By Charles Nelson
Leaven Brewery in Riverview, Four Stacks Brewing in Apollo Beach and Bullfrog Creek Brewing in Valrico are local, southern Hillsborough County craft breweries growing legions of devoted fans. Although legal and popular today, opening a craft brewery during the Prohibition (1920 to 1933) might well have landed an enterprising brewer/distiller in jail.
Prohibition-era laws outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. More practical economic laws of supply and demand, however, ensured that the illicit commerce would thrive. Well-hidden stills could be found throughout rural Hillsborough County, and Riverview was a hotbed for the prohibited activity. Dubbed ‘Moonshine Alley’ by enforcement agents, the backwoods creeks flowing into the Alafia River around Riverview were natural settings for the illegal trade.
Armed with guns and hatchets, agents often conducted raids in the area, smashing hundreds of stills and thousands of bottles of moonshine. Arrests, however, were infrequent.
Tampa’s Prohibition Enforcement Director A. L. Pete Allen explained that, “The people out there live in trees. They see us coming and take to their heels. Lookouts are posted in trees to warn boozemakers.”
Even when arrests were made convictions were rare. On a small island in Buckhorn Creek (near today’s Bloomingdale Rd. and Kings Ave.) was one of the largest sites ever raided. In May 1922, agents destroyed a 250-gallon still and arrested R. L. Watson. One thousand bottles of moonshine and fruit brandy were smashed and dumped along with 800 lbs. of prunes and 200 lbs. of dried peaches found in ‘very bad condition.’ Bad fruit was often reported as a primary source of the mash.
Director Allen reported, “The more juicy the garbage, the better the shine.”
Typically, Watson was not convicted as the search warrant could not be produced at trial. Only 4 percent of those arrested in 1922 were sentenced to jail.
Allen also reported that, “The average moonshiner did not know enough about distilling to manufacture clear whiskey, and the product was often strengthened with potash and other poisons which sometimes resulted in deaths.”
This was a dangerous business but lucrative for operators where the risk of capture and punishment was slight.
Smaller sized operations were more numerous. A small camp located about three miles northeast of Riverview was the location of a raid where officers seized a 100-gallon capacity still and 11 barrels of grapefruit mash. Four miles southeast of Riverview on Bell Creek (near today’s Bell Creek Nature Preserve), a 100-gallon still was smashed and eleven barrels of corn and grits mash were confiscated. No arrests were made in either raid.
Once moonshine was made, distribution to local buyers was key. Local road houses were often searched. When an illegal product was found, it was confiscated and these saloons were shut down, only to spring up in another location.
A popular spot for moonshiners to deliver their stock was also found on Whiskey Stump Key, a small island south of the Alafia River mouth. Legend has it that customers left their money in an empty bottle under a tree stump on the island and returned to find the money gone and the bottle filled with liquor by area moonshiners. Today it is a protected bird habitat.
So, feel free to visit one of our growing, local craft breweries. When you go, give a thought to the 1920s and tell your brew master of our wild moonshining history and his good fortune when it comes to timing in opening his business.