Jan. 16, 1920 saw the ratification by congress of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established the prohibition of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States.
This “noble experiment” as Herbert Hoover called it, banned the production, storage and sale of alcohol in the United States and marked the end point of a decades-long movement to quell the devastation wrought by alcoholism that had gripped the country from at least the early 1800s.
In Valley Stream, however, Prohibition proved a tricky interdiction to enforce. Since at least the 1860s, with the advent of the South Side Railroad line and a receding agrarian economy, the neighborhood became a hotbed for hospitality services, so much so that Rockaway Avenue became known as Rum Junction, according to Bill Florio, vice president of the Valley Stream Historical Society.
“When the South Side Railroad came through, people started stopping here, and they needed accommodations,” he said. “So they had saloons, hotels and taverns popping up all around Rockaway. A few of those hotels survived into Prohibition.”
South of the tracks on Rockaway and Sunrise Highway was the Bunny Hotel, run by turn-of-the-century American film actor John Bunny, who was “definitely running illegal liquor,” Florio said.
Additionally, on the southeast corner of Rockaway Avenue and Merrick Road was Hayes Hotel. “More than likely there was bootlegging going on there,” too he said and it saw a number of raids by law enforcement like many entertainment establishments of the time.
Merrick Road, from Rosedale, through Valley Stream and Lynbrook to Freeport, where its docks served as a major clandestine entryway for illegal liquor, was a vital conduit for liquor smuggling and consumption, according to a number of historians.
The practice was so widespread that Merrick became known as “Bootleggers’ Boulevard” according to local historian and Freeport librarian Regina Feeney, with evidence of basement speakeasies and stills being unearthed to this day.
Perhaps most famously in Valley Stream, however, was a nightclub run by actress and notorious speakeasy manager Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan. Formerly known as Hoffman’s on the northwest corner of Merrick Road and Central Avenue, the club became Texas Guinan’s Show Palace when she took it over in 1929, later renaming it La Casa Guinan in 1932.
“She was considered the nightclub queen in New York City,” Florio said. “There’s a lot written on Texas Guinan.”
A 1975 article in the New York Times noted, “Valley Stream has always been popular for its liquids,” and that Guinan would drive through the neighborhood in a lavender Rolls Royce during the era while she managed the club, greeting patrons with her famous line “Hello suckers.”
Florio noted her connections with organized crime, including notable mobsters such as Al Capone, who was prominent in the bootlegging business, and she had frequent run-ins with law enforcement. Guinan also ran a speakeasy in Lynbrook called the Blossom Heath Inn.
“She was very much involved in the type of illegal bootlegging that the mob was doing,” Florio said. “She was arrested a number of times for breaking Prohibition, and needless to say when she came to Valley Stream and Lynbrook, the same things kept happening.”
Guinan died on Nov. 5, 1935 exactly one month before Prohibition was repealed.
Local sentiment at the time — as far as can be surmised from existing records — was negative, and viewed Prohibition along with its accompanying enforcement edicts as an opportunity for corruption. The Jan. 19, 1923 edition of the Valley Stream “Outlaw” publication lambasted efforts to ban the actual consumption of alcohol (Prohibition only outlawed its production and sale), or as it sardonically referred to as “that pleasant, soul-destroying beverage called booze.”
“What, a lot more graft?” the author wrote. “The enforcement agents will then go around with ‘John Doe’ search warrants and stomach pumps. Hear, hear, and an yeast cake and the hoosegow for you if you have spent your money.” Hoosegow was an early American term for jail.
“The Outlaw” later warned of ever increasing economic toll the 18th Amendment would take, as it became institutionalized and ate up tax dollars in its enforcement with graft growing on the side.
“Everybody who is mixed up in the prohibition movement has a good job and they want it to last, as they make money from both ends,” the author wrote in the Feb. 2, 1923 edition. “It’s better to acknowledge a mistake, and repair the wrong. Repeal the 18th Amendment and relieve the people from the great tax that is imposed in their effort to enforce an injustice.”
That wouldn’t happen for another decade, however, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on repealing the increasingly unpopular 18th, with the passage and ratification on Dec. 5 1933 of the 21st Amendment, which ended the “experiment.”