We Remember 1920: “When John Barleycorn Died in Gratiot County”

Above: Gratiot County Herald Headline, October 1920

On January 17, 1920, many people in Gratiot County celebrated National Prohibition and its ban on producing, transporting, and importing alcohol. One Gratiot County newspaper wrote that “Old John Barleycorn, one of the nation’s greatest enemies, if not the greatest, was laid away without a tear or a pang of regret, and America has taken a great step forward.”  Unfortunately, not every Gratiot County resident agreed, and Prohibition led to some interesting events.

Most  Prohibition offender’s stories ranged from tragic to humorous; however, from 1917-1920 (the period of Michigan’s Prohibition of alcohol), only a handful of cases came to trial. In July 1918,  Alonzo Hart of Ithaca was among the first in the county to be prosecuted under Violation of the Liquor Laws.

                Although there had not been many cases of Prohibition brought to trial, things quickly changed starting in May 1920 when the first trial took place concerning Norman Boody of St. Louis, who attempted to brew raisin whiskey. Boody received what became a standard sentence for first offenders – six months to one year in Ionia Reformatory, along with a hefty fine. That summer,  Adolph Sykora got caught on the Edwards Farm, southeast of Alma, which marked the start of county “Still Hunts.” Sykora’s arrest would be the first time newspapers described a still, and with warm summer weather, the stills went into full operation. The Steele Swamp in Hamilton Township contained a still operated by Monta Coss, who planned to sell his booze at county fairs until he was arrested. Carl Bruer and his father also ran a still in Washington Township. However, Sheriff Willert grew suspicious of “a lot of half-drunken foreigners” hanging around Bruer’s shack. Willert caught Bruer, making raisin whiskey, corn whiskey, and wine.

By September, Gratiot County experienced the first murder during Prohibition. Four local men, returning from a fishing trip, stopped on the bridge over the Maple River in Bridgeville to examine the river bottoms. One man spotted a body along the riverbank, partly submerged in the water. After arriving at the scene, Sheriff Willert reviewed the contents of the body, who was identified as James Rossa.  Willert found $120 and a loaded Colt pistol. Rossa had a crushed skull, was believed to have been killed elsewhere, then dumped into the Maple River. Both the Lansing police and the sheriff’s department surmised that Rossa, an unemployed Italian from Lansing, had been killed as a result of receiving his money through dishonest means. Recent Italian gang activity in Detroit and Pontiac could also have been related to Rossa’s death.

The roles of foreigners (or the foreign-born) became a constant theme during Prohibition in Gratiot County. Two Belgians in Alma, Leo DeKiser and Barnard Fandell, both were caught in a large operation that involved 200 gallons of corn mash. The men were paid $11 a bottle for their product, which was pretty good money in 1920. There were many, like J. L. Thompson and Joseph Brennan of Detroit, the first downstate bootleggers to be arrested in Gratiot County, who sold alcohol in the county. The two men, who had 74 quarts of Canadian whiskey inside their Cadillac Roadster, arrived on a Saturday night and parked in front of Burkheiser’s Store in Alma. However, the nice car, their strange faces, and gossip in town soon led to their arrests during their delivery. Both offenders received six months to a year in Ionia, along with fines, and the police confiscated their car. These stories from 1920 marked just the beginning of Prohibition in Gratiot County.

Copyright 2021 James M. Goodspeed

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