Bootlegging, Immigrants, and Crime in Prohibition-Era Fort Collins

By 1896, the Temperance Movement in Fort Collins celebrated the issuance of Ordinance No. 8 prohibiting the purchase, sale, and gifting of alcohol. The ordinance paved the way for years of crime, illicit trade, and legal conflict as bootleggers worked to meet Fort Collin's continuing demand for alcohol.

As a result of city-wide prohibition starting in 1896, crime rates in Fort Collins increased. Skirmishes between law enforcement and drunken residents were a common sight, and cases of illegal intoxication often resulted in incarceration into the town’s local “Drunk Tank” or “calaboose." Frequent distillery raids led to additional arrests. According to an account from Larimer County Sheriff’s officer Orville Pollock Kelly, getting rid of the stills was the “main problem.” During the eight years he worked at the sheriff's office (1925-1933) he never witnessed or heard of anyone being shot in the capture of a whiskey still.

Immigrants of Russian, German, and Histpanic descent had unique experiences during Fort Collins prohibition. Discrimination took many forms. For many, even making purchases at the grocery store was problematic, as only a select few stores would serve immigrants. Economic disparity between immigrants and white Americans in an already tight economy left some immigrant families seeking ways to augment their income. Some turned to the illicit manufacture and sale of alcohol. When asked what he remembered about bootlegging, lifelong Fort Collins resident Walter Salisbury recalled that the moonshining stills up in the foothills were largely operated by Mexican immigrants. Wages for these people were particularly poor, and discrimination allowed for very few advancement opportunities. Thus the “Bootlegger” scene in Fort Collins came to life, with an old race track located by what is now City Park serving as a “hot spot” of bootlegging activity.

One notable bootlegger, Cleofas Ambriz, held a daytime occupation as a sugar beet factory laborer but constructed his own still to help combat the poor living conditions. Ambriz explicitly made a point not to sell his moonshine to white members of the community for fear of the legal consequences should he be discovered. Eventually he was caught conducting business in Denver, which temporarily stalled his operations. However, Ambriz’s secret business resumed upon his return to Fort Collins. Salisbury recounted another instance when a Mexican moonshiner who lived near him was imprisoned the man’s son continued with running his father's bootlegging business.

In Fort Collins, alcohol was sometimes transported and sold through tunnels that ran beneath the streets of Old Town. In the early years of prohibition in Fort Collins (1884-1895), these tunnels were sometimes home to “sampling rooms,” defined as a “quiet, calm environment” where alcohol could be traded and purchased. Other cities in the intermountain west have similar stories, including, for example, Ogden Utah, which has legends of a city-wide tunnel network used for all manner of illicit activities.

In 1933, federal prohibition was overturned, and 3.2% alcohol beer was legalized with the passage of the Cullen-Harrison Act. For Fort Collins, however, this was not the end of prohibition altogether, but rather a long period during which the community negotiated the degree to which alcohol should be a legal part Fort Collins life.

Images

Moonshiner Still
Moonshiner Still Three Larimer County police officers photographed with a seized moonshie still in 1927. Source: http://database.history.fcgov.com/cdm/singleitem/collection/ph/id/14234/rec/1
Whiskey Bottle
Whiskey Bottle Whiskey bottle labeled “Briarcliff Blended Whiskey” from 1934 when prohibition had ended on a federal level but was still in place in Fort Collins Source: http://database.history.fcgov.com/cdm/singleitem/collection/ma/id/13862/rec/1
Portion of Map of Fort Collins, Colorado
Portion of Map of Fort Collins, Colorado Digitized close up portion of 1910 map of Fort Collins, photographed with permission from Fort Collins Local History Archive, showing “Calaboose” aka the Drunk Tank between Walnut and Jefferson. Source: http://database.history.fcgov.com/cdm/singleitem/collection/hm/id/1124/rec/9
Map of Fort Collins, Colorado
Map of Fort Collins, Colorado Larger map of Fort Collins from the 1910s- this map provides context where the corner of Mountain Ave and Walnut (pictured in the zoomed in map) is in Fort Collins Source: http://database.history.fcgov.com/cdm/singleitem/collection/hm/id/1124/rec/9
The Drunk Tank
The Drunk Tank A present day image of the Drunk Tank that stands in Old Firehouse Alley. Source: Photo by Matthew Witczak.

Location

Metadata

Caroline Cutshall, Alan Linenburger, Devan Walsh, and Matt Witczak, Colorado State University, “Bootlegging, Immigrants, and Crime in Prohibition-Era Fort Collins,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/132.