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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)

 

 

TILLAMOOK, TILLAMOOK COUNTY; 1925:

Lobster trap for bootleggers a huge but costly success

Audio version: Download MP3 or use controls below:
By Finn J.D. John
July 21, 2019

LATE IN THE SPRING of 1925, two out-of-town strangers rolled into the town of Tillamook, arriving on the train and checking into a downtown hotel. For weeks they explored the town, chatting up older residents and asking about its history, major industries, and various other Chamber of Commerce-type stuff. They hired a taxi for days at a time and rode around the county exploring.

By the time they’d been there a week or so, they’d met and chatted up nearly everyone in town. But when asked what brought them to Tillamook, the strangers were a bit cagey, muttering something about a book project and changing the subject. This, naturally, made the locals even more curious about what they were up to.

Finally, the two of them approached the president of the Chamber of Commerce and asked if they might make an announcement at the next meeting.

At the meeting, the two men revealed their reason for coming to Tillamook: They were location scouts for a major Hollywood studio, the identity of which they weren’t allowed to disclose. They were working on a project for a major motion-picture event, and during their week or so of wandering around and chatting people up they had been assessing whether Tillamook County was the place to shoot it. They had decided that it was, if certain obstacles could be overcome. They needed to house about 250 people conveniently close to the set; would the Chamber please help them get local residents to agree to take in paying house guests, and also to find about 500 people as extras?

Maxwell Point towers over the beach at Oceanside. The “Lee Film Corporation” actually contracted with an Oceanside construction firm to build a prop lighthouse on it. (Image: M.O. Stevens)

Well, of course, it is not in the DNA of any Chamber of Commerce to say “no” to a proposal like that. So when the two strangers boarded a train headed for L.A., they carried with them the full and hearty approval of the Chamber.

A week later, they were back. The movie was a go! It was to be called “The Daughter of the Sea,” starring one of the hottest leading ladies in Hollywood (they could not yet reveal her identity, they added). The studio had leased a large piece of land with a house on it (located where Tillamook Regional Medical Center is today) to build out into a movie set.

The money started to flow as the studio hired construction crews to work on the sets. They built an Indian village, a fisherman’s cottage, and a logging camp with an authentic-looking bunkhouse. Off set, they’d inked a contract with a local outfit to build a lighthouse on Maxwell Point in Oceanside.

Some of the construction workers were puzzled by the bunkhouse. It seemed like they were seriously overbuilding it, in contrast to the other movie sets, which were of the usual flimsy construction. But the movie producers pointed out that there would be some major set-piece fights staged in that bunkhouse, and it had to stand up to them.

At last the scene was ready. A number of locals had been signed up as extras — including Ed Hamlin, who was actually getting paid the ridiculously princely sum of $5 a day (equal to about $73 in modern currency) to grow his whiskers so he’d look like a grizzled fisherman. Locals shook their heads in wonder: Those Hollywood people sure knew how to throw their money around.

The sets were astonishingly elaborate: a local telephone system to communicate on set, multiple carefully built camera positions, and even a professionally-plumbed rain machine to generate the storm that would be part of the plot. All that remained was to get the still-unidentified Big Star to town and start filming.

The actors were to arrive on July 23, and there would be 40 of them. A huge welcoming party was planned for them. And so the word was slipped, in every way possible, to the local bootleggers: The “Lee Film Corporation” would be buying every drop of high-quality moonshine it could get its hooks on. The man they’d tasked with solving this problem was a fellow named Gussie Jones, who was staying at the Tillamook Hotel.

“About a week before the party, the said Gussie Jones came in on the train, registered at the hotel, and made himself very conspicuously inconspicuous,” E.R. Huckleberry recalled in his memoirs. “Most of the time he was in the hotel lobby, but sometimes he walked around, seeming to favor back streets and vacant lots.”

 

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The article in the Portland Morning Oregonian on July 24, 1925, telling the story of the “lobster trap for bootleggers” operation in Tillamook. (Image: OSU Libraries)

 

When a bootlegger made contact, Jones would instruct him to come to Room 241 in 15 minutes and knock three times. Up in Room 241, Jones would explain that he’d been tasked with arranging for the drinks, but he was having trouble finding enough for the party, and was starting to get a little desperate. He had connections in Los Angeles, but not here, and the stars would be here in a week and boy, would they be thirsty.

“The price he was authorized to offer, cash on delivery, made a backcountry bootlegger’s eyes pop,” Huckleberry recounted. “When quantity and other details were arranged, he was told to bring his merchandise to the shaded side door of the house on the set (the film company’s temporary headquarters), where some trees made it pretty dark. He was told to be there at precisely a certain time, when the sheriff and his men would be sucked out of town on a false alarm.”

The bootleggers were scheduled to make their deliveries an hour apart, bringing them to the house that served as temporary film company headquarters, on the evening of July 22.

 

THE FIRST BOOTLEGGERS, C.F. DeFord and Roy Williams, made their scheduled delivery shortly after darkness fell. When they pulled up, the house was in total darkness; but as they stopped by the side door, a man stepped out of the shadows. It was Gussie Jones, a hat pulled low over his eyes. “Just open the door and set your jugs on the floor on the far side of the room,” Gussie told them in a low voice. “I’ll keep watch. As soon as you unload, I’ll pay you.”

The bootleggers, arms full of jugs of liquor, stepped through the door into the darkness of the room — and one of them felt a gun muzzle poke him in the ribs from behind.

“Just hang onto them jugs, buddy, and keep walking,” growled a voice behind the gun muzzle, and another figure snapped on a flashlight, leading the way out the back door of the house — and up a short trail to that overbuilt bunkhouse.

Meanwhile, one of the other “movie” people had started up their car and driven it off to a pre-arranged hiding spot, returning in time to be in position for the next bootlegger, who would be arriving an hour later.

It was a busy night. By the time the sun broke out on the movie set, there were seven handcuffed bootleggers waiting glumly in the bunkhouse-cum-jailhouse; and there would have been one or two more, but the last delivery of the evening was delayed by motor trouble and arrived just in time to see the district attorney on the porch of the house. Naturally, he opened up the throttle and hoofed it at top speed.

The haul of illegal hooch came to over 100 gallons.

The newspapers claim the district attorney came up with the scheme; but this is probably a deliberate blind to protect the Prohibition agents responsible for it. It’s super unlikely that a small-county D.A., in 1925, would have this level of detailed knowledge of the film industry; and he certainly wouldn’t have had the financial resources to pull a stunt like this.

According to Huckleberry, this sort of “lobster-trap” operation was a specialized method of Prohibition enforcement, run by (who else?) the feds.

“The T man that organized the scheme said it was the most successful trap ever pulled on the coast,” Huckleberry wrote. “And Tillamook was almost dry for a few months, probably longer than any time before or since.”

(Sources: The Adventures of Dr. Huckleberry, a book by E.R. Huckleberry published in 1970 by Oregon Historical Society Press; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, July 24, 1925)

SUMMARY: No one in Tillamook County even suspected the “Lee Film Company” was a front for government Prohibition enforcement until the trap was sprung ... but it has to have been the most expensive law enforcement operation in the county's history.

 

 

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