Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Prohibition in Colorado

Homemade moonshine distillery on display at the Notah-Dineh Museum in Cortez, Colorado.
Photograph copyright Erin S. Gray.
On January 16, 1920, the “Noble Experiment” known as Prohibition went into effect in the United States. This was an attempt to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Ultimately, the government was unable to effectively regulate the sale of alcohol or reduce its consumption, even though officials closed down nearly all alcoholic beverage companies. Only a few companies stayed in business. Colorado’s Coors was among them, as Coors produced alcohol for medicinal use as well as soft drinks.


Instead of teaching morality, which was one of the government’s goals, Prohibition created lawlessness in the form of illegal alcohol (often referred to as moonshine) and illegal bars, known as speakeasies. Because these illicit businesses were unregulated, gangs sprang up to distribute moonshine in a process called “bootlegging.” Crime rates increased as well as deaths related to alcohol. Often the home-brewed drinks were unsafe, containing high lead content from old carburetors converted to stills. Wood alcohol, methanol or other noxious materials such as household cleaners were sometimes added to speed up the process and save money. Blindness was not an uncommon occurrence after drinking “bad” moonshine.


The biggest “booze” raid in the history of Colorado took place in Denver in 1922, when 73 agents of the U.S. government — 55 from the ranks of the Colorado Rangers — made simultaneous raids on 25 hotels, rooming houses, cigar stores, soft drink parlors and private homes, most of them in the heart of the city’s business district, looking for evidence of violations of the national prohibition law (The Denver Post, March 17, 1922).

On the southwest side of Colorado, many of the gold and silver mines in the San Juan Mountains were closing down because of the lack of minerals. This provided the perfect location for stills. Moonshiners would hide a still back in a closed mine shaft and brew their moonshine without being caught. They would then ship the product out to surrounding areas. One method for peddling moonshine in Durango was to paint milk jars white, then fill the jars with the disguised liquid.


Though many citizens made their own brew, moonshine was a relatively good business toward the end of the 1920s and in the early years of the Depression. The Eighteenth Amendment making Prohibition legal was repealed on December 5, 1933.


Erin S. Gray writes historical fiction for adults and young adults. She backpacks through the very mountains about which she writes and was inspired to begin her novel, Moonshine Murder, after stumbling across an abandoned cabin during a trek deep in the San Juan Mountains. Erin is the 2013 president of Women Writing the West, and an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. A graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in English, she lives in southwest Colorado with her husband and two young sons. For more information about the author, visit



Heidiwriter said...

An interesting period in our history! I loved your book, Moonshine Murder!

Alethea Williams said...

What a great post. I enjoyed this bit of Colorado history, especially the information on re-using the old mines!