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How Prohibition Led to the Incorporation of Point Arena

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The following article was composed by Mark Scaramella and republished with his permission:

Point Arena Light House [Photograph from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA]

From Pointarea.cs.gov: “Point Arena incorporated on July 3, 1908, inspired by a controversy over whether Point Arena would sell alcohol or go “dry.” The town had 14 liquor licenses and wanted to protect them in case Mendocino County went dry. By becoming a city, Point Arena could regulate and issue its own liquor licenses, as well as collect a larger share of the local taxes instead of relying on the county to share its revenue.”

But of course, there’s much more to this story.

At a current population of around 450, some people have said that Point Arena is the smallest incorporated city in California. But that honor actually goes to a town named “Vernon” in eastern Los Angeles County which has a population of around 85. Four other incorporated California towns are smaller than Point Arena: Tehama, Trinidad (Humboldt County), Amador, and Sand City.

According to an interesting story by Jo Rouse in a 2008 Independent Coast Observer, itself based on information from Mendocino County Historical Society’s Steve Oliff’s fascinating book about the history of Mendo’s south coast, around 1900’s turn of the century, Point Arena’s town fathers started thinking about keeping liquor sales taxes coming into town when Mendocino County was considering alcohol prohibition during the early days of the temperance movement (aka, Mendo was “going dry”). Other motivations mentioned for the eight-year effort to incorporate Point Arena included California’s famous, but much more mythical, “independent spirit,” or “greater political freedom.”

But since the town’s economy depended heavily on booze — there were at various times in those days between 9 and 14 saloons in the small town — it’s pretty obvious that Point Arena’s booze lobby (“alcohol community”?) was the primary motivation for the drive to incorporate.

The town needed a minimum of 500 voting citizens to even be eligible to apply for incorporation under the state’s rules at the time. Since the population included women (who couldn’t vote) and immigrants (who couldn’t vote) and Indians (who couldn’t vote), the 500 threshold was a challenge.

Incorporators first decided to arbitrarily enlarge the town’s boundaries. But that didn’t add enough voting citizens. So they — mostly the town’s tavern owners and operators — got the local hotels to board upwards of 40 area loggers (who did not live in the city limits at the time) for the minimum 30 days to meet the minimum residence requirements for voting.

Having finally qualified to cast their ballots on Point Arena-Wet or Dry, by an underwhelming vote of 66 to 56 when election day finally arrived, Point Arena came up Wet.

William Hanen, then the editor of the Point Arena Record, and a leading advocate for incorporation, wrote that “very reluctantly, the Board of Supervisors passed favorably on the election returns and declared Point Arena entitled to incorporate.”

History does not record the reason(s) for the Board of Supervisors’ “reluctance,” but one can safely assume it had more to do with booze than with principled objections to incorporation.

Coincidentally, among the initial ordinances issued by the newly formed town council were rules for obtaining liquor licenses and a prohibition of public drunkenness. This was before such things were turned over to state regulation after prohibition was subsequently repealed years later.

That’s the more or less official version that available recorded histories of Point Arena tells us.

But there is even more to the story.

In 1996 my late uncle, former Fifth District Supervisor and former Point Arena Mayor Joe Scaramella, who was ten years old at the time of Point Arena’s incorporation, recalled those days more vividly.

“Point Arena was incorporated in 1908. In those days there was the big temperance movement by the lady in Chicago named Carrie Nation who, armed with an ax, led assaults on drinking establishments, hence the term ‘battle axes’ to describe formidable women. Mendocino County was voting dry. The town of Mendocino was already dry. The saloonkeepers in Point Arena felt that if the County went dry and Point Arena was not incorporated, Point Arena would be dry like the rest of them.

“My father was not a saloonkeeper then. He was involved in other things like road grading and tie-making. But he was totally sympathetic with the notion of incorporation. He wasn’t a citizen yet, so he couldn’t vote or participate politically or officially. So they started from that basic fact that some of the residents in Point Arena were not voting citizens so they got the idea to bring in some people who hadn’t lived in town previously.

“They circulated the required petition. They got everyone who was sympathetic to sign up. Mendocino County did go dry a few years later. As a result, there were no saloons in the unincorporated areas of Mendocino County. So if you wanted a drink [before national prohibition] you had to go to Fort Bragg or Point Arena.

“I think we came out ahead with incorporation overall, even though the reason for incorporation was unusual, because we have been able to maintain a degree of independence that ordinarily would not be allowed.

“I always supported it myself. There were some people here a while back who thought we ought to disincorporate. I guess we ought to listen to them, but I hope it never comes to that. I always felt that, damn it, we can manage our own affairs. If we simply have the mind to do it, we can do it.

