Shoppers traversing the eclectic shops in Old Town Spring today might be surprised to know that nearly a century ago, the same community was considered the go-to source of moonshine and homebrewed liquor in the nation’s brief era of Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment was ratified Jan. 29, 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, making the manufacture or sale of alcohol illegal a year later, according to information obtained from the History Channel’s website. Although the bill would be repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, the implications of the 13-year period in the nation’s history were widespread even in the small railroad town of Spring, Texas.
Last night of legal liquor
The night before prohibition enforcement began was memorable for longtime Spring saloon Wunsche Bros., said Margaret Mallott Smith, author of “Spring Through the Seasons: Stories of a Texas Town.” The business may have been the last open saloon in all of Harris County as the law was implemented sooner at saloons closer to military bases.
“Camp Logan was close to all the saloons in Houston so Wunsche Bros. could stay open a little later, and people—in order to get their last drink—came out to Wunsche Bros,” she said. “People thought they were getting their last drink, so they bought a lot and they drank a lot.”
Smith said one young man recalled working as a bartender at Wunsche Bros. and taking money as fast as he could fill his pockets. He put the pocketfuls of money on a desk in the back room, which was covered by a mound of cash by evening’s end.
“Those who gathered for the occasion acted just like the world was coming to an end as they tried to consume every last drop of liquor that was available,” former Wunsche Bros. employee Jesse Robinson recalled to Smith in her book. “The crowd acted like a funeral had just concluded when the clock struck [midnight]—ending an era.”
History of moonshine
Making alcohol may have been illegal during Prohibition, but people from all over the region could still find liquor in Spring if they knew where to look.
“Bootleg whiskey or homebrew was not a new thing in Spring when Prohibition occurred,” she said. “The farmers who lived out on Spring Creek and Cypress Creek—where there were lots of trees, water and things that would be helpful—made their own homebrew. The German farmers who lived out on the Klein prairie, many of them made their own wine because they were from the old country and knew how to grow the vines.”
Smith said there was likely an uptick in bootlegging when Prohibition was enacted, and the town earned a reputation as the moonshine capital of Harris County.
Longtime Spring resident John Robinson recalled in knowing as many as 35 bootleggers in the community at one time in Smith’s book. Robinson told Smith he remembered a man who would take the Fort Worth train every day with a coat full of bottles.
“[He] would come out of his house all bulged out and go over and crawl up on the engine of the train and he’d unload his bottles,” Robinson said in the book. “And then when he got off, he’d be back down to normal.”
The community attracted people from all over Harris County and from southern parts of Montgomery County looking for liquor, Smith said. One home in particular—now known as the Wilson Mallott House—was famous for hosting gatherings with moonshine made by homeowner Frances Wunsche Wilson.
“By all accounts, the house became a bootlegger’s haven,” Smith said. “The parlor held raucous parties attended by townspeople and guests from Houston. A neighbor said the revelry sounded like the house was coming down.”
A bad name
Smith said the Spring community, once abuzz with railroad business, began to decline steadily during the Prohibition era. She said the moving of Spring’s roundhouse to Houston in 1923 was the biggest reason for the town’s decline as the town no longer brought in money from railroad traffic.
However, she said Spring earned a black eye during Prohibition. Already known for its lawlessness, the city’s reputation for moonshining did not help.
“Spring was like any other town,” she said. “It had its churches and schools and had its bank and all of the things that make it a nice little town, but it was besmirched by that idea that there was a lot of lawlessness in the area.”
Smith said bootlegging was still a way for Spring residents to make money during Prohibition and through the Great Depression, which began in the latter stages of Prohibition in 1929. Not even Spring officials, such as Justice of the Peace Charles Holzwarth, were keen on preventing bootlegging during the time period.
“While he was justice of the peace in Spring, Charles knew who was bootlegging during Prohibition,” said Holzwarth’s biographer in Smith’s book. “Whenever he heard that the government men were coming to town, he would pass the word around, ‘Boys, you better move it!’”
Smith said bootlegging continued in Spring until the 1950s, and was still an illegal practice even after Prohibition was repealed. One well-known bootlegger would often buy sugar for his moonshine at the grocery store run by Smith’s father, Bill Mallott, that was located on Main Street.
“This gentlemen was arrested several times and sent to Leavenworth [prison], and I think the standard time there for making whiskey was a year,” she said. “So in a year he’d be back, and in a couple of months at my dad’s getting his sugar so he could make his [moonshine].”