Of all the illicit booze that flowed into the United States during the Prohibition, said Douglas Bancroft, about 75 percent came through the stretch of shoreline from Port Huron to south of Detroit.
“There’s almost 26 miles of almost a straight shot to bring booze over here,” he told the Times Herald of Port Huron.
Bancroft is the exhibit and facilities manager at the Port Huron Museum Carnegie Center. He’s the guy who put together much of the museum’s latest exhibit, “Behind the Barrel: Prohibition in the Blue Water Area.”
Flappers, bootleggers and pocket flasks: The Port Huron Museum’s new exhibit examines Prohibition in the Blue Water Area
The exhibit recently opened to the public. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays until Jan. 11.
The ironic aspect of Michigan serving as the tap for most of the illicit liquor that flooded the country during the Prohibition is the state was one of the first to go dry.
“Michigan did go dry before the rest of the country,” said Katherine Bancroft, director of collections and education at the museum. “And there actually were counties that went dry before the entire state went dry. There are different years that it happened. I believe the earliest one was 1913.”
The exhibit covers the 13 years from the enforcement of the Volstead Act, which started on Jan. 17, 1920, to the ratification of the 21st Amendment – which effectively repealed the 18th Amendment that made Prohibition possible – in 1933.
In another touch of irony, Jan. 17, 1920, was the 21st birthday of the most notorious bootlegger and mobster, Al Capone.
Bootleggers, rumrunners and gangsters are an important part of the exhibit. A gallery displays a Thompson submachine gun, a favorite weapon of gangsters and one made famous in movies and TV shows. The rotunda features a vintage Ford Model A and portraits of public enemies such as bank robber John Dillinger and Herbert Youngblood Jr.
Youngblood broke out of jail with Dillinger and somehow ended up in Port Huron where he was gunned down during a shootout with city police.
“With the story of Dillinger and his buddy, Herbert Youngblood, breaking out of jail with a fake wooden gun and getting in a big South Park shootout; it’s a great story to tell,” Douglas Bancroft said.
The exhibit also includes a genuine still from the 1920s and a clawfoot bathtub for making bathtub gin.
“You could make (alcohol) for your own consumption, but you couldn’t sell it, you couldn’t transport it,” Katherine Bancroft said. “If you were caught doing those things, you were sent to jail.”
One of the centerpieces of the exhibit is a re-creation of the Union Hotel, which stood where Gill-Roy’s Hardware now is.
The exhibit includes a hotel room, a reception area and a card room. Douglas Bancroft said the hotel was a place where working stiffs went to get a drink. There’s also a large mirrored chamber where people can learn to do the Charleston by following the footprints on the floor.
That chamber includes information about Colleen Moore, an early silent screen star who was born Kathleen Morrison in Port Huron.
Telling that kind of local history, Katherine Bancroft said, is what the museum does.
“I think we have in the past couple of years been turned more toward the in-house exhibits, and that gives us the opportunity to tell the local stories,” she said.
People come to the museum and see artifacts or photos that remind them of Port Huron’s past, she said.
“That local tie is important,” she said. “That affects people who live in this area because they want to hear about the history of where they live.”
Susan Bennett, museum director, said the exhibit builds upon the success of last year’s exhibit about the Great Storm of 1913.
“The local angle is what brings people into this institution,” she said.
Information from: Times Herald, http://www.thetimesherald.com
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