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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Somervell County's
Moonshine Past

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Covering only 192 square miles, Somervell County is the second-smallest of any of Texas’s 254 counties.

In addition to its compact size, in the 1920s the county also ranked as the second-poorest in Texas. But with the advent of national prohibition, Somervell County reigned as one of the state’s top moonshining venues. A lot of folks of otherwise modest means suddenly had full pockets.

By 1923, in the estimate of Jeffrey J. Pruitt, who wrote a book on Somervell County native Ernest T. Adams, the lawyer and lay archeologist who had a hand in discovering the county’s famous dinosaur tracks, the illegal production and selling of alcoholic beverages ranked as the county’s top industry.

If the way the map had been drawn left the people who lived along the Paluxy River with a postage-stamp county compared with the state’s other political subdivisions, its proximity to the Dallas-Fort Worth area provided a large and growing market for Somervell County’s liquid “crop.” The cedar-covered hills around Glen Rose hid scores of stills and out-bound truck traffic crowded the roads.

Of course, good deals don’t last forever.

Early in the morning of Aug. 25, 1923, on orders from Gov. Pat Neff, Texas Rangers under Capt. Rudolph D. Shumate descended on the county to put its residents out of the bootlegging business.

By sundown, 27 men languished in the county jail. Among them was T. Walker Davis, the sheriff. Also in custody was E.L. Roark, the county attorney. Twenty-three stills had been destroyed and put on display outside the courthouse along with stacks of confiscated cases of whiskey and homebrew.

The cleanup continued for most of the week. On August 29, one fleeing bootlegger made the mistake of firing on the Rangers with a .38 revolver, a move that permanently got him out of the whiskey-making business or any other worldly endeavor.

While the Rangers had definitely disrupted the making and selling of moonshine, adjudicating the defendants proved more difficult. For one thing, shortly after the raids began, the district attorney had found it necessary to leave the county on some urgent business and had not been heard from since.

With the county attorney awaiting his trial, Adams had been appointed as his replacement. After the DA left town, the commissioner’s court asked Adams if he’d take on that job. Since it meant another $30 a month, he accepted.

Soon after Adams recited the oath of office, a ranger approached him.

“Ernest, you know where every still in the county is,” the lawman said. “Show me, and we will make a cleaning.”

The new DA didn’t need to mull that over before responding. He was not going to rat out friends who had just been trying to make a living, albeit not technically an honest one.

“That is your job,” he told the ranger. “You bring ‘em in and I’ll prosecute them.”

That said, Adams’ first order of business as DA was bringing the former county attorney to trial.

The proceeding began in Cleburne on Feb. 20, 1924. The state’s first witness was one James Aaron “Dick” Watson. A 28-year-old World War I veteran, he had been collecting information as an undercover state prohibition agent. While not technically a ranger, he had been working under the Rangers.

His testimony offered detailed insight into bootlegging in Somervell County, as well as outlining how the defendant had been taking bribes to look the other way.

If Adams had any thought of putting Watson back on the stand the following day, Watson had told all he was going to tell. That night, someone blew the married father of two away with a .12 gauge shotgun fired through the window of the Glen Rose boarding house where he had taken by the Rangers ostensibly for his safety.

Rangers quickly rounded up 15 suspects, including the person who likely pulled the trigger, but justice was not only blind, she couldn’t hear or talk. Six men were charged with the undercover officer’s murder, but no witnesses to the killing could be found and no convictions would be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, newspapers in Fort Worth and Dallas distilled their own brew of black ink and purple prose.

“The little town [of Glen Rose], nestling in the hills in which great rum stills have long been hidden, has been rocked these last two days as it never expects to be rocked again,” reported the Fort Worth Record.

But by February 23, Glen Rose was quiet. Still, the newspaper noted, the “mountain village,” scene of “Texas’s great moonshine murder melodrama” crouched over a powder keg that could be touched off by “someone unable to contain the growing wrath within him.”

Better judgment, or at least enhanced discretion, prevailed and Glen Rose returned to business as usual. And as soon as things settled down, that business again included moonshining and bootlegging.

The young DA who had at least succeeded in prosecuting some of the local distillers and marketers the rangers had arrested did eventually feel some of the wrath the Fort Worth newspaper had written about. But no buckshot flew his way. When Adams ran for a full term in 1926, he lost the election. Clearly, Somervell County voters wanted someone a bit more in tune with the community’s values in office.

© Mike Cox - November 19, 2014 column
"Texas Tales' Columns

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