I never met my maternal grandfather, since he died before I was born, and I was only one year old when my maternal grandmother died. They had six children and they live through the stories their children tell.
Memories have a way of reinventing themselves and I have listened to many family discussions that disagree. One memory all their children agree on,however, happened during the depression when grandfather was a bootlegger.
Granddad supported six children, a wife and a father living in his home; as well as a roving number of assorted relatives, who stayed for short and long stays, and friends who dropped by on Sunday for the best, fried chicken dinner in town.
He had trained as a classical violinist, so when the depression descended, he made extra money playing honky-tonk fiddle in bars and on the radio. He played on the Hammond radio station as “Dad DeWitt and the Pumpkin Huskers.” His four daughters sang and his two sons played instruments. This was not what he became famous for, though.
What he became famous for, was the best bootleg bathtub gin in Lake County, Indiana. The, then Mayor of Hammond was his best customer.
The still had been set up under a false floor in the coal bin of the house they rented. One day, a cousin was helping him watch the still and fell asleep at the gauges. Yup, it exploded. Fine black coal dust sifted up out of every register in the house. No one was hurt but it days to get the house cleaned of soot.
Grandpas bootlegging career ended unexpectedly the day a black limousine pulled into the yard. The driver knocked on the door and told granddad that Al Capone was waiting to talk to him. Mom says Granddad’s face turned white as a ghost at those words. Grandma did not know if she would ever see him again. He walked to the car, with Capone’s henchman, and got into the back seat. The car did not drive off. Instead, Granddad sat in the back seat and had a conversation with Al Capone, in the limousine, in my grandparent’s yard.
Capone told Granddad that the quality of granddad’s gin was so high he wanted granddad to make bathtub gin only for him. He would buy Granddad a new car and a new house. But the house would have to be located where Capone wanted it. Granddad politely declined what must have been great wealth during the depression. He explained to Capone that he had children and did not feel it would be right to get them involved in this business. Capone was very friendly and polite about the whole thing and even gave Granddad a cigar.
After the conversation, Granddad came in and smashed the still. That is when grandpa, Omar DeWitt, decided he was not going to make bootleg bathtub gin anymore, for anyone. He was not going to endanger his family because once you start working for Al Capone, you could never ever quit.