“While I was supervisor I was invited to talk to some people in Anderson Valley about incorporation. There are pros and cons a lot of different ways. I said that one thing you’ve got to recognize is that if you’re going to have a fractured community you’ll have nothing but trouble. You better not incorporate because you won’t get anything done. Because if it’s fractured, one group will want to do something, the other won’t. So you better let headquarters in Ukiah handle it because it’s a little more remote and they can do it somewhat dispassionately. Anyway, that was my suggestion at the time. In addition, Anderson Valley is a much larger area whereas Point Arena is only about one square mile. So that’s a difference.

“Historically, Mendocino County had always been a fairly hard-drinking area, especially Fort Bragg and Point Arena. I can remember that there were at least nine liquor establishments here when Point Arena incorporated. So, of course, there had to be some drinking.

“Once the County went dry enforcement of prohibition became an issue. The attitude that was prevalent then exists today: selective law enforcement. I had the impression that certain people who were enemies, or on the outs, would be targeted by law enforcement. Sheriff Byrnes was thought to be a ‘wonderful’ Sheriff. I certainly didn’t think so. His supporters liked to say that he got things done. But in order to get things done he would trample over everybody’s rights. That’s what makes the difference. Hell, might makes right, and he had the might. It was rumored — it’s beyond proof I suppose — that there were certain people that he would ignore. It was a difficult time.

“During prohibition, lots of people made bootleg liquor. But it’s hard to say how much was just for drinking and how much was for making money. It was profitable for a lot of people and some of them made good money. Afterwards, after prohibition ended, they moved on and out to bigger and better things. Very little bootleg booze was exported to my knowledge. In fact, there is still some moonshine made ‘out back’ for personal consumption around here.

“There was a man who went to Fort Bragg with his meat from his butcher shop. He’d take the moonshine which he hid down amongst the meatstuffs he was taking to Fort Bragg. Nobody ever bothered him. One time the Feds got suspicious and went out there to check him out. They went into his cellar. In those times you were allowed to make 200 gallons of wine for home use— not for sale. So he had a bunch of barrels around there. He had a whole barrel of grappa right under the tree and they passed on that one. So that’s as close as they ever got to him. And there was a dairyman who had a bunch of milk cans that he’d modified with false bottoms. You could lift the lid and see milk like usual, but beneath the milk the bottom four-fifths of the can was very good brandy. He delivered it to Fort Bragg in those clever cans that looked like a milk delivery.

“There was also some smuggling, of course. As a matter of fact there’s a spot down the coast they call ‘Smuggler’s Cove.’ There used to be liquor from Canada which would come down and be brought ashore there. It landed all along the coast here.

“Another story has it that some rum-runner boats came into Noyo Harbor to shuttle booze from a Canadian mothership loaded with Canadian whiskey outside US territorial waters. These shuttle boats were fast with powerful motors that could outrun the Coast Guard. The mothership had a very deep hold so it could carry a big load of whiskey that they’d bring in to Fort Bragg and then get redistributed from there. In those days brandy came in boxes with 12 bottles hidden in straw. The rumrunners recruited some dock and fishery workers and told them to get in a big truck. One guy stood over them with a tommy gun. They would pass the boxes of booze from the rumrunner boats over to the truck and load them in the pitch dark. One guy thought he could get away with a couple of the boxes. So he threw a couple of the boxes into a big patch of nettles nearby. But the rumrunners knew how many boxes were in the boat so they knew how many they had to have on the truck. After they counted the boxes the fellow with the tommy gun told the recruits that two boxes were missing. He asked the workers what happened to them. Nobody said anything. So the gun guy supposedly said, ‘Ok, if nobody here is going to admit anything about where the boxes are, we’re going to start chopping off fingers.’ The guy then admitted he tossed two boxes into the nettles. ‘All right young man, take off your clothes,’ the gun guy said. They made him take off his clothes and jump in the nettles and retrieve those two boxes. Have you ever fallen into coast nettles? What a punishment!

“The characters involved in that kind of thing had very few scruples that you and I would recognize today. If you got into trouble with them, you were in serious trouble. Hell, I know of one man they killed down here, about a mile south of town. He was coming up with a load of stuff and they thought he was a squealer or something. The man was not a local. He was shot and left for dead. All we knew was that he was involved in whatever alcohol transaction was transpiring.

“There were a number of Italians bootlegging in the Yorkville hills who were well known to us. But that was all small scale. I don’t think they broke even, although they got their own wine and brandy. To get their product you had to go and get it — it was quite a trip from the coast in those days and they only sold to people they knew. It was never really big money — mostly home-made wine and its potent byproduct, grappa. That stuff would knock you over if you weren’t familiar with it.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Mark Scaramella: Mendocino County’s premier historian and County Government watch dog. Bureaucrats cower and terrible when his fingers hit the keyboards. So nice to see him here, in Mendocino County’s ever growing source of news.

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MendoFever Staff
MendoFever Staff
Editor's Note: Whenever an article's byline reads "MendoFever Staff", the contents of that article were not composed by any of our reporters. Types of writing that will be attributed to "MendoFever Staff" include press releases, letters to the editor, op-eds, obituaries— essentially writing that is not produced by a reporter.

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