I was adopted and never met my birth father or mother, but my adopted mother, Amanda, one great lady, was abused by her husband, