The Poplar Bluff Museum tells many unknown tales of our community. I want to tell you some of those hidden tales found within the museum walls.
In 1900 Poplar Bluff was a boom town. It was full of hard men. The timber industry and the railroad brought mill workers, loggers and railroad roughnecks to the 40 saloons, road houses and gambling parlors of Poplar Bluff. The legendary Carrie Nation even came to town in 1907 and organized the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Social League in 1910.
In 1920 the 18th Amendment was passed and Prohibition became the law. You would think that would have an effect on the towns liquor industry, but it didn’t. Swamp stills popped up overnight. Crime and corruption flourished. It was said that ¾ of the town folk were involved in some form of bootlegging. Law enforcement officers from the street cop to the Chief of Police were involved with the trade. Federal officers were brought in to enforce the law only to have the bootleggers tipped off by the local police.
Poplar Bluff earned the nickname “Little Chicago.” Al Capone used to travel by train to Hot Springs, Arkansas. It is rumored that even he stopped in town to do business.
After the 1927 tornado, a lot of damaged buildings were abandoned. They quickly were filled with liquor stills. In 1930, 500 gallons of moonshine was discovered in a raid on the old Dalton building. It was all poured into the street and down the sewer. 200 people stood and watched Broadway Street turn into a river of whiskey.
When captured, local bootleggers were rarely prosecuted. In 1931, five men dressed up like police and hijacked 350 gallons of whiskey from another bootlegger. When caught, no charges were filed.
In 1933 Prohibition was repealed. Life returned to normal in Poplar Bluff. By now the timber boom was over and Poplar Bluff was showing the first signs of becoming a respectable town. All the confiscated stills were sold off as scrap. The money was used to buy candy for all the town orphans for Christmas.
The prohibition story is told in great detail by Robert H. Forister in his 1935 book “Complete History of Butler County Missouri.” In his book, Forister names all the bootleggers and corrupt law enforcement officials. A real family history story. The book is on file in the Poplar Bluff Museum reference library.
The Museum is handicap accessible and open free of charge Sunday 1-4 p.m. at 1010 Main Street. Tell them Mike sent you.
Mike Shane is a veteran, Poplar Bluff resident and board member for the Poplar Bluff Museum.