What role did Vermont play during Prohibition?
When the federal government banned alcohol in 1920, Vermonters took matters into their own hands. Brave Little State heads to the Northeast Kingdom to explore the history.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public's show that answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience — because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, transparent and fun.
In this episode, reporter Kevin Trevellyan takes on a question from Nathan Bangs: “Growing up in the NEK I heard about bootleg running from Canada. I even found stills in the woods. What role did Vermont play during Prohibition?”
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There’s a feeling you get when you’re looking for something that’s not supposed to be there. At least, that's what Dennis Fuller says. He worked in customs in Derby Line, along the Vermont-Quebec border.
“One of the border patrolmen told me, ‘The hair on the back of your neck starts to stand up – you can almost feel something isn't right in this situation.’ And he was right,” Dennis said.
Dennis is 75 years old now, and he’s pretty familiar with sections of the northern border. Yes, because of his work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But also because of his experience growing up in the Northeast Kingdom – an experience that followed him throughout his life.
Like in the ‘70s, when Dennis was transferring jobs with the feds. A colleague searched his personnel records, and after punching Dennis’ name into the computer:
“He hit enter and the screen lit up. And it said, ‘Suspected of smuggling beer across Lake Wallace in a boat.’ And I looked at it, and I didn't know what to say. I never did, exactly,” Dennis said.
He says back when he was a teenager, he’d sometimes buy a couple quarts of Labatt beer in Canada, because the drinking age was lower. Then he and his friends would sneak them across the border into the U.S. Before beer, it was Canadian firecrackers, crammed down his pants.
And yes, as a retired customs man, Dennis is aware of the irony.
“Nobody even thought about reporting to customs," he said. "And it wasn't really enforced because it was something done on both sides, and nobody was hurt by it.”
Dennis’ small-scale shenanigans aren’t too surprising, though, given what his uncles were up to back in the day.
“Shirley and Pete were the two biggest known smugglers of the family,” he said.
That is – alcohol smugglers, way back during Prohibition in the 1920s.
Dennis says his uncles used to stock up on booze in Canada, then load it into a rubber raft right before getting to the border. They’d drop the raft into Leach Creek, which flowed south, then let it drift into the United States while they moseyed into Vermont contraband-free.
“And evidently one day the raft got hooked up in some brush, and one of the younger brothers had gone up looking for it,” Dennis said. “He found it, took out sufficient liquor for himself and hid that, and let the rest of them know where the raft was.”
Dennis says his uncles also used to load booze into a car, drive through the tricky backroads criss-crossing the region, then hide it in the basement of the house that he later grew up in.
But he didn’t learn about that family lore until later in his life.
“It wasn't ‘til I moved back here 15 years ago that my aunt's husband started talking, and was telling some of the stories about how my uncle's smuggled,” Dennis said.
He grew up in Canaan, the northeastern-most town in the Northeast Kingdom. He’s now in charge of its historical society, which is housed in a 200-year-old library.
“This is more what we’re known for, the logging industry,” Dennis said, pointing out some rusty tool displays on the wall.
The Canaan Historical Society’s collection doesn’t have much on Prohibition, and Dennis says nobody really asks about it.
Yet, we know people like Dennis’ uncles were around, and there are old newspaper articles about agents chasing rum runners through Canaan, guns blazing.
Maybe bootlegging was taken for granted – part of a well-worn pattern of life in much of the NEK. That’s what I’m thinking as Dennis peers at his one binder of Prohibition-era records and reads the words of Joan Cowan, whose father was a customs agent during the ‘20s.
“Smuggling was always a fact of life along the border. It is said that beef to feed the British army was smuggled north to Canada during the war of 1812, an actual act of treason,” Dennis read.
Wool and sheep were smuggled across the border after that. Margarine during World War II, then refrigerators when they became hard to find after the war ended.
“But probably the most notorious of the smuggled products were the bottles of beer, wine and hard liquor which came into the United States during the years of Prohibition,” Dennis read.
