Prohibition in San Joaquin County

Still for making illegal liquor, San Joaquin County, ca. 1920.

I need your help. Last week, an avid genealogist phoned me to discuss research on her ancestors, one of whom owned a detective agency in Stockton. That bit of information captured my attention. Then she told me that he worked as a detective during Prohibition, and she had me hooked. I couldn't stop imagining speakeasies, wild car chases, and gun battles between gangsters and law enforcement officials. But did any of that actually happen in San Joaquin County?

As a public policy, Prohibition outlawed the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. Various nations have tried it at different times. In the United States, it started in 1920 with passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Related legislation outlined in the Volstead Act established rules for enforcement and defined what kinds of alcohol were prohibited. But despite these measures, the demand for alcohol remained high and an illicit economy marked by corruption and criminal violence developed. Prohibition and the culture it fostered ended in 1933 with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.

Logic suggests that San Joaquin County experienced Prohibition in much the same way as other parts of the country. But I suspect that two unique factors made the County's story somewhat different. One was the large number of wineries in the County, and the other the presence of opium—which was also illegal and known to be used among Chinese immigrants. However, so far I've come across little evidence—other than my patron's comments and a still in the Museum's collections—to support my suspicions. That's why I need your help.

Does anyone out there have objects, photographs, or stories about law enforcement and the production and use of illegal substances in San Joaquin County during Prohibition that they're willing to share? I welcome your memories and comments via e-mail (leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org).

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