Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hidden history a look at Bottle Island

This story was published in Liberty Life Magazine's Winter 2011 edition - After a full week of rain in mid-October, the sun broke through. Its rays cast a warm glow over the coast as St. Catherines Island mechanic Allen Dean steers his Bay Craft boat through the maze of marshes that make up the eastern coast of Liberty County. Dean’s vessel cut through the water of the North Newport River — a left turn here, a right turn there — as he weaves through small inlets on the way to his clandestine destination. “We started exploring all these places … the barrier islands and St. Catherines, and it was just a story that was handed down,” Allen’s father, Ted Dean, recalls as he grabs the anchor and rope. Dean, who grew up in Midway and once owned hardware and liquor stores, began exploring the river as a young man and still ventures out on the waters today. The motor throttles down, and the vessel coasts up to a small bluff on an island about an acre long. Covered with pine trees and thick shrubs, the island doesn’t appear to be much. But locals say it holds a connection to the past. “Here we are, Bottle Island,” Dean says. Only a handful of locals know about Bottle Island, mostly folks who live in the eastern end of the county. What they do know is from stories passed down over two generations. Bottle Island is reported to be the spot where rum-runners stashed their bounty of illegal liquor during the years of American Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Legend has it that this is where the revenuers, as they were called back then, raided the smuggling operations and disposed of the booze by destroying the bottles and crates on multiple occasions. Mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Prohibition — intended to be a moral cleansing of the country — was a national ban on the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol, according to the U.S. National Archives. Instead, the regulation made way for the illicit trade of alcohol throughout the nation and the rise of organized crime under bootleggers like Al Capone and rum-runners like William ‘”Bill” McKoy until the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the rule. On the island, Dean secures the boat and strolls through the brush and pine straw. Suddenly, an old pathway is visible and scattered shards of glass peppering the ground reflect the sunlight. “Here they are,” Dean says, pointing down the path. Hundreds of old bottle pieces are strewn about. Dean reaches down and grabs a large piece of an amber-colored bottle. The bottles do not look like the typical plain, paper-labeled containers found in liquor stores today. These bottles are intricately engraved, the brand names forever etched into the glass. Paul Zechman, the director of building and licensing for Liberty County, has one such bottle in his office. He likes to share the story about his first Bottle Island experience, which happened when he was about 13 years old. An older friend named Lee Card took Zechman and some of his friends to the island. Zechman picks up his prized possession and launches into the story. “This one is the only one we found that was nearly intact,” he says, holding the container up. The words “Bourbon de Luxe Whiskey” and the initials UD LTD and Vancouver, Canada, are etched into the glass. “That is the only bottle I have. I’ve probably been out there six to eight times in my life and … that is the most complete bottle I’ve ever seen,” Zechman says. He recalls stories he’s heard about rum-runners and how they worked with larger boats waiting offshore. “They would bring whiskey in and meet a bigger boat out in the ocean or offshore somewhere and then the smaller boats would ferry it in,” he says. “They would put it on the island. The marsh is hard marsh and they would walk it across that marsh and distribute it. The feds got word of it and raided the island, caught it on the island while they were bringing it in … they busted every bottle.” Zechman’s bottle is very similar to the bits and pieces dotting the island. It is mostly intact, except where the bottom corner was cracked open to drain the liquor it once contained. The lid is pewter or tin, the size of a jigger and engraved with the words “For Connoisseurs.” Legend has it that whiskey wasn’t the only booze they smuggled, Zechman says. “You’ll have different colored bottles,” he says. “You’ll have the brown bottles and the green bottles that were wine and the clear bottles that were gin, and you can see the different stacks along the way.” On the island, Dean carefully walks through the debris, pointing out the piles of green shattered bottles, more amber ones and some clear pieces, somewhat corroborating Zechman’s account. “They were probably Jimmy John jugs,” Dean says pointing to the clear glass shards. “Those were clear.” Picking his way around the old containers, Dean says he thinks he heard the story of Bottle Island from former Liberty County Sheriff Robert V. Sikes. “My dad was good friends with Bobby’s dad … most of it was hearsay and hand-me-downs,” Dean says. Robert Sikes recalls his father, the late Paul H. Sikes, who served as Liberty County sheriff for more than 20 years, mentioning the island when he was young. During prohibition, however, the county’s sheriff was M.F. Clark, and Paul Sikes was a young business man in the community. “I had heard stories that my dad was deputized by Sheriff Clark to go and catch the smugglers, but he didn’t talk a lot about his work,” Robert Sikes says, adding his father mentioned the island once during a conversation. Sikes says he even heard there once was a shootout between the smugglers, local law enforcement authorizes and federal agents during a raid. “The first time I ever went there I was in the sheriff’s office … somebody mentioned Bottle Island and I said, ‘Take me to it; I would like to see it,’” he recalls. “There were thousands of broken bottles and it looked like they had stacked them because there would be scotch bottles here, bourbon over here and something over here, and all of the bottles were busted up.” Though accounts from Zechman and Sikes were passed down orally, local historian Robert Long Groover documented a struggle between law enforcement officials and smugglers in his book “Sweet Land of Liberty, A History of Liberty County, Georgia.” “America went ‘dry’ and on Jan. 16, 1920, began the ‘noble experiment’ of prohibition of liquor,” Groover wrote. “Within two months a group of local citizens formed the Law Enforcement League of Liberty County to assist the county sheriff in enforcing the law. The Liberty County coastline, beset by the British navy during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, now became a battleground where the U.S. Coast Guard and law enforcement officials regularly fought a losing battle with rum-runners.” Two federal agencies were charged with enforcing prohibition, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury Department Internal Revenue Service agents, then known as revenuers. Much of the liquor smuggled in came from Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. Raids by state revenue officers and local law enforcement officials were fairly common in 1932, according to Groover’s account. On Aug. 26, 1930 the Miami Daily News reported that a ship of British registry was apprehended by the coast guard at the mouth of St. Catherines sound with a cargo of assorted liquor valued at $40,000. “I don’t really know who was smuggling or any of those details,” Zechman says. “Obviously, it was an ongoing thing and had gone on more than one time.” Other than the remaining piles of glass, the island mostly is pristine and untouched. It’s still possible to dig down and find larger bottle pieces buried a foot deep in the soil, much like Zechman did as a child. “When we were little kids, the story was that if you found a whole bottle, it was worth a lot of money,” he recalls. “I think the purpose was to give us something to do as kids. We would go over there and look. And there was always the story about somebody hiding a whole case in the woods … We would scour the whole island and all the marsh and everything looking ... we never found any cases there. The whole idea was to destroy it. I mean, it was prohibition and we didn’t want devil alcohol to poison our minds.”

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