over the phone to your deputy.”

“Is that so?” drawled Pete, laying on a heavy Kansas accent.

“And these are my officers,” continued Bowper, waving airily in the direction of his men. “Now, sir, we’ve a job to do here and I’d very much value your co-operation,” and he went on to tell Pete just how he was going to carry out a raid on the ranch where he’d heard they were distilling liquor - Brady’s ranch.

Once the two boys were told of the impending raid, they hurriedly dismantled their still and dispersed it throughout the neighbourhood, so that when the lieutenant and his men swooped, eager for the kill, all they found as they burst into Brady’s barn were a cauldron filled with evil-smelling hogwash and a very surprised donkey staring back at them. More was to come.

Adjoining the barn was Mac Brady’s large vegetable patch, which needed digging. When the disappointed Law Enforcement Agents left the barn looking decidedly foolish, the sheriff suggested they dig the vegetable patch for any hidden contraband. They set to at once and dug and dug while Pete Richards and Mac Brady looked on, but, of course, they found nothing; but Mac had his garden dug up and was mighty pleased.

The next day, Bowper and his men returned North empty-handed and Dogwood Falls settled back into its old routine. Two years later the Prohibition Act was repealed and the saloon re-opened. Yet Wilmer and Chuck continued distilling, this time legally. They’d cornered a lucrative market and they’d become very adept and extended their plant. When they enlisted for the war in 1942, they left their distillery in charge of a manager.

Both fought in Europe, where Chuck was badly wounded, but he survived and was shipped back to Britain to a hospital in Scotland, where as chance would have it there was a whisky distillery nearby. As he recuperated he became friendly with the owner and his know-how in whisky distilling increased immensely. So much so, that when he and Wilmer returned home after the war, they built a brand-new distillation plant on land near Brady’s ranch.

They prospered and ‘Brady and Richards Bourbon Whisky’ became famous throughout the States and beyond.. They had everything at hand for the perfect blend: a good water source, and a cheap supply of American white oak casks which gave their liquor its special flavour. What had started as a teenage experiment and survived the Prohibition became their livelihood and that of succeeding generations.

As for their pas, old Brady and Richards pottered about their sons’ distillery till they were too old to work. They spent the eventide of their lives sitting in their familiar rocking chairs on Brady’s veranda sipping their sun-downers, yarning away about this and that, especially about the time they’d pulled a fast one on the Prohibition Officers and tricked them into digging up the vegetable patch.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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