Usually the banks of the Nehalem river are the very picture of pastoral peace and quiet, especially down on the old Warren Smith Farm near Pittsburg. In particular, the chickens sauntering around their pen in the small clearing along the Nehalem were very satisfied. Not only did they get plenty of scraps brought down from the farmhouse, but they often were treated to an absolutely awesome mash that soon had the whole roost clucking and bumping into each other as they waddled dizzily around their pen. Some had even been known to fall off the ramp leading inside.
But on this particular Monday afternoon in mid-April of 1929, the rooster and his chickens were suddenly interrupted in their leisurely pursuits when cars began to come flying down the dirt road with sirens blaring. Several Columbia County police officers, aided by state and federal prohibition officers exploded out of their cars and began rushing the apparently undefended chicken shack. The chickens temporarily stopped their purposeful examination of sundry pebbles and bugs masquerading as pebbles. The rooster did not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about this unexpected activity, especially sensing the determination of these intruders. Rising on his toes he began to wind up to his best and most impressive cock-a-doodle-do. But Sheriff Weed and his Deputy Calhoun, along with their state and federal phalanx stampeded the poultry defenders, who panicked and fled squawking up their ramp to safety.
The prohibition officers, Sheriff Weed and Deputy Calhoun bounded up the stairs to confront H.W. Dalplian and his son-in-law, Lester McConkey – both of whom were apparently busy distilling the current batch of moonshine in their 300 gallon “Kentucky” style still.
In addition to the considerable distillation equipment found on the premises, the flying squad also secured another 15 vats that held more than 2300 gallons of mash in various stages of conversion into alcohol. They confiscated 50 gallons of yeast, fifty gallons of malt, several sacks of sugar. The arresting officers also reported that they secured a “considerable quantity” of finished and bottled moonshine in a separate building. There was no estimate of how much market-ready booze they confiscated. Thankfully, no one took note of the chickens’ participation in all these shenanigans and consequently they were allowed to remain in the chicken pen – under indefinite detention.
It appears that during the prohibition days of 1916-1933 “moonshining” was prevalent in the mountainous regions of northwestern Oregon. Unlike their Southern brethren that used corn, Oregon moonshiners used rye and added cane sugar. It was said by some of the more successful moonshiners that this approach produced a better product, and it was quicker – always a consideration when you’re trying to stay ahead of the law.
One anecdote tells of an enterprising moonshiner that built his operation into the charred remains of a massive old growth stump. When it gave off steam during the distillation process, it simply appeared as if the tree was still smoldering. Another early entrepreneur built his “store” underneath a bridge on Bonny Slope. From time to time, a car would casually stop on the bridge. The driver would open his door and tap on the wooden planks. A panel would slide open revealing the proprietor. Money would exchange hands as bottles of booze were hoisted aloft.
There were plenty of isolated barns, remote compounds and an abundance of forests in which to hid “moonshining” all across Columbia County, much of northwestern Multnomah County and northern Washington County. Most of the activity was organized by Portland moonshine gangs, like the Bill Smith Gang that operated a still on the Multnomah and Columbia County line. In Dutch Canyon, gang members George Davies and “Peanuts” Austin were apprehended operating an eighty gallon still on South Scappoose Creek. According to the arresting officer, the operation was about four miles from Scappoose located deep in Dutch Canyon. The Deputy noted the convenience of “an excellent road [that] leads right to the steps of the shack.”
Dixie Mountain had its share of illicit distillers that maintained operations buried deep in in the tangled headwaters of Crabapple Creek or Raymond Creek. And there were also several reports of a “six-gun tottin’ Tessie” who set up camp behind the Sophie Mozee homestead and was guarding her still with all the caliber she had. Closer to Portland, the village of Burlington prospered with several speak-easy facilities and an imposing bordello across the way. Linnton’s switch-back road system was said to be intentionally laid out in such a way as to provide the hill top residents the most time to hide their elicit enterprises.
Though we’re tempted these days to romanticize this desperate way of life, we should keep in mind how much this criminalization of liquor affected the health of the community. Help of any kind was hard to find for the wives and children that were left behind when the boot-legging father went to jail. Even the charitable organizations and the county health services were reluctant to help support these indigents, lest their aid be construed as encouragement for those that rely on outlaw income. The typical sentence for a moonshiner (usually the owner of the land) was $500 and a 30 day sentence. His assistant would just get a $500 fine, but typically being unable to pay he would end up languishing alongside his boss in the county’s “hostelry”.