Bootleggers, Hard Cider, & Home Brew


When I was a kid growing up on the family farms I was privy to many a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Among them was the art of making home brew, dandelion and/or elderberry wine, and of course, hard apple cider. In the cellars of my elders, besides the wood furnace and hot water heater, one would find amongst the meat and vegetable freezers, the barrels of apples, bins of potatoes, hanging burlap bags of carrots, parsnips, and turnip, sacks of onions, various dried herbs and spices, a plethora of earthenware crocks of various sizes which contained pork fat-back, sauerkraut, and booze. There was usually a couple of 35 gallon crocks used to brew a yeasty, hoppy, yet potent beer to be bottled in washed-out Narragansett bottles and capped with a capper, once deemed ready after many taste tests. Then there were a couple of smaller 15 gallon crocks for elderberry and dandelion wines that I had no idea of alcohol content except it would knock you on your ass if you drank too much of it.

I know, I saw it happen on a few rainy days when we couldn’t work outside.

Beyond that, the main attraction to the dank, musty, cobweb laced, dirt floored, cellar of my grandparents was Pup’s cider barrels. Two wooden 50 gallon barrels held apple squeezing’s that would ferment and produce a very sweet tasting lethal concoction that would give the uninitiated a three day hang-over, after causing usually a 6-8 hour blank spot in their memory banks.

Yes, Pup’s cider was in high demand amongst the neighborhood men and the neighboring farmers. The womenfolk were not nearly as impressed, especially my grandmother, Mamie. She would make that “tch tch tch” sound anytime she saw the cellar door swing open from her perch at the kitchen sink window, when there happened to be inclement weather- which inexplicably seemed to cause the men folk to take refuge in Pup’s cellar. She knew she would be getting phone calls from the neighboring wives, and she knew she would be getting visits from her own daughters in law, coming to fetch her sons, and drag them home. Who says farm life aint entertaining? Wish I’d thought to take a few candid’s with my handy-dandy Kodak..coulda made a small fortune in black mail.

Anyway, history tells me that Maine was the first State to “go dry” with the temperance movement. In fact I read that Maine was declared dry in 1851, that law repealed in 1856, but then waffled back and forth between drunk and dry for a number of years before finally succumbing to soberness in 1885 and stayed that way until the repeal of national Prohibition in 1933.

While researching this I found a very good article in the Portland Press entitled:

When Maine went dry

I’ll provide the link to this article for those of you who might like to read it, but I’ll also point out the jist of it.

“In 1851, Maine became the first state to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, though an exception for “medicinal, mechanical and manufacturing purposes” kept many liquor wagons rolling. By the time the Maine law passed in 1851, temperance groups had been fighting for liquor reform for 25 years. It was repealed in 1856, following the Portland Rum Riot, when opponents of the law stormed City Hall because they thought Dow was selling liquor stored in the basement. The law was re-enacted in various forms and eventually folded into the state constitution in 1885. The Maine law remained in effect until the repeal of national Prohibition in 1933, amid the Great Depression.”

I thought this was a very salient point…after-all it’s hard to have a “great” depression without booze. Or as a friend of mine pointed out to me when I asked if he preferred bourbon to his recently estranged significant other, “ Oh hell yeah, bourbon is always there for me, cost far far less, and doesn’t create half the headaches.”

Moving right along, it’s time to talk about bootleggers. I can’t confirm this, but the term “bootlegger” may have originated here in good ol’ Maine. This is what I read on a Face Book site I belong to: (under the picture featured at the top of this blog entry)

“Where Does the Word “Bootlegger” Come From?

The word first appeared in the 1850s in Maine and of course it refers to smuggling liquor. But this seemed odd to me because Prohibition didn’t start until almost 70 years later. That is, except in Maine, the first dry state, where it became illegal to manufacture or consume liquor in 1851. Because Maine shares a border with Canada, the law was easily flouted. Ordinary folks wanting to smuggle liquor into the country could hide a couple bottles in their pants legs in Canada and walk into the United States.”

With that, allow me to gratuitously throw a plug in for the fine folks at Face Book’s “Journey on the back roads of Maine”. It’s a great site filled with pictures, recipe’s, and stories of Maine-back in the day. Check it out.

Also, let me point this out regarding the picture: (because I know some of you are furtively making plans to comment about the swastika) “Don’t jump to any conclusions about that pattern on the floor–before Hitler took the swastika for his Nazi Party, it was a perfectly respectable symbol dating from ancient times that was often used to decorate mosaics, tiles, pottery, and other items. This photo pre-dates the Nazis.”

It’s all good.

So, in conclusion, we Maniacs not only have a history of self reliance, punctuated with the ability to over-come most any obstacle, we, evidently, manage to do all this and have a drink or three to celebrate our resourcefulness and utter brilliance.

Carry on.

Mitch Littlefield

About Mitch Littlefield

I was born into a large family in the mid 1950s, in Belfast, Maine. My family owned and operated three working farms during my childhood, and the entire family worked these farms. It is these formative years, this family, those farms, and that way of life that is the background for these stories.