That happened across the Northeast Kingdom – but Dennis wasn’t the only person I spoke to who didn’t have many stories from that era. A lot of people who’ve spent most of their lives there only heard bits and pieces of it growing up.
Like our winning question-asker, Nathan Bangs. He grew up in Newark, a town in Caledonia County north of St. Johnsbury.
He spent his childhood on skis – cross-country skis, downhill skis, ski jumping skis – and helped work the farm his family bought in 1970.
“We had cows and we had sheep and pigs, and did a lot of haying in the summertime and that sort of thing,” Nathan said.
Nathan also remembers lots of old-timers who would regale him with dramatic tales from the Prohibition era.
Like smugglers who took full advantage of the legal alcohol sitting on Canadian store shelves. They claimed to have flown planes down from Quebec in the winter, and dropped stockpiles of booze on the ponds and lakes of northern Vermont.
“We assume that these stories had some basis in fact, but they are also known to stretch the truth quite a bit, too,” Nathan said.
He also remembers something curious tied to his family’s farm.
It had to do with an old sugar shack on the property next to a nice maple orchard. After it burned down, Nathan’s family rebuilt it. But not before finding some old copper coils, buried in a pile of rotten wood and rusty metal.
“There's really no part of making maple syrup I know of that needs copper coils for cooling. And so we assumed that they were maybe potentially used for making moonshine,” he said.
All of the stories made Nathan curious: With its border towns, remoteness and rough back roads, what role did Vermont play during Prohibition?
‘This land o’erflows with gin and whiskey’
Federal Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the United States. But multiple experts told me that to understand what this time was like in Vermont, I needed to flip a few pages back in the history book.
It turns out, Vermonters have always known how to drink. Like, really hit the sauce.
In 1811, a local paper told the story of a gin distillery burning down in the town of Peacham, in Caledonia County. But the paper assured readers not to worry.
“There were 27 stills still in operation in the single town of Peacham. And that was where the now popular quote from the Bennington Reporter said, ‘If not with milk and honey, certainly this land o’erflows with gin and whiskey,” said Susan Evans McClure, who’s executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and a big-time Prohibition nerd.
"O’erflow with gin and whiskey" Vermont did. By 1820, there were over 200 distilleries in the state. Imagine if there were one for nearly each town in Vermont today.
Susan said one historian studied old records and found that, in 1830, the average Vermont man drank four or five shots of liquor per day – not to mention the 15 or so gallons of hard cider they were also guzzling each year.
But Vermonters weren’t just trying to get loose all the time. Alcohol was actually considered part of a proper diet. A shelf-stable source of calories, in an era when food could be scarce.
Still, Susan says heavy alcohol consumption back then crippled many families.
“There's lots of documented evidence of usually men leaving their families penniless,” she said. “Women aren't allowed to work in some of these areas where they can make money, and it's leaving a lot of women and children destitute.”
So, in 1853, Vermont banned the sale of liquor statewide – though of course hard cider was still alright.
Think of this ban as a precursor to the federal Prohibition that would come nearly 70 years later.
The state law was largely ineffective, as booze found its way over state lines and pharmacists exploited loopholes by selling it in medicine bottles. (Hey, a hot toddy is medicine when you’re sick, right?)
At the turn of the century, Vermonters grew tired of the tight liquor law. When Percival Clement, then publisher of the Rutland Herald, ran for governor, he made repealing the ban a huge part of his campaign.
“He gave a speech in 1902,” Susan said. “And what he said was, ‘The prohibitionist, while he is not always able to control himself, even in the matter of drinking intoxicating liquors, seeks to control his neighbor. Not by precept and example, but by argument and moral suasion. That process is too slow to suit his ideas of progress. And besides, sometimes his neighbor tells him to mind his own business, but the prohibitionist seems to think it is his business to attend to that of his neighbor.’”
In other words, teetotal all you want, buddy – but don’t say I can’t enjoy a nip in the comfort of my own home.
Clement lost the governor’s race. But the state rolled back the ban on liquor anyway in 1903. New rules let individual towns decide whether to serve alcohol.
And in 1919, Clement finally won the governorship – not great timing for the guy who ran against banning alcohol. Because that same year, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment. Federal Prohibition would soon be the law of the land.
“By the time federal Prohibition comes along to Vermont, they're kind of over it. They don't want the state to tell them what to do. They certainly don't want the federal government to tell them what to do. And Vermont is one of the later states to adopt the amendment that puts Prohibition into effect nationwide,” Susan Evans McClure said.
By boat, car and … baby bottle?
The nationwide booze ban would come online – all while Vermonters still had a hangover from the statewide liquor ban that had just ended. And this time, they couldn't even fall back on beer or hard cider. It was all forbidden.
No matter, though. The Northeast Kingdom was a natural corridor for smuggling alcohol.
The border there generally wasn’t as rugged as, say, northern Maine or northern New Hampshire. And there were also some conveniently located rivers and lakes that stretched from Canada into Vermont.
For example, Lake Memphremagog, which spans the Vermont-Quebec border. Bootleggers used the lake to smuggle booze, either with boats or cars, if the ice was thick enough.
Scott Wheeler lives in Derby, and has written two books about Prohibition in Vermont. (He's also a semi-regular guest on BLS). He says while police patrolled Lake Champlain pretty heavily back during Prohibition, he couldn’t find much evidence the same went for Memphremagog. He says there was a Canadian diver who claimed to have gone below the surface thousands of times, looking for souvenirs.
“He said he found several caches of alcohol that you could tell had been dumped overboard in a rush, because they all fell together," Scott said. "He said there was plenty of evidence below the waves that shows that Prohibition was alive and well on the lake."
The other reason the Northeast Kingdom became a smuggling hotspot? The area had rail lines and roads running into Canada. Someone joked to me that during Prohibition, thirsty Americans paid for a lot of new roads in Quebec.
Some of the routes were remote, winding through dense woods. That could help bootleggers hiding from the authorities – but only if the smugglers knew where to go.
So crime rings in big cities like Boston paid Vermonters in the NEK to run booze for them.
“Outsiders tried to entice locals because of our knowledge of the roads,” Scott said.
In one of Scott’s books, called Booze in the Kingdom: Voices from Prohibition, he interviews Clarence Morse, who grew up in the border community of North Troy during the ’20s.
“The big people, they would often try to hire young, local men,” Scott said.
“And they would go up to Highwater, Quebec where there was a bar, and the young men like Clarence would be up there drinking. And he said the money was outrageous, compared to the few dollars he made a week working as a road crew. And he just said it wasn't something he wanted to do – it's something that he just felt he needed to do.”
In those years, men like Clarence would frequent these bars called "line houses."
They were built right on the border, so Americans could have a drink without breaking the law, technically.
Susan Evans McClure, the historian from the Maritime Museum, told me about a particularly infamous one. It was run by a woman named Lillian Minor Shipley, also known as “Queen Lill.”
“It became known as Queen's Place, and it was really a business based on alcohol and prostitution,” McClure said.
“So you would enter through the United States, go to Canada and drink legally, and then come back to exit. Somehow, Queen Lill always knew when there was going to be a raid. And there were sometimes raids from the United States, sometimes raids from the Canadian side – and all the patrons would just walk to the other side.”
These days you can visit Kingdom Brewing in Newport, and get her namesake beer, called “A Night in Queen Lill’s.”
But a line house wasn’t the only way to get a drink during Prohibition. The Vermont Historical Society produced a radio special in the ‘80s featuring people who lived near the border when it was supposed to be dry.
“Ah yes, we remember the bootleggers; I guess we do,” said Newport native Addie Kelsey, who was interviewed for the piece.
From her memories, it didn’t sound too hard to stumble into a glass of something.
“Oh yeah, we used to know almost all of them. They used to come down the lake. And right across the road from us was a guy that sold it. And I'd hear somebody,” said Addie, knocking on the table in front of her like a door. “‘Hey, Bill! Bill! Get up. Hey, Bill!’ And I'd go to the window and look out and, oh yes, yes, Bill's got a customer.”
Not every cop took Prohibition seriously. A lot of them didn’t want to bust their neighbors for drinking when it had been common practice for decades.
But some agents were vigilant. Old newspapers show photos of seized booze, laid out in nice displays by triumphant lawmen.
The cops couldn’t pose with their prize if they didn’t make the bust, though.
Merrit Carpenter grew up in St. Albans near the turn of the 20th century, and was also interviewed for the Historical Society radio special.
As a boy, he remembered seeing a female bootlegger with a nice car. Not a Model T, but a Moon Roadster — something with a little more juice.
“And when she came out of the house, she didn't look like any farmer's housewife. She even put on high heels, and she was an independent. Ran all by herself. I saw her one day in action,” Merrit said.
Action as in a car chase – with customs men pursuing the bootlegger. The scene was a construction site on a bridge next to a railroad crossing.
“We could hear the train whistling for the crossings. It was getting very close,” Merrit said.
“All of a sudden, she came down in her big Moon Roadster going like hell. She was lucky; there was nobody on the bridge. It was one way, but it didn't bother her any. She can see the way was clear. She went right through and nearly tore down the guardrail. She didn't hit anything. She was just going so fast.”
Merrit says the train was speeding down the track – coming right toward the chase.
“And right behind her come the customs men, and they go right across the bridge. She made it to that crossing just ahead of that engine. Then the engine went across the crossing and the customs men screeched to a halt – sideways, every which way. Just barely got stopped. And the train didn’t even bother to stop. I mean, it was all over. They had to sit there while the train went by. And she was off down the road and long out of sight.”
Not every smuggler was so lucky. Scott Wheeler’s books include stories of rumrunners getting shot by the police during car chases, or crashing into trees and dying. There was also the threat of prison.
Scott says even his own grandfather served time for bootlegging.
“f I ever break a law, I want it to be memorable. And when my grandfather broke a law – and probably the only law he ever broke in his life – at least he made it memorable: bottling liquor in baby bottles, with the nipples on and all, and selling it,” Scott said.
It’s easy to see why the car chases and clever smuggling tricks would get so much attention. They’re exciting – the kind of stuff you’d see in a movie. But a lot of “smuggling” wasn’t as flashy. It sometimes involved … children.
Bob Hunt’s great-grandfather ran a grocery store in Derby, near the border. And he would dispatch Bob’s dad, who was in elementary school at the time, to cross the border and get a little something.
“As I understand it, my father would quite often run errands for his grandfather and would go down to his aunt and uncle's house in Rock Island and return with a bottle for his grandfather. Probably was a pretty common occurrence at the time,” said Hunt, who works with the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village in Brownington.
Bob said his family was well connected, and had had relatives working for customs on both sides of the border.
“So even if there was someone on duty, they probably knew who my father was. And if they had any inkling, they weren't worried about it,” he said.
Bob’s story stood out to me during my reporting. Because it’s a good example of how the reality of Prohibition might’ve been difficult for the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to understand.
For many in the Northeast Kingdom, the border existed only on a map. It didn’t really disrupt their day-to-day lives.
Bob’s father was American, and his mother Canadian. The Vermont-based family had relatives in Rock Island, Quebec, and went to church in nearby Stanstead, Quebec.
“Even when I was a kid in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I would cross the street and go down to my great aunt's house in Canada, and kids never bothered to check in at customs or anything like that,” Bob said.
Early home brewers & family lore
Another thing Vermonters didn’t like about federal Prohibition? Being told they could no longer make their own alcohol.
Back during the colonial era, farmers made hard cider because alcohol was a natural preservative. It was a way to stretch their harvests into other seasons. And hops was actually one of the state’s major cash crops during the 1800s, particularly in the Northeast Kingdom.
So some Vermonters still had the wherewithal to make their own hooch during prohibition.
That’s what got me interested in the story of Joseph Goulet, who used to sell Chevys in Island Pond, about 30 minutes south of the border. The building is now a used car dealership run by his two sons, Albert and Craig, whom I visited recently.
“Talk to Albert,” Craig said. “He’s my brother. He can remember all that.”
Though the details are as hazy as an unfiltered IPA, the sons say their dad claimed to have brewed beer during Prohibition.
As the story goes, their dad’s brewing operation was based in his mom’s kitchen. But she wasn’t a big fan of her son’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I remember the time he said, ‘My mother told me that if I don't quit selling this… you're gonna go to jail.’ She says, ‘You got to give this up.’ And he said, ‘I did,’” Craig said.
You can almost imagine it like a scene from a sitcom. Joseph’s mom walking in the kitchen, flabbergasted by the bready smell wafting from the pot boiling on the stove.
But I think this gets at an important point about Prohibition in the Northeast Kingdom: A lot of the people breaking laws weren’t mastermind criminals. Rather, they were everyday Vermonters who were trying to make a few extra bucks to support their families during a difficult economic time.
Albert says the beer brewing was just another one of his dad’s hustles in a long line of them. Think of the old joke: "What do you call a Vermonter with two jobs? Lazy."
“He ran the school buses,” Albert said. “He was an undertaker. Taxis. He couldn't read or write. But he did everything."
The Goulets don’t really remember much else about their dad’s brewing. Craig did admit he wasn’t always listening when his father was telling stories from the Prohibition era.
“I can't remember anything more. I just can’t remember,” he said.
But Craig’s still trying to help out with my reporting. So I hop in the car and follow him to the home of Rebecca Lefebvre, one of his neighbors in Island Pond. He thought Rebecca might recall stories from that time.
She doesn’t – but recommends we visit Frank Allard, who lives a couple blocks away. Craig drops me off after we get there and he makes introductions.
Frank is 95 years old, but unfortunately doesn’t remember too many booze-related stories from his childhood. (We still have a nice conversation, though. Shoutout to Frank.)
This lack of recall is part of why this whole Prohibition story is interesting to me. Driving from town to town, I kept thinking about how badly I wish I could’ve reported this story 30 or 40 years ago. Nobody still alive that I’m speaking to has a thorough understanding of how their ancestors were involved in this pivotal era of Northeast Kingdom history.
One of my big takeaways from the experience didn’t even involve alcohol or Prohibition. It was how easily family history can slip away to time – especially if it’s not recorded.
Lyndonville: “Vermont’s toughest town”
By the 1930s, opposition to Prohibition had grown.
The Great Depression dropped the country into economic ruin. And the absence of tax revenue from alcohol sales didn’t help.
Mostly, though, everyday people were just plain tired of dealing with the ban.
“By the time you get to the mid to late 1920s, it’s really clear national Prohibition was a terrible idea,” said Paul Searls, a historian at Northern Vermont University. “That it’s unenforceable. That it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. That it’s a huge waste of time for law enforcement. And there was just sort of a growing exhaustion in Vermont, as nationally. People were sick of it.”
I met Paul in Lyndonville because he says the community embodied that sense of exhaustion with Prohibition. Lyndonville was considered one of New England’s major smuggling hubs — it even had its own nickname.
“Welcome to Vermont’s toughest town,” Paul said.
As the Caledonian Record reported in 1931, someone in Congress said there were more men from Lyndonville in federal prison, per capita, than any other place in the country.
It was close to a major highway, but far enough from the border to avoid a big federal presence. So criminals set up shop there as a convenient waypoint before transporting booze around New England.
The perceived lawlessness and police inaction got so bad that state and federal bigwigs eventually got involved. It’s a story Paul shares as we walk toward a neighborhood off the main drag.
“The big tipping point was in July of 1931,” he said. "And I'll take you to the house."
Paul points out a pale blue two-story building: the former home of Herman Butterfield, who was the part-time police chief.
Back at the tail end of Prohibition, Herman seized a load of booze and stored it in the potato cellar of his house. The next day, he left for work. And soon after, four bootleggers arrived, carrying revolvers.
“In broad daylight with all the neighbors watching, they parked right here at the street and broke into his house,” Paul said.
“They went down into his potato cellar, grabbed all the alcohol, put it in the car and drove off waving at people. It lacked subtlety to say the least. And it sort of gives you an idea about exactly how confident the bootleggers were that they could basically get away with anything.”
That led a group of residents to form a "vigilance committee," basically their own little militia to deal with the rumrunners.
“It really makes the town appear like citizens are having to take the law into their own hands in the most extreme way,” Paul said.
After that, Paul says Lyndonville developed a national reputation, thanks to newspaper articles that ran across the wire. Including one from a Boston paper.
“And it made Lyndonville out to seem like it was just the wild west: cars driving down the street, people shooting at each other, people drunk out on the sidewalk. It really sort of portrayed Lyndonville in this awful light,” Paul said.
These days, Lyndonville is once again a quiet community, known for the university or as a gateway to nearby Burke Mountain. Most of the people I talk to there don’t have any idea that it was once considered a bootlegger’s paradise.
“I wonder how much my family had to do with it,” said Alana Langmaid with a laugh.
Re-learning old ways — and making new ones
In 1933, federal Prohibition ended when Congress passed the 21st Amendment.
Beer and liquor could now flow as freely as the rivers of Vermont. New breweries and distilleries could again dot the landscape of towns like Peacham, just as they used to before they were squeezed out of existence by the tight grip of government. Right?
Not so much.
One of Prohibition’s impacts in Vermont was wiping out decades of knowledge about making alcohol.
“When you think about Vermont being effectively dry for 80 years, that’s roughly three generations,” said Adam Krakowski, a food and beverage historian based in Quechee who’s written books about alcohol and Prohibition.
He says “80 years” because of the decades many Vermont towns were dry even before federal Prohibition.
“There is a lecture I heard years ago from a historian where he said, ‘Every generation has a half life.’ So the next generation is going to lose half the knowledge of the previous generation. And so when you think about three straight generations of brewing, you've wiped that whole notion of brewing off,” Adam said.
He says the loss of knowledge meant would-be brewers had a harder time finding mentors.
But even if they could figure it out, they wouldn’t actually ply their trade for some time. Adam says the other lasting effect of Prohibition was how unfriendly Vermont’s laws were to alcohol makers in the decades following its repeal.
“In all accounts that I found in research, everybody had said that the laws were so spiderwebbed that it was a struggle to get the operations open,” he said.
Vermont’s first new brewery or distillery after Prohibition didn’t open until the mid 1980s – more than 50 years after that era ended. That was Catamount Brewing in White River Junction.
You don't need me to tell you that Vermont's beer scene has exploded since then. The state now has some of the most breweries per capita in the U.S.
So, yes, Prohibition did lead to a loss of generational knowledge. Which meant Vermont brewers, all those years later, had to figure out new ways to do things.
"With that loss of information ... you have a clean slate," Adam said. "Let's be a little creative. There's no precedents here."
And Adam says that ingenuity is part of why the state’s reputation for great beer is so strong. Sure, ferment your brew in an old milk tank. Why not – add apricot to a pale ale, and spark a craft beer movement.
To me, it sure sounds like the same sort of plucky resourcefulness that Vermonters had during Prohibition, when they were sneaking rubber rafts full of booze past customs checkpoints. Or hiding whiskey in baby bottles.
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Thanks to Nathan Bangs for the great question.
Kevin Trevellyan reported this episode. Josh Crane produced it, and did the mix and sound design. Editing and additional production from the rest of the Brave Little State team: Angela Evancie, Myra Flynn and Mae Nagusky. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music from Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Andy Kolovos, Kate Phillips, Peter Martin, Odette Crawford and Adrian Thibeault.
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