Dry or not, suburbs played role in Prohibition
Prohibition, an era of American history seeing renewed interest sparked by a Ken Burns documentary airing on PBS, often conjures up largely urban images in the public's imagination.
But the suburban and, at the time, rural areas around Chicago were no strangers to the impacts of the 18th Amendment.
On the contrary, it was to such areas that mob figures would retreat for celebrations or business dealings to avoid the intense scrutiny of law enforcement in the city, said Diana Dretske, collections coordinator for the Lake County Discovery Museum near Wauconda.
The greatest threats the mobsters faced outside the Chicago city limits were from each other.
Late on June 1, 1930, three mobsters from the Capone, Druggan-Lake and O'Donner gangs were killed by machine-gun fire as they sat around a table at the Manning Hotel on Pistakee Lake, just outside Fox Lake. Two other people were wounded.
The shootings, which came to be known as the Fox Lake Massacre, were sparked by the ongoing war over bootleg beer distribution in the area, Dretske said.
The hotel had been getting its beer from George "Bugs" Moran, but had recently changed over to the Druggan-Lake gang as its supplier.
Moran rival Al Capone was more successful finding solace in Fox Lake, spending time at the Mineola Hotel at the height of his career.
Even ordinary citizens in Lake County took advantage of the relative laxity of law enforcement there, Dretske said.
Many of the farmers were Germans who quietly made beer and liquor for their own consumption on their properties.
"The idea of not being able to drink was considered crazy," Dretske said.
There are stories of a woman who collected money for the Red Cross and often brought in big donations in exchange for not reporting what she saw while visiting various properties, Dretske added.
Dretske's own father-in-law, who died only a few years ago at 100, lived near the Wisconsin border during Prohibition and said Green Bay and Sheridan roads near Lake Michigan were often busy after midnight with vehicles bringing alcohol to Chicago.
Pat Barch, Hoffman Estates village historian, said the previous owner of the farm later bought by Paul Hassell at Hillcrest and Jones roads allowed his property to be used by the Chicago mob for a major whiskey still.
The mob reportedly considered the spring water that fed the still to be the best it ever found, Barch said. Capone's association with the group has been inferred but was never specifically mentioned.
While some in the modern-day suburbs worked to circumvent the law, residents of Des Plaines and Maine Township voted local dry ordinances into effect in 1915 -- five years before Prohibition became the law of the land.
At the time of the Maine Township vote in April 1914, there were 13 saloons operating in the township, newspaper reports said.
According to the 1975 book "Des Plaines: A History" by Mark Henkes, the city came to be called "Dry Plaines" and provided some of the earliest examples in the country of businesses being raided by police for selling and stocking beer.
Even after Prohibition was being nationally enforced in the early '20s, homes on Brown Street in Des Plaines were being regularly raided by police, according to Henkes.
At the time, it was easy for families with the know-how to make their own alcohol, Henkes wrote. It was buying and selling it that invited risk.
While every period of history has its share of unverifiable stories and rumors, Prohibition is a particularly difficult era to pin down because of its very nature, said Jane Rozek, local history librarian at the Schaumburg Township District Library.
No one at the time was publicizing or documenting their participation in what were illegal activities, leaving mostly unreliable anecdotes of what people heard about others, she said.
For example, while there are lots of stories about local farmers operating stills in their barns during Prohibition, there isn't much in the way of photographic evidence of this.
"There's unfortunately just not that much to go on," Rozek said.