And She Could Cook....

by Susan Chaffin

"White lightnin, white lightnin, white lightnin I cry.
If I don't get white lightnin, I surely will die."     

               (One version of an American folk song )

White lightning. Moonshine. Bootlegged whiskey. Hooch. The words alone conjure up plucky banjo music and visions of a faint sliver of moonlight playing off coiled copper tubing of a backwoods still. Pictures of your cousin or dad or uncle or Grandpa Bus leading "the revenuers" a merry chase across rutted dirt roads, to a trail leading nowhere, spring readily to mind. American history, both fact and apocryphal, runs thick and rich with tales of this somewhat romantic but dangerous activity. And rightly so, for bootleggers have created both diversion and havoc since the United States of America was an upstart nation trying to fill its newly founded treasury.

     A scant five years after the Constitution was put into effect, President George Washington was forced to deal with an insurrection in Pennsylvania known as the Whiskey Rebellion. In protest of the excise tax on home distilled liquor a group of about five hundred armed men, most of them thought to be farmers, burned down the home of the regional tax inspector and tarred and feathered local revenue officers. The President ordered over thirteen thousand troops to Western Pennsylvania and suppressed the uprising without further violence. It was the first challenge issued to a fledgling nation and was important because the Federalists demonstrated their ability to uphold the law. It was also the first of many, albeit smaller, rebellions against liquor tax, law and the county and state variations that followed.

     One such altercation, on a very much smaller scale, took place in Jewell County, Kansas in 1944. The sheriff, Roy Keeler, and his four foot eleven inch, one hundred five pound deputy, Jean Jacobs, took on a well-known bootlegger. In the article "Bootleggers in Jewell County," Mike Jacobs shares not only the details of this skirmish, but the chuckle-provoking conclusion that occurred almost a half-century later, not in Kansas, but in a cardiac rehabilitation class in Fort Collins, Colorado.

     Picture this petite woman rattling along Kansas Highway 14, barely able to see over the steering wheel of the lumbering law enforcement vehicle, while Sheriff Keeler unholstered his gun and fired over the heads of the men leading this chase ("he didn't want to harm anyone over bootleg whiskey"). The bootlegger and his accomplice did not return this gunfire. Instead, as they drove lickety split on KS 14, traveling south from the Nebraska state line towards Beloit, the lawbreakers tossed bottles higgledy-piggledy out of the windows of their car, into the soft, short grass-lined ditch banks bracketing the road. It was an exciting event, although even with Deputy Jacobs' crack driving ability, the bootleggers, their adrenaline pumping, and perhaps "Don't Fence Me In" playing on the car radio, successfully eluded the law enforcement team.

     It was a good team and certainly not the usual team for that moment in time. While not seen as an oddity in today's world, in 1944 women in law enforcement were somewhat of a rarity. It was also unique in that Jean Jacobs was Sheriff Roy Keeler's daughter. Jean was drafted by her father, not because she aspired to make police work her career, but because another type of draft drained the county, like the majority of counties in America, of "able bodied men who could drive." So Sheriff Keeler went to the Jewell County Commissioners to ask permission to deputize Jean and the rest, as people say, is history. Jean, whose husband, George P. Jacobs, was fighting for peace across the ocean with the Army Signal Corps, helped keep the peace in Jewell County from 1944 to 1945. Her job also enabled her to stay in living quarters at the jail and help her mother, Margaret Keeler, cook for the occasional prisoner.

     In pre-war America, cooking for inmates was common for the wives and daughters and sisters of small town police officers and county sheriffs. The town or county paid for these services for the incarcerated individuals, and, depending of course on who did the cooking, prisoners usually ate fairly well. Jean Jacobs says there were never many prisoners at one time and those they had didn't stay very long. Her mother, Mrs. Keeler, gave the inmate a serving of the family's breakfast or supper rather than cook a totally separate meal. This seems to have been common in Kansas counties. Of course in 1944, the United States still had some food items rationed (although for awhile in 1944 some meat was taken off the ration list). Victory gardens and a "meatless day" meant cooks had to be a little more creative than before the war, but the Great Depression taught homemakers well and most could make the best of what they had. Food was plain and the portions were small, not "working man" size, but the inmates were served three meals a day. Breakfast was usually oatmeal, toast and coffee, followed by dinner at mid-day and supper in the evening. Chicken and dumplings or noodles, meatloaf, chicken or beef and noodles, potatoes, peas, green beans and corn were the standard. Of course, there was always good, strong, hot coffee or water. Occasionally Mrs. Keeler baked bread and, if the inmate was very lucky, homemade cookies. The wonderful yeasty smell pervading the air surrounding baking bread must have added a "homey" touch to the otherwise sinister home for lawbreakers.

     Although some residents of Jewell County didn't perceive the jail to be menacing at all. Museum curator and article author Mike Jacobs remembers, fondly, that he, his sisters and several cousins thought of the jail as home. Grandpa Roy and Grandma Margaret lived right there so the youngsters were allowed to spend various amounts of time "in the jail" while visiting.

     In fact, ex-Deputy Jacobs (who retired in 1945 when George returned home from his war duty in North Africa, France, Italy and Germany) and her baby daughter (and Mike's sister) Sheila spent the first several weeks of Sheila's life, living at the jail instead of at the Jacob's farm southeast of Montrose. This was necessitated by a spell of extremely bad weather just after Sheila was born. Apparently the fact this woman's ("who is a model of decorum") first home was the Jewell County jail provides much delight to grown up Sheila's son and, possibly, a few of her K-3 students. Mike relays this information with as much of a chortle as he does the delayed ending of his Kansas Collection article. The respect and love for his grandparents and parents is easy to see behind his amusing anecdotes.

     It must have been a sad day when Sheriff Roy Keeler stepped down from his second term of office in 1948. The county not only lost a fine sheriff but his cousins and grandchildren lost a favorite play area. But the bootleggers, even with the loss of Mrs. Keeler's warm, fresh bread, probably breathed a small sigh of relief.

Jailhouse Food Recipes     Kansas Liquor Timeline     Rationing Timeline


In addition to my old family recipes, several people provided bits of research information during the preparation of this article. Below are some of the notes I used and thought readers might find of interest. I would also like to thank: Mike Jacobs, "Bootleggers in Jewel County" author and Archaeological Collections Curator at the Arizona State Museum and his mother, Jean Keeler Jacobs, "retired Jewell County deputy sheriff," now of Tucson, Arizona, for insight into their life in 1944....Mary Ann Thompson, EKIS volunteer and librarian at the Hays Public Library, 1205 Main Street, Hays, KS. for her wonderful Kansas liquor timeline....and, as always, my mother, Ruth Frisbie Hedrick, one of the best Kansas cooks around ... even though she's lived in the West for 50 years.

About the author, Susan Chaffin:

     "I live in Woodbury Connecticut, a town where there are more antique stores than markets, with my husband (Chris) and two labrador retrievers (Moose & Casey). We also share the land with white tail deer, wild turkey, geese, raccoons, fox, coyote and a variety of brightly colored birds.We have two grown children, Sean, who is a chef, and Erin, who is a junior in college. My undergrad work was in philosophy and English but I discovered history about 10 years ago and it has developed into a passion. I also love food (cooking and eating and talking about). Although I am researching a book on early women river guides and about to publish a workbook on writing personal and family history, I hadn't thought about combining food and writing and history until 'the other Susan' [the Voices editor] mentioned it. And what fun this has been!"

Editor's note: When I asked Susan to provide some information about herself, she suggested hopefully, "She's tall ... she's thin ... she can eat anything and never gains an ounce ...."!

Voices 'Contents'     KanColl