Remnants of Bootlegging in CV
I have a wonderful photograph from the late ’20s of a bunch of the local constabulary, plus the local Justice of the Peace Judge Dyer, standing around grinning and smoking in front of the old Montrose Sheriff Station on Ocean View just above Honolulu. In front of them are stacks of big metal containers resting on their sides, the caps off, with gallons of confiscated moonshine pouring into the gutter.
During Prohibition, CV was close enough to L.A. to help supply the demand for bootleg liquor, but far enough away to be out-of-sight to the law. Our deep canyons provided many out of the way spots where moonshiners could produce their goods. Since the valley below had been cultivated largely in grapes, the moonshiners had plenty to work with. It was a hotbed of illegal alcohol production. Some of the local ranch houses had wine production areas that were fairly hidden and secret storage areas where the booze could be stashed.
Those areas are occasionally discovered in older homes today. I received an email from Randy Sims who remembered going to a friend’s house back in the ’60s, one of those stone houses on the north end of Montrose. His buddy mentioned that he had a basement and he had something cool to show Randy there. As they stepped down into the basement, the friend jumped up, grabbed the beam above him, planted his feet firmly against the concrete back wall, and pushed hard. A section of the concrete wall swung slowly inward revealing a long concrete room about five feet wide and running the length of the house.
Randy’s friend said his parents had only found it when they accidently discovered a large steel lever hidden under a rug in the dining room. When they pulled it, it unlocked this secret room directly below. It was empty now, but when they first discovered it, it had the decaying remains of a still, several empty jars and a cot. One end of the long room ended in a short dirt tunnel that came to the surface behind the house in some thick bushes.
A more recent discovery was made by Stuart Byles, a local contractor and vice president of the Historical Society. He was doing a job on one of the old houses near Foothill and La Crescenta, and got talking to a neighbor in a ’20s style home. When Stuart talked about his interest in local history, the neighbor said, “I’ve got to show you this!”
Below the landing of a stairway that came down next to his garage was a secret doorway, which you had to get down on your hands and knees to see. Once you found the hidden latch, you crawled down into an eight-foot high basement under the floor of the garage. Scattered around were a dozen ancient wine carboys, some sealed, with remnants of what must have once been wine. The back wall had a bricked up hole in it, and the neighbor explained that that had been a tunnel just big enough to crawl through. The tunnel went across his yard, into the yard next door and emerged in the floor of that guy’s garage, which had since been torn down.
Stuart and the neighbor then entered the main house and went down steps into a full-sized underground basement. In that basement was a closet, and hidden in the floorboards of the closet was a trap door. Opening that revealed another set of steep stairs descending into a basement below the basement, about half the size of the one above! This was a heck of a big working space, two stories underground, beneath a nothing little house! If these walls could talk!
I’ll bet there are many readers who have puzzling hidden spaces in their local houses and perhaps some interesting stories to go along with them. I’d love for you to pass them along, to add to the crazy history of our deceptively quiet community.