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Prohibition, Italians and moonshine on Westheimer

Transport yourself to Houston, Texas in the late 1920s. Oscar Holcombe is mayor, of course. The city has grown to a population of 125,000 (about the size of present-day Corpus Christi) and the city limits extend all the way out near Shepherd Drive. You probably live and work within a few miles of downtown, maybe as far out as the Heights or Bellaire. Unless you are wealthy you probably don’t own a vehicle. Only one out of every five residents owns one. You get around on the trolley or streetcar - maybe a horse-drawn wagon. The KKK has been busy lately, and the Houston Post-Dispatch is filled with stories about illegal whiskey production right along with stories about Edna Sanders and her cultural pursuits.

During these Roaring Twenties you might have read in the paper about a settlement of Italian truck farmers who lived in cottages along Westheimer Road (near today’s Westchase/Beltway 8 area). They had wonderful surnames like Mancuso, Battaglia, Tilotta and Scardino. They brought their produce to town and sold it to your local grocery store. Some of them owned their own grocery stores, like Jack Biondolillo who lived on Post Oak Road.

Sometimes, during Prohibition, those cottages were not what they appeared to be. In June of 1927, a huge 600-gallon still was seized by Federal authorities in a new seven-room house that was cleverly built to look like a farm cottage. Three of the large rooms were specially adapted for the moonshine business. The windows of these rooms had been outfitted with lace curtains and fake bedsteads.

According to the Post-Dispatch, “246 gallons of whisky valued at $2,000 was found in one of the rooms stored in charred cypress and oak casks. A 600-gallon copper still was seized and destroyed by the officers. Other equipment included a 300-gallon cooling tank, pumps that lifted the mash from the barrels to the still, pipes that carried the refuse into a nearby cotton field and some mixing equipment”. In another room about 45 barrels of mash were discovered and taken. A man who identified himself as Charles Romano, age 51, was taken into custody and charged with manufacture and possession of intoxicating liquor. Mr. Romano said he was from Italy but had lived here “for some time”.

 

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