In the early days of Prohibition, thirsty patrons who wanted a little more kick than a soft drink could deliver knew just what to order when they strolled into the shop next door to the Hunter Meat Market on Baker Street.
For hidden from customer view, the meat market's owner was conducting some business of a different kind. Through a hole in the wall the shop shared with the soft drink parlor next door, J.B. Estribou offered liquor to give the drink a little punch.
After the hole was discovered and he was arrested in June 1921, Estribou was at it again. This time he hid alcohol throughout his market, obscured underneath various meats or wedged behind pickle barrels. He was arrested again seven months later. But Estribou's two arrests don't come close to making him the most industrious repeat offender in Kern County during Prohibition. Albert Martin, owner of the National Bar soft drink stand, has him beat with seven arrests, from 1921 to 1931.
Centennial High School history teacher Richard Roux is shedding light on the local history of the Prohibition era in his book "Bootleggers, Booze, and Busts: Prohibition in Kern County, 1919-1933." Roux will lecture about the topic this afternoon at the Kern County Museum. The public is invited.
As early as the 1870s, organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were pushing for a ban on alcohol. By 1920, alcohol sale, production, transportation and importation was banned in the United States with the passage of the 18th Amendment, a bitter pill in Bakersfield, "a wicked town" full of saloons, prostitution and gambling, Roux said.
"We're steeped in history here," said Roux in an interview Wednesday at the Padre Hotel. Called the Hotel Padre in 1933, the downtown haunt hosted a meeting to urge the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce to endorse a bill to allow wine with 10 percent alcohol.
"Driving or walking downtown, I get kind of lost looking at the buildings and wondering what it was like then."
Roux was drawn to the topic by his own family history. His great-grandfather immigrated to Bakersfield from France and worked at a saloon before eventually opening a grocery store, and Roux's great uncle transported bootleg booze in Missouri. When he set to work on the topic in 2005 -- initially for a research paper -- Roux was confronted with a dearth of information.
"Now I know why there wasn't anything written about Prohibition in Kern County before: lack of resources," Roux said.
There were no arrest records for the time period available through the Bakersfield Police Department, Kern County Sheriff's Office or the courts, Roux said. He found the information he needed for his paper -- and eventually his CSUB master's thesis and book -- by reading articles found in old issues of The Californian.
"I looked at issues from 1905 to 1933, page by page -- around 60,000 pages -- to identify violators," Roux said. "It took a lot of time. I eventually got into a groove where I could identify headlines (for the necessary articles) faster."
After compiling a list of offenders as written about in the newspaper, Roux learned some 2,100 arrests of 1,700 people were made in Kern County during Prohibition.
Using tools like Ancestry.com and other sources, Roux was able to glean a better picture of the average violator in Kern County. He said the largest segment of those arrested tended to be foreign-born or from foreign-born parents, especially Italians and French. Of course, this data comes from arrests, he noted; there were likely more violators than those who got caught.
"I'm not demonizing them," Roux said of the violators, "it's just history. Some people were passionate about enforcing Prohibition and some were passionate about breaking that law."
Although the topic of Prohibition calls to mind violent gangster films like "The Untouchables" and HBO's Atlantic City-based "Boardwalk Empire," Roux said Kern County's experience was markedly less deadly. Only one police officer was killed in the line of duty: Special Investigator for the Attorney's Office William Washington "Bud" Wiles. Otherwise, Kern County law enforcers and violators were fairly peaceful, he said.
"It was mostly a game of cat and mouse. If (violators) were caught, they just paid the fines. Few did hard time."
Prohibition violators in Kern County were fined anywhere from $250 to $700, he said. If the fine couldn't be paid, violators would serve six to nine months in jail. Roux's book details the story of Aliprando Bandetini, who was caught in McKittrick with $52,000 worth of cash and checks in his pockets. He easily paid his fine of $700 and avoided jail time.
As the years went on, Roux writes, Prohibition got harder to enforce. Corrupt law enforcement officers got involved with bootlegging. By the late 1920s, public sentiment was so against Prohibition that it became increasingly difficult for prosecutors to win convictions. Initially enforcement efforts were the duty of the Police Department's vice squad, but in 1932 the squad was disbanded and all officers were expected to enforce Prohibition, he writes.
Roux relied on the Kern County Museum for photographs and, in return, will help the museum with its new orientation center tentatively set to open in summer 2015.
"(Prohibition) is a really neat topic," said Roger Perez, executive director of the museum. "At the lecture, you'll get a look of history you don't always get walking around here (at the museum)."
The lecture will be enhanced by the museum's, Prohibition-era artifacts, including a moonshine still, said curator Lori Wear.
After the lecture, Roux will take questions and let attendees explore a fun feature of his book: an index of violators in Kern County.
"I think that will be neat for people to check out," he said of the index. "There are no immediate family members (of Roux's). I'm almost disappointed."
Roux hopes his work in digging up local history will inspire others to do the same. Looking up family members in the index of violators and writing about them is one way to do that.
"I hope more people take the torch and write local history to complete the picture of what Prohibition was like in Kern County," he said.