Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 1:40 pm | Fair 77º


Santa Barbara Historical Museum Evokes Speakeasy Era with Lecture on Prohibition

Historian Erin Graffy provides a colorful account of Santa Barbara County's role in days of bootlegging

With all the glamour and mystery of a Prohibition era speakeasy, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum delighted guests at its “Cellar Series” lecture and event Thursday night.

Led by local historian Erin Graffy, the event focused on Prohibition’s effect on Santa Barbara County. About 150 guests sat in the museum’s Sala Gallery to hear Graffy, who was dressed in the sequined garb of the 1920s. She gave a fascinating lecture on local Prohibition and presented a history nothing short of encyclopedic to guests.

To deal with the influx of alcohol from Canada and other places, California passed the Wright Act in 1922. The legislation required all law enforcement agencies to crack down on the production and sales of alcohol. Even the U.S. Coast Guard was enlisted to watch for “rum runners” delivering alcohol from Canada, but the officers soon learned the miscreants had more boats, which could move much faster, than they did.

Graffy said Santa Barbara County was one of the busiest places in California during Prohibition, not by volume, but in terms of turnover for alcohol. This was because the county had more than 125 miles of coastline, more than any county in the United States. There were plenty of deserted beaches for rum runners to come ashore. Even if law enforcement got a tip about the location, the area was still quite rural, with no highways and little road infrastructure. Hendry’s (Arroyo Burro), Hope Ranch and Refugio beaches were popular points for bootleggers to disembark.

Even Stearns Wharf witnessed the flow of alcohol as ships docked during the cloak of night. Graffy said that the wharf manager wouldn’t tip off law enforcement for fear of retaliation from the smugglers.

The Channel Islands were also buzzing with illicit activity in the 1920s, Graffy said. Santa Cruz Island in particular was ideal, with its many coves presenting perfect hiding places for stills and stockpiles.

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum rolled out the police tape for a fake Prohibition-era crime scene as part of its 'Speakeasy & Stills' party.
The Santa Barbara Historical Museum rolled out the police tape for a fake Prohibition-era crime scene as part of its “Speakeasy & Stills” party. (Riley Harwood photo via Facebook)

The city of Santa Barbara itself was home to many speakeasies, with some of the most notable at Casa de Sevilla, 428 Chapala St., and in the basement of the Balboa Building, 735 State St., Graffy said.

After the lecture, guests were led to the museum’s own version of a speakeasy, filled with clever flourishes in a nod to the era. A faux crime scene littered the museum’s courtyard, with two vintage law enforcement vehicles parked at the gate to the party.

After giving a “secret password” to the sentry, guests were given the option to choose between wine glasses, or a more discrete tea cup, for their liquid refreshment. A 1920s-style three-piece band played Prohibition era music, and many of the museum’s staff were impeccably dressed in flapper-style dresses.

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free but donations are accepted. Click here for more information, or call 805.966.1601. Connect with the Santa Barbara Historical Museum on Facebook. Follow the museum on Twitter: @SBHistoryMuseum.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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