Story written and told by Stan Brown.
Payson Dew, as Rim Country’s bootleg whiskey was known during Prohibition, was thought by some to be ‘the best between El Paso and Los Angeles.’
On Jan. 17, 1920 Payson was on the threshold of an economic boom. That was the day the 18th Amendment to America’s Constitution went into effect, and the National Prohibition Act became law.
With the strict moral teachings of the 17th century, a movement for abstinence from alcoholic beverages had begun in Colonial America, and by the 1800s the temperance movement had gone beyond “blue laws.” Human health as well as the evil results of debauchery became the motivation for nationwide concern. Churches began pressing congregants to “take the pledge” and temperance societies organized across the land.
By the turn of century, the movement was fired by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League of America. Such efforts found fruition in what came to be called “the great experiment” — Prohibition.
However Payson’s geographic isolation once again played a role, and when word of the new law reached the Rim Country, the shock wave was felt up and down Main Street, where the mood was anything but “anti-saloon.” The multiple bars along the wide thoroughfare were the primary social centers for Rim Country ranchers and miners. Suddenly, stills began to sprout in almost every canyon where fresh water was readily obtained. Not that “moonshine” was a new phenomenon, for many old timers were already adept at making the brew. But the demand for “bootleg” whiskey now made the enterprise a very profitable venture.
Prohibition was an economic boon for Payson. Scraping together a living in this wilderness land had always been a challenge. Ranchers, merchants, miners and loggers had all they could do to survive. The annual income locally was $500, if they were lucky. Now the secreted stills produced a product for barter and sale when cash was practically non-existent. Early in the morning one could see smoke rising from the surrounding canyons, marking the location of nearly every spring in the area. The process began with a boiled mash of grain, potatoes, fruit, or just about anything that was starchy or sweet. Using water and adding yeast along with sugar or sorghum, the desired product was easily produced.
According to Vernon Haught, whose dad and granddad were active bootleggers, the secret was in the water. “Back then you could find water at 5 or 6 feet, and it was almost pure rain water, free from minerals and impurities.” It did not take years of aging in oaken barrels either. One told timer said, “Age was measured in minutes.”
Walter Haught said that by the time he learned to make the illicit brew “it got to be $5 a gallon.” However, as prohibition set in, the price went as high as $30 a gallon. “They didn’t ask how much is it?” said Haught, “They asked you, ‘How much you got?’”
Dallas Wilbanks said, “You could always tell who’d been drinking because they’d have a red line across the bridge of their nose from drinking out of those fruit jars.”
Pete Haught sewed 20 pockets inside his World War I overcoat, and carried a half-pint jar of moonshine in each pocket. When Paysonites saw Pete coming down Main Street dressed in that wool overcoat, even on a hot summer day, they knew they had a treat in store. He was a popular figure at the August Doin’s, surrounded by eager customers. Charlie Chilson, recalling those rodeo days, said, “I was picked for one of the samplers… One time during the rodeo they had a bet on whose moonshine was the best, Bill Wade’s or John Hughes’.
They was both makin’ moonshine at the time…”
When Lon Greer took his bootleg to Payson, he concealed it under a load of wood he delivered to the school. Lon’s nephew, Oscar Greer, remembered a still that was left in a house near Main Street, probably left over from Frenchy Paquette’s operation. This still was the inspiration for the name “Bootleg Alley,” the street running between Main and Frontier. Frenchy’s outlet for the illicit whiskey was a building nearby called “The Dive,” and after he quit the business he sold the building to the Womans Club.
Federal officers were well aware of the bootlegging thriving around Payson. They made many trips to discover and demolish the stills. One frequent visiting officer named Vernon LaMorr soon became readily recognized. Oscar Greer says that LaMorr had gone to school with his dad and uncle Lon over in Prescott, and their friendship paid off. When LaMorr was about to come to Payson he would telephone Mae Haught and say he was coming up on a fishing trip. The word went out, and Lon Greer quickly moved his still from the Waterwheel Camp on the East Verde into the brushy hillside. On one occasion, Walter Haught was not notified, and LaMorr caught him at his still. Walter insisted he had simply been fishing up and down the river, and denied the setup was his. However, he was frying eggs for breakfast, and the “Prohis” (as the Federal agents were called) questioned why Walter had apparently been there all night “fishing.” LaMorr did not arrest Walter, but had the vats all smashed.
The officer knew about Frenchy’s backdoor outlet for whiskey, but he did not know the bootlegger had sold the building to the Womans Club. They raided the place, breaking in as the women were washing the dishes after their luncheon meeting. The ladies were furious.
Charlie Chilson told of coming upon stills and vats almost every time he went out after cattle. He said that all during Prohibition the cowboys could point out at least 10 stills at any time. One time he surprised a bootlegger. “That old fellow was mean. They didn’t hear me a-comin’ and I didn’t know they was down there. They was workin’ on this still, just putting it in, and they came for me. Just jumped up and pulled their guns. They told me, ‘Never do that again.’ And I said, ‘Well, look here, you fellows are on my range. I got to ride it and I didn’t know you was here. You know next time I ride up, I’ll probably come up a-shootin.’ They didn’t say anything more, but they didn’t stay in there very long. The only water I had going there was being piped down to that still.”
Chilson also told of the big still with a steam boiler that the Henry Haught family had going in Little Green Valley. While in a Payson restaurant he heard the Prohis talking about going up there. They were in the next booth. “I climbed up and looked over. They had a map, mappin’ out where they was going to fly up there and spot the place. So before they ever got there, (we got word out) on them comin’ in there, and there was nobody in sight. Anyhow they got in there and shot this thing full of holes, but they never did catch anybody at it.”
The stories surrounding those days of bootlegging in Rim Country canyons were endless, and the ways of warning against the Prohis were ingenious. For example, in Star Valley, when word arrived that Federal agents were coming they hung bells on all the mules and sent them scattering throughout the countryside as a warning government men were on the way.
The product was affectionately called “Payson Dew” and its fame spread far and wide.
Hollywood film crews were making Zane Grey movies on location in those days, and when the crews returned to California they took the word. Theresa Boardman recounted how she and husband Bill along with the Grady Harrisons were on vacation in La Jolla along with their children. While there they met two other couples from the East. When Bill said they were from Payson, Ariz., the others responded, “You are from that town where they make the good whiskey. It’s the best there is between El Paso and Los Angeles.”
Mrs. Harrison seemed mortified, and said, “We’re not bootleggers.” Their new acquaintance answered, “No, maybe you’re not, but I know all about it.”
After repeal of prohibition in 1933, the Great Depression was in full swing. Saloons went back to their normal business, but life took an economic downturn for a number of Rim Country families. For years after repeal, those who explored the backcountry would find telltale copper tubing, soldered vats and broken earthenware in the canyons near the springs. When the subdivision of Chaparral Pines was developed between Payson and Star Valley they had to confiscate the remains of an old still at the location of the 17th hole of their golf course.
[Note: information and quotes from oral histories at the Rim Country Museum.]