The wooded limestone hills around Glen Rose feel quiet and look postcard-pretty today. But in the 1920s during the height of Prohibition, the hills were alive with stills.
Illegal whiskey known as moonshine -- so named because it was often made in secret and at night by the light of the moon -- flowed, and so did big money.
Somervell County Moonshiners, merchants and lawmen were "in cahoots" to make large amounts of whiskey for export to Dallas, Fort Worth, and beyond. Trucks filled with bootleg whiskey rolled out of the county bound for thirsty customers in Dallas and Houston.
In The Texas Sheriff: Lord of the County Line by Thad Sitton, former Sheriff Gaston Boykin of Comanche County told the story this way: "It was pretty well open over there and the sheriff was making it, too. I knew the old sheriff pretty well. He went to the pen. He sold a bunch of his moonshine on credit, and the fellow didn't pay him, so he went over and got enough of his cows to sell to make up for it, and they got him for stealing cattle. He served his hitch and come back and was elected again as sheriff."
Hijacking the whiskey trucks emerged as a business of its own, Sitton wrote. Outlaws stole from outlaws.
Information for the following was obtained from articles published in the Cleburne Morning Review in 1923, "The Story and Families of Somervell County, Texas" and Dorothy Leach's personal archives.
The moon shone brightly on a steamy summer night in central Texas, casting its glow along a rocky trail. Traversing the path throughout the night were well-known locals, among them the sheriff, ascending forested hills until the pungent odor of a potent homemade liquor filled the air.
Friday night called for part-time weekend work in the backwoods, which often paid more than a full-time job. Customers drove from miles around, some even from other states, just to purchase a bottle or two of the illegal liquid gold known as "moonshine."
The destination was Glen Rose, a seemingly sleepy town until one Saturday morning in August 1923 when top-secret operations of alcohol manufacturing, illegal for more than four years under Prohibition, literally went up in flames.
The raids began early on Aug. 25, 1923 when Texas Ranger Captain R.D. Shumate descended on Somervell County with one purpose -- to clear the county of "illicit stills and bootleggers."
The first batch of contraband and law-breakers were rounded up at approximately 7 a.m. Within hours, the courthouse lawn was littered with stills, whiskey, choc beer, or Choctaw Indian beer, and other paraphernalia until "the courthouse yard resembled a cross between a grocery store and a junk yard," one local newspaper reported.
By count, approximately seven stills had been confiscated, with a dozen more destroyed by law enforcement officials or owners throughout the day.
Within 11 hours, at least 27 men had been taken into custody, including Somervell County Sheriff T. Walker Davis.
"The work cannot be finished today," Shumate said.
A 2 a.m. call confirmed that 17 of the captured men had been transported to the Johnson County Jail, where a majority of them would be detained less than 48 hours before facing federal charges.
On Monday, Aug. 27, charges were filed against 31 Somervell County residents with United States Commissioner McCormick in Waco. Among the 13 defendants, transported to Waco by Ranger M. Burton, were Sheriff Davis and County Attorney E.L. Roark. The two were charged with conspiracy to violate the national prohibition law, each received a bond of $1,500 and assigned a preliminary hearing within a week.
Twenty-nine other defendants were charged "with the manufacture, possession and sale of intoxicating liquor and with the possession and sale of intoxicants." The individuals each received a bond of $750 and scheduled for a preliminary hearing.
Burton took little evidence with him to Waco.
"There must have been a total of 40 raids Saturday and Sunday," Burton said. "We found still after still high up in the cedar brakes in some of the wildest country in Texas. We took quite enough whiskey and stills to use as evidence. I think there are (18) stills in the bunch taken, some of them less than ... gallons capacity. Many of the stills we (broke) up where we found them, because of the nature of the country and difficulty of getting them to the (roads)."
The largest still captured was reported to be 400-gallons, according to Ranger Lee Shannon. A cistern filled with beer, measuring eight feet wide and 12 feet deep, was also found seven miles south of Glen Rose, Shannon said.
Roark pleaded not guilty to the state and federal charges against him later that Monday.
"There is nothing to it," Roark said. "I will plead not guilty to any charges filed against me."
While Roark and nearly 40 other men awaited their fate in jail, Shumate announced that raids and arrests would continue in Somervell County.
Two days later, Aug. 29, 1923, Shumate's promise rang true. This time, however, the raid ended in bloodshed.
Tullus Holt of Waco was killed, one other was captured and several more escaped Texas Rangers near the Somervell and Bosque county lines.
Rangers discovered the men among a large still that was in operation. As the officers approached, the men scattered into the woods, firing as they made their escape.
Holt was discovered among the brush after smoke had cleared - near him was a .38 caliber double-action Colt pistol. Holt was reportedly at liberty on a two-year sentence for bootlegging in Bosque County, which had been suspended.
Shumate reported the still had 100-gallon capacity. Ten gallons of whiskey and 1,150 gallons of mash were also discovered and destroyed.
The raids continued to increase with evidence piling up against the accused. The situation prompted County Attorney Roark to resign from his post.
Roark filed his resignation with the county clerk on Aug. 31, 1923, but maintained his innocence. He told local reporters that he felt justice would be served better if he was not in the way of the grand jury's investigation.
Despite his arrest, Sheriff Davis did not resign from his position.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Shelby S. Cox said Dallas was "one of the most important markets for bootleggers operating in Somervell County" prior to the raids.
Cox was acting as an advisor to the Texas Rangers during the investigation.
While Cox stated important findings were made by the Rangers, he did not share them with the public. Instead, he said the information would be shared during a trial. Cox did, however, comment on the impact of the investigation.
"Investigations revealed that prior to the raids one of the strongest bootlegger rings ever unearthed by officers had been operating in Somervell County," Cox said. "Whiskey makers were pooling their products and selling by a brokerage system to bootleggers in Dallas and other cities."
Within a week, a grand jury had been selected.
Members included foreman F.S. Williams, John Dempsey, S.J. Young, R.L. McAlister, W.M. Hawkins, A.B. Cornell, G.O. White, B.A. Collings, G.W. Riddle, O.B. Hewlett, J.W. Million and P.L. Embree.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 1923, the jury called its first witness, State Ranger M. Burton.
The jury was expected to use its entire two-week allotted time period to address the liquor law traffic violations. No cases appeared on either the civil or criminal docket.
Some individuals were prosecuted and sent to jail for their involvement with the bootlegger rings in Somervell County while others were set free. It is unknown, however, which of the accused fall into each category.
The tale of the moonshine raids live on in Somervell County. It is said that the legendary liquid still can be found in the backwoods.