Staying Wet in a Dry Land: Bootlegging in Southeast Kansas

By Crawford County January 17, 2017

“It may have been illegal, but it wasn’t wrong.” Miners Hall Museum board member Alan Roberts says this is how Southeast Kansans of the 1920’s and 30’s described one of the area’s economic staples: bootlegging.

Those were the years of prohibition, when coal miners, facing an industry depression after World War I, turned to bootlegging for their own survival. Former University of Nevada, Reno professor and Girard resident Ken Peak explained that “this was a generation before the welfare state and ‘safety nets,’ when victims of economic disaster were left to their own devices and often too proud to accept charity.”  

Peak also says the illegal bootlegging industry of Crawford and Cherokee counties was so strong, President Herbert Hoover’s Wickersham Commission, appointed to study prohibition enforcement, specifically mentioned the two counties. Not surprisingly, the report declared these counties as two of the four worst statewide in prohibition compliance.

Bootleggers made fine money selling their craft. Deep Shaft, as liquor from Southeast Kansas was generically known, was found not only in surrounding states such as Oklahoma, but went as far as the U.S. coasts and into foreign countries. Peak’s research into one Pittsburg factory unearthed a plant that produced 210 gallons of liquor per day, which had netted the owners $18,000 in only 2 weeks of operation.

At the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, the recurring bootlegging exhibit produces some of the most colorful stories. Last year’s exhibit included a recorded lecture from Peak and several artifacts, including an electric heat stick bootleggers would use to color their moonshine. Museum board member Alan Roberts explained the process: “They would put their moonshine, which is clear, in a charcoal lined barrel and then they would put this stick down in there and shock it. And the sugar in the alcohol would turn kind of a brownish color and get the color from the charcoal so it looked much more like bourbon than it just did gin.”

Rich stories like this one can be found throughout the Miners Hall Museum. The museum is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.. For the best experience, the museum requests that you call in advance at (620) 347-4220 to schedule tours.

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Danny J. Oplotnik says

I have a 28 page document about The Kansas "Balkens" Bootlegging Culture, 1920-1940 which a historian gave me after my fathers death in 1989. He told me he had interviewed my father before he got sick and passed and these 28 pages contained information that dad had given him. It strickingly has some of the same words as your article above. I have forgot that mans name but I think he said he was at Emporia State at the time. Would this have been Ken Peak?