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LeBARON: Pot and a previous time of prohibition


Detective John Pemberton, right, was the county's "enforcer" of Prohibition law. Here he's joined by a pair of federal agents at a "manufacturing site."

Eric captioned the photo and put it into staff photos

Do you think the next generations will want to hear amusing stories about the pot farmers, if and when the marijuana laws are "repealed?"

This question came to me last week when I realized that 80 Junes ago, much of the political talk in this country was about Repeal, with a capital R.

That's shorthand for the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which erased from the justice system the 18th Amendment, known as Prohibition.

In June 1933, California voted to ratify Repeal, putting it among the first clutch of the then-48 states to vote for an end to Prohibition.

Ratification was a historic event, the only repeal ever of a previous amendment. It was accomplished in December of '33 when Utah, of all places, became the 36th state to say yes, achieving the necessary three-fourths majority required for ratification in the then-48-state union.

Repeal! — almost always written with an exclamation point — nullified the 18th Amendment, which had made it illegal to manufacture, import, export, buy or sell alcoholic beverages.

It isn't often that citizens get a chance to right a wrong.

FOR TODAY'S CITIZENS who support the legalization of marijuana, there is a temptation to compare. Certainly there are similarities. The pot question is a little bit like Prohibition — debates about health concerns, a rise in criminal activity, millions of dollars in untaxed income.

The proponents of legalization like to remind us that Repeal was a happy ending to the Prohibition story.

Historians and tellers of old tales make sure that what we remember is that 14 years of the so-called "Noble Experiment" were regarded as a kind of adventure, impossible to police and hard to take seriously. Even the news stories of the raids and the stings and the arrests seemed to be written tongue-in-cheek.

The marijuana "industry," on the other hand, seems grim by comparison. The headlines are anything but whimsical. Houses in "good" neighborhoods catching fire from grow lights, bodies with bullet holes in them found in remote corners of the north counties, medical debates about damage to young brains. And so far, no happy ending on the horizon.

So I guess it's fair to muse about how all this will be remembered

80 years from now. Certainly time has smoothed the very rough edges of Prohibition, with its exploding stills, dead bodies (sometimes it seemed like most of Chicago was either shooting or being shot), and people dead or blind from drinking homemade hooch.

Prohibition is a challenge for historians. Daniel Okrent's book, "Last Call," covers the issues involved with a good measure of irony and a jigger of wry.

The folklore — the stories passed from parents and grandparents — bubble up at the very mention of the word.

SONOMA COUNTY'S geography and demography make it a treasure trove of these stories. There are "dog-hole" coves all along the coast that were perfect for launches carrying Canadian whiskey. There were stills in the hills and bootleg whiskey "ageing" in many a dairy's manure pile. The fertile valleys had attracted a sizable number of European immigrants who had a hard time believing that the wine they made and sold (250 bonded wineries here when Prohibition began in 1919) could possibly be illegal.

This reminds me of a story told to me by the late wine historian Millie Howie. She said that Dan Bagnani, whose family once owned Geyser Peak Winery, told her that his father was so shocked and amazed by the news of Prohibition "that he almost stopped making wine."

Positioned on the fringe of a metropolitan area, the county had a ready market for the "good Canadian" that came ashore, the wine that somehow never was quite drained from the vats as ordered, and the bootleg that flowed like the Russian River into the Bay Area.

As Healdsburg attorney Francis Passalacqua told me, "Dry Creek was anything but dry."

GETTING IT THERE was half the fun. Years ago, I sat down with Tom Money, who had been under-sheriff in those years. He told me about being on patrol along the river when he was still a deputy.

"I was heading toward Guerneville," he said, "when I passed a panel truck with the name of a North Beach bakery lettered on the side going toward the highway. A couple of miles on, I passed another truck — from the same bakery. It took the third one, before it clicked. I chased it down and, sure enough, it was filled with Canadian Club."

Men who were high school students in those years tell of making hard-won Depression dollars by parking their car on a coastal bluff, leaving the trunk unlocked and taking a walk.

They would then drive to an address found on the driver's seat, leave the trunk unlocked and take a walk.

(I've been told that Humboldt County teens made similar trips in the early "grow" years.)

Another Prohibition "transport" story comes from Rita Hall, who grew up in the West End neighborhood of Santa Rosa. She knew a man who sold chickens from a shop on Wilson Street. He kept them in cases along the sidewalk in front and, if you went in, he would butcher and clean and pick a chicken for your dinner.

The business was a "front" — more about feathers than chickens. He stacked cages filled with feathers around every truckload of bootleg he hauled into San Francisco on a regular basis.

The feathers blew, obscuring the payload on the truck bed as it rolled down the highway toward profit.

ONE OF THE BETTER tales was told by the late Guerneville notable, "Nin" Guidotti, who was a justice of the peace in the dry years and a county supervisor for many more after that.

Nin remembered the day that Johnny Pemberton, the county detective, was informed of a still run by a pair of brothers in a canyon near Occidental. He tramped through the woods and found the still, bubbling away, along the creek. But the brothers, having been tipped off (which was something like "customary"), had climbed the other side of the ravine and were hiding in the bushes. They watched as Pemberton settled down to await their return, his shotgun across his knees.

He was idling away the afternoon when he spotted good-sized steelhead swimming upstream. Unable to resist, he raised his shotgun and blew it out of the water, whereupon one of the bootleg brothers hotfooted it to a neighbor's house and called the game warden. He pleaded guilty and paid his fine.

Pemberton, Guidotti said, "was an awful nice guy ... but it was hell for anybody who tried to rib him about it."

SO, AS YOU'VE figured out, what began as a semi-serious comparison of pot and Prohi is nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to conjure some memories from 80 years of Junes gone by.

And 80 Junes down the road? Oh yes, there will be stories told.