Bootleggers and lots of money

Memories: In the 1920s, when Prohibition was king, stills were not unusual in Elkridge.

150 Years Of Howard History

January 16, 2001

William John Amberman, 91, lives in Ellicott City. He was interviewed by folklorist Alison Kahn on May 13, 1999, as part of an oral history project coordinated by Friends of Patapsco Valley & Heritage Greenway Inc. This is the second of two excerpts from that interview. An exhibition of photographs and excerpts from the oral history project, "Portraits of the Patapsco: Photographs by Peggy Fox," is at Howard County Center for the Arts through Feb. 23.

We had a couple [of] bootleggers in Elkridge, and one bootlegger by the name of James had a still in the little stream that runs back of our place. In fact, I visited the still several times myself.

Heck was another one. I used to cut hay on Heck's place, so I knew where his still was. It was down in the woods, along a stream. I saw more money on his table than I ever saw in my life. They were bringing money in bushel baskets.

This was about 1923 or 1924, before I went to work [at the B&O Railroad]. And of course they all knew me and knew that I was closed-mouthed, so they didn't care. I went into the kitchen to get a drink of water, and there's six men sitting around the kitchen table and another man came in with a bushel basket filled with bills - twenties, fifties, hundreds - and he dumped them on the center of the table. It had to be thousands of dollars.

Oh, they were gentlemen personified. They were all dressed up, you know, ties and business suits, and they were counting the money.

I know my father delivered some. In fact, the sheriff sat on a case of booze coming in town one time when he flagged my father down, and my father had this old Ford, and the case of booze was sitting there with a blanket over it. That was the only seat available so the sheriff sat on the booze.

I know that they stored it in our house on occasion because they brought an awful lot down there one time, and it was pure white, which is good moonshine. And it had to be colored because you can't sell white moonshine. You know how they color it? Burnt sugar. A teaspoonful of burnt sugar will color a half-gallon jar.

I used to do it. It gave me something to do in the evening, sure. But as far as I know, my father never regularly stored it. He would only store it if they had impending revenuers coming down. It was on this one occasion, we must have had about, oh, maybe 50 or 60 cases. Each one held six half-gallon jars. And I had all that to color with burnt sugar.

They would sell their bootlegged stuff in Washington, D.C. They apparently made good whiskey, because I don't recall anybody ever getting sued for it or getting sick from bad booze, really I don't. But it was an interesting life.[I was] 17 when I started to work for the B&O Railroad. I was a messenger. I made a fabulous salary. A messenger runs telegraph items from the main office at Baltimore and Charles streets down to Sutton Building, which was about four blocks away, and then down to Camden Station. I made a dollar and 85 cents a day. I still have the first check, canceled, of course.

Then I graduated into the main office, as a messenger also but on a floor. And then I saw I wasn't getting anywhere, so I attended Strayer's Business College and took up stenography, which was a popular thing to do in those days. I got a real nice job at the B&O as a stenographer, [making] $28 a week. And then, of course, in 1932 the big furlough came and I was let out. And in 1932, I started my huckstering trade.

I would go down to the wholesale market about 3 o'clock in the morning, buy produce and bring it home. And then I run it Saturdays and Wednesdays. I found out the housewives did not want to, for instance, shell lima beans because they would ask me, "Are they shelled?" I said, "No."

Well, they didn't want them. So the next time I, when I came by there, I said, "I got shelled lima beans." I shelled them all the night before. "Oh, we'll take a pint," or "We'll take a quart," and of course you made money on that. They brought four times the price of unshelled, so you made out good.

And it would only take me about four hours and I would make between $40 and $50 for that half a day. Fifty dollars was a real pocketful of money, and that's what the huckster business brought in. But I was going with Marian at the time and I wanted to get married, so when a job opened up in the state of Maryland I grabbed it.

It was a temporary job. On Christmas Eve, they let me out. And then Mr. Schroeder, a very nice person - he was a deputy commissioner - he says, "Your work was very satisfactory. Would you be interested in a permanent position should one open up?"

I says, "I sure would."

So that's how I come to work for the state police in 1933, on January 5th. At first, I was just a stenographer, and then I took first-aid training from the American Red Cross and I liked it very much. So when an opening came about in the medical division of the state police, I applied for it and got it.

So from 1939, I was the chief clerk in medical division of the Maryland State Police and I remained that until I retired in 1971.

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