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HomeNews100 Years Ago/HistoryAre Liquor Stores Essential? Nellie Green and Stories of Prohibition

Are Liquor Stores Essential? Nellie Green and Stories of Prohibition

By Sally Haase.

(April 17, 2020) — Governor Lamont included liquor stores on his list of essential businesses that are allowed to remain open. Many were surprised by this decision. Perhaps a little schnapps is good for medicinal purposes – calm the nerves or flush the arteries. Some say vodka can be used to disinfect surfaces. Was it because the state would miss the tax revenue? Is it because they sell a lot of Lotto tickets? In reality, a sudden withdrawal of alcohol from alcohol dependent people can result in seizures and hallucinations. In addition, people with alcohol use disorder may turn to other more dangerous forms of alcohol or drugs. The history of Prohibition of the 1920’s taught us many lessons and left many tales to be told.

My mother-in-law was a young woman in the 1920’s who grew up in New Haven. She often talked about those years. Many in her German immigrant family worked in the New Haven breweries which were shuttered by the 18th Amendment. Her grandfather was the brewery master at the Yale Brewery. Judging by the grand home across the street from the brewery it was a pretty nice job. There were spigots on the outside walls of the brewery where neighbors were allowed to fill their bucket with fresh beer for the evening. Their own train ran through the buildings hauling product to the station. The brewery, which closed in 1920, is the only one stilling stand of nearly two dozen in New Haven.

With the arrival of Prohibition, many breweries and distilleries sought other means to stay in business. Some converted to soda and other non-alcoholic products. Yet, many people, who felt that drinking alcohol took away a basic freedom, looked for other sources to quench their thirst. Legally, they could buy alcohol from a pharmacy for medicinal purposes with a prescription. Soon, however, illegal operations of backyard producers and organized gangs filled the void. Unwary purchasers of wood alcohol and other toxic concoctions were at risk for blindness and even death. Bootleg gangs graduated to organized crime organizations with the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

In the 1920’s, an intriguing young woman named Nellie Green ran an inn, the Hotel Talmadge, on the Farm River in East Haven. My mother-in-law often spoke of her. Nellie’s family owned 750 acres on the Farm River in East Haven, a discreet location off the Long Island Sound and yet only a few miles from New Haven.

Nellie was raised as a tom-boy; her father taught her how to box, a skill that surely helped her later as an innkeeper and owner of a speakeasy. Nellie, blessed with a beautiful voice, traveled with an opera company as a mezzo-soprano. When her first husband and then her father died she gave up her career and returned to East Haven to attend to family affairs. Her second marriage was to William Talmadge, who owned a feed and grain business. Together they built a 25-room inn with a bar and a marina on family property near Short Beach and the old drawbridge on the river.

With the passage of the 18th Amendment, Nellie flouted the law. She joined the ranks of scofflaws, a word coined during Prohibition for those who scoffed the law. Hotel Talmadge, now known as Nellie Greens, became one of about 1,500 speakeasies in Connecticut, with 400 said to be in the New Haven area. The complex now included a bottling works for producing flavored soda. How convenient! The Talmadge Boat Yard built nine “go-fast boats” each 60 feet long that sat low to water. Powered by V-12 surplus aircraft engines, the boats rendezvoused in “safe” waters three nautical miles off the coastal waters with rumrunners from Bermuda and the Bahamas. [With Europe “wet,” exporters shipped liquor and wine to offshore islands near us.] Nellie insisted that her fleet never carry weapons but instead they were to outrun the Coast Guard. When returning to The Farm River, they waited for an all clear signal before entering the river.

The “feds” and the state enforcement agents were powerless it seemed to control crime and abuse of alcohol during those years. Exhaustive attempts to enforce the 18th Amendment led only to defeat.

Nellie Green prospered during the Prohibition era and was never was caught by federal agents.

The decades of efforts by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to reform the Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Eastern and Southern Europe from their drinking and criminal ways and who were seen as a threat to the values American life, came to an end with the 21st Amendment in 1933, which repealed Prohibition. Nellie Green returned to her business as a lawful innkeeper albeit notorious for her bootlegging past. The hotel became a popular place with famous New York show business visitors such as Rudy Vallee, John Barrymore and Bing Crosby.

So now, let’s fast forward to the year 2020. Should we now call liquors stores an essential business and allow them to remain open during this current pandemic? The governor thinks so. And, by the way, a prohibition would probably be unenforceable.


Notes of Interest:

In Hartford, Heublein, an importer of liquor and wines at that time and the company that later made Smirnoff vodka, turned to importing and then producing A-1 Sauce.

Nellie Green recognized federal agents doing road work near her business by their inappropriate footwear.

Claudio’s, a Greenport restaurant that all Connecticut boaters know well, has a hatch behind the bar which opened to receive bootleg alcohol from boats below.

While the 18th Amendment to prohibit the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages was not ratified by Connecticut or Rhode Island, they eagerly ratified its repeal with the 21st.

My very respectable mother-in-law admitted she dated a handsome gent with a go-fast boat.


Sources and References:

Patch.com 8/8/2011 Riverside Neighborhood a Secluded Piece of History

CTexplored.org  East Haven’s Wild Irish Rose

Durham-Middlefield Patch, 10/10/2011 Prohibition in Connecticut: A Hostile Reception,

by our neighbor Phillip R. Devlin

Alcohol Problems and solution.org

LIHJ.cc.stonybrok.edu Long Island During Prohibition, 1920-1933

National archives.org   The Volstead Act

Photo: FindAGrave.com

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