Funter Bay History: Moonshine

July 8, 2013

Moonshine is another tradition of Alaska life which had an impact on Funter Bay. In fact, moonshining in the area had an impact on the English language! The word “Hooch”, a popular term for homemade alcohol, originated on Admiralty Island:

hoochinoo   hoo·chi·noo, noun, plural hoo·chi·noos.
A type of distilled liquor made by Alaskan Indians.
1875–80,  Americanism; orig. the name of a Tlingit village on Admiralty Island, Alaska, reputed to be a source of illicit liquor; alteration of Tlingit xucnu·wú  literally, brown bear’s fort ( xú·c  brown bear + nu·w  fortified place)


The word is commonly spelled “Kootsnoowoo” today, meaning “fortress of the bears”, the Tlingit name for Admiralty Island. The village is now called Angoon.

More information here, from the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories.  Also here, and in this articleThis site also has some good information on Alaskan alcohol history. I found it interesting that kelp was sometimes distilled into moonshine, and that native distillers often supplied booze to white settlers, not necessarily vise-versa!

During prohibition (which started early in 1917 in Alaska), fox farms were a popular front for moonshining operations. The premise of a fox farm gave operators a reason to live on a remote homestead and have a large amount of grain on hand (fox diets were supplemented with corn or other grains). Bootleggers would drop off a crew on an island along with a still and supplies, and come back occasionally to pick up the product. Alcohol was also brought in on vessels from Canada, and was sometimes dropped off in secluded coves where bootleggers could collect it without fear of discovery. Here is a tale of a bootlegger’s attempt to scam a cannery over the loss of their smuggling boat. In another case, some bootleggers apparently decided to lower their up-front costs and switch to piracy; an article from January 1922 mentions that the vessel Clara (a 46′ fishing boat from Juneau) robbed the Canadian boat Vesta of her cargo of whiskey in Whale Passage.

Below is a diagram of a still (appearing to be made from surplus plumbing parts), from the Investigative Case Files of Prohibition Violations, 1924-1933, NARA Alaska-Pacific Region:

Here’s a photo of a moonshine still in he woods from Alaska’s state library collections. Lazzette Ohman reports finding several stills in the woods around her family’s home in Juneau in the 1920s.

Bootlegging was apparently as hard to prosecute as fish piracy, the bootleggers were often seen as local heroes and Alaska residents delighted in confounding “the law”.  One story relates a speakeasy in Wrangell whose owner was let off by a hung jury despite apparently damning evidence. Another great story from the biography of area geologist John Mertie (who has a geologic deposit named after him at Funter Bay) showed what happened when unwilling citizens were roped into Jury Duty:

“I was waylaid by the town marshall and asked to serve on the jury…I had no interest in sitting on the jury but the marshall prevailed upon me… This was during the days of prohibition and involved a young man who had been arrested for making home brew beer… As the jurors left the court room to deliberate, a couple of them managed to appropriate the beer. We twelve sat around the jury room drinking the evidence. When it was gone we rendered a verdict of “not guilty”. The young man was elated and thanked the jurors individually. We in turn complimented him on his fine beer.”
Excerpt from “Thirty Summers and a Winter” by Evelyn Mertie.

To catch the smugglers, “Dry Units” and customs officials relied on fast patrol boats, some of them captured from bootleggers. A 1929 article notes that the 30-knot speedboat Three Deuces (AKA the 222), formerly belonging to notorious Puget Sound smuggler Roy Olmstead, had been brought to Alaska “to chase rum-runners”.

US Marshals destroy liquor in Alaska during WWI:

As mentioned in an earlier post, a boat named Sandy from Funter Bay had a cargo of moonshine when it caught fire in Auke Bay on August 9th, 1928. The Sandy‘s crew were apprehended by customs and prohibition officers. They were not named, but owner L.F. Morris (a Juneau building contractor) was sentenced to jail on August 30th for bootlegging. Previously, in 1926, Morris’ nephew L.H. Cays was reported missing in a small open boat after leaving Horse Island (across the Bear Creek Trail from Funter Bay). This information is listed in Kinky Bayers’ bootlegging file, so it is likely that Cays was coming from a still on Horse Island.

The Bayers notes also mention that Neil Gallagher (of the Point Couverden fox farm, which got its mail in Funter Bay) was arrested in 1925 for bootlegging conspiracy, and again in 1928 for “rum running”. The later case got him 6 months in jail. The end of prohibition apparently did not end the family side business; Don Gallagher and Phil Cummings were “arrested and evicted” from Excursion Inlet for bootlegging liquor in June of 1943. This was well after Prohibition, but could have been due to military regulations (Excursion Inlet was a US army base and POW camp during WWII). Don Gallagher is also mentioned in an interview in T.B. Bott’s book The Greybeards; Gallagher operated the mail boat Forrester and supposedly ran into trouble for supplying alcohol to dry towns like Hoonah after WWII.

The troller Ada May with Scotty Boyce and his wife, and Ed Hibler, was apprehended after a long chase off Point Retreat in June 1930, with a quantity of bootleg whiskey on board. The Ada May was listed as visiting Funter Bay in another publication.

One moonshining operation was just south of Funter Bay. After prohibition ended, Funter resident Gunner Ohman appropriated the abandoned cabin for use as a summer fish camp. Local information says that during the moonshining days, some brown bears got into the product and went on a drunken rampage. Eventually the forest service had to come out and shoot them (They must have kept returning or started visiting other cabins looking for booze). This was not the only time drunk bears have been a problem at Funter, in the mid 90s some juvenile bears learned to associate cabins with food, and were known for opening coolers and biting beer cans. Supposedly they preferred Miller over Budweiser.

One still at Funter Bay was reportedly run by Ed “Frozen Foot” Johnson, formerly of the Arctic Saloon in Nome. He operated a still at Funter from 1917 to 1922 when he was caught. He managed to bribe the arresting agents and escape. Other agents then burned down his cabin. Kinky Bayers reported that Johnson also operated a still at Point Howard, across Lynn Canal from Funter Bay.

The end of Prohibition in 1933 is noted by Sarah Isto as a blow to fox farm profits, which were already suffering from the effects of the depression. Personal-use brewing, distilling, and smuggling continued on a smaller scale in some places, and is still around today. You can even buy a how-to book on Alaskan moonshining.

My Dad relates this about a former resident of Funter Bay who returned to visit in the 1970s:

“… he was looking for his mother’s still. … This guy reached under the porch step and pulled out a mason jar of moonshine, said it was where his mother hid it, we all had a sip. “

Bootlegging is still an issue in Alaska today, as many rural communities are “dry” or have banned alcohol. The profits from smuggling can be huge, but so can the penalties. While I was attending UAF in Fairbanks, one of our economics professors helpfully provided a case study in the economy of smuggling! Dr. Robert Logan was arrested in 2003 for flying drugs and alcohol to rural villages, and had his plane confiscated. Curious as to Prof. Logan’s current whereabouts, I came across this page. If that’s the same Bob Logan, he may have dipped into the products a little too heavily!