Old Timers Always Check the Boots
By Norris Chambers
Bootleggers of the twenties and thirties used several types of containers for their brew. Probably the most used in our area was just a plain mason jar. These came in several sizes and in two general shapes, round or square. In an area where jars were used for canning food products from the field the purchase of these containers did not attract the attention of the sheriff or his deputies. All used whiskey bottles that could be obtained were also used, usually without removing the label.
The many men who had come to the area to find jobs in the newly discovered oil fields provided a ready market for the illegal alcoholic drinks. The bootleggers seemed to prefer the square jars and the workers who purchased and used the contents disposed of the empty jars by discarding them at the side of the two rut trails that served as roads. The local bootleggers would buy the used jars if they felt that they could fully trust the sellers. Clifton and I considered collecting and selling them. We had heard who the buyers were but we didn’t know them well enough to ask about collecting jars for them. My dad told us that he would buy all that we found and we would use them for canning. We found a few jars and collected the cash... We earned a few spare dollars while we were waiting for the fur season to open. We usually had ‘possums to skin on the first day and most of the remaining days of the season. ‘Possum season was our big money crop of the year.
Bootleggers did a brisk business because their liquor was always available at a reasonable price. Those who drank it regularly said that it was as good as or better than any they had drunk. Whiskey and other liquors could be purchased legally for medicinal purposes. All that was necessary was to have a physician’s prescription. Drug stores that sold the prescribed liquor could also furnish the needed prescription.
We were told by the old timers that those selling the illegal liquor were called bootleggers because the flat bottles were hidden in the liquor peddler’s boots. This sounded reasonable since some regular whiskey bottles were not much over an inch thick and would easily have fit in the flared top of the old cowboy’s boots. Some old western cowhands peddled whiskey to the Indians for furs or other things that were in demand among the settlers or merchants. The term “bootlegger” was later applied to anyone selling illegal liquor.
The illicit alcohol business was not all bad. One of our classmates, a special ‘possum-hunting friend, was checking a hollow nest about four feet above the ground in an old tree and instead of finding a ‘possum he found a ten dollar bill. He was surprised and wondered how the bill could have got there. He told us that he had heard of pack rats and one of them must have left the money. Clifton didn’t believe this explanation because according to the old timers a pack rat traded items. There should have been something for him to take. He thought someone might have stolen the money and hid it in the tree until the loser quit looking for it. This explanation was good enough for us.
We told my dad about the boy finding the money in the ‘possum hollow and that he thought a pack rat might have left it there. He told us firmly that a pack rat didn’t do it and it was probably left there by a thirsty customer who expected to liquor to be left there. He said sales to customers were sometimes carried on in this manner. If the bootlegger were placed on trial there would not be any eye witnesses who saw the sale. He told us to stay away from that tree or the tree traders might think we took the money.
I told Clifton that staying away from the tree didn’t mean we couldn’t look it over from the top of a hill about a quarter of a mile west of it. He agreed and we found a nice, secure and well hidden spot in the thick timber on the hill. We couldn’t see the hollow spot but we had a good view of the tree. We sat and watched the area for several minutes and were about ready to find something more interesting to do when two men appeared in the tree area. One was carrying a tow sack over his shoulder and the other held a rifle. After looking in all directions the man with the sack moved out of sight toward the hollow tree. The one with the gun continued to look in all directions.
After a very short absence the man with the sack reappeared. He put the sack on the ground and began talking to the rifle man. He was waving his arms wildly, apparently very upset! We didn’t know any of the details but we guessed that the missing ten dollars had caused the agitation.
Clifton suggested that we take that ‘possum tree off of our list and go check those by the creek. I heartily agreed and we left the area, picking a route on the other side of the hill. There wasn’t anything funny in this tale unless you consider it funny when Clifton checked the first ‘possum hollow in the creek route and pulled out two ten dollar bills!