Prohibition, 1920

4 policemen standing by car alongside bootleg liquor

Oral history transcriptions

Click a name below for more information. All transcripts are in PDF format.

Background information

The open runabout motor boat moving cautiously without lights comes within sight of the old movable-span railroad bridge, hardly visible under cover of darkness. The lone man in the boat narrows his eyes searching for the signal which will tell him to come on or to turn back. Yes, there it is, a white light dimly showing from a hand-held lantern. The coast is clear. The year is 1927. The boat moving with cautious haste toward Burlington, Vermont, on Lake Champlain, is heavy with beer bottles cushioned in bran sacks. The bootlegger, Pete Hanlon, tells the rest of the tale.

Prohibition became the law of the land in 1919 with the passage of the Volstead Act introduced by Congressman Andrew J. Volstead to implement the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbade the manufacture, sale, or use of alcoholic beverages. Even though Vermont officially supported the Volstead Act and Prohibition, in actuality, independent Vermonters soon bristled at the federal government’s interference in their personal drinking habits. It is said that more people drank more alcohol during the thirteen years of Prohibition than ever did before or since.

Everywhere people helped bootleggers, hid them in barns from chasing customs agents, covered up, covered over, and supported them by making bootlegging a very profitable venture. Stories abound showing the bootleggers as the folk heroes they quickly became, and revealing the customs patrol as being slow minded, dimwitted, and unpopular spoilsports.

—Eleanor Ott

Further reading

Jane C. Beck, “Bootlegging, Brothels, and Border Patrols: Everyday Commerce on the Canadian Line,” Visit'n : Conversations with Vermonters, 7 (Nov. 2001): 6-13.

Eleanor Ott, “Booze Smuggling across the Border,” Lake Champlain: Reflections on Our Past, ed. Jennie G. Versteeg (Burlington, Vt.: Center for Research on Vermont, University of Vermont, 1987): 33-41.

______, “The Rum-running Game: Two Retired Bootleggers Wrap Prohibition-era Smuggling Tales,” Visit'n : Conversations with Vermonters, 7 (Nov. 2001): 14-23.

A. Bradley Soule, “The United State Customs Boat Patrol on Lake Champlain during the Prohibition Era,” Vermont History 48:3 (Summer 1980): 133-143.

Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, P. Jeffrey Potash, Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont (Barre, Vt.: Vermont Historical Society, 2004): 401-403.

Scott Wheeler, Rumrunners & Revenuers: Prohibition in Vermont (Shelburne, Vt.: The New England Press, 2003).

Citation for this page

Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “Prohibition, 1920,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89.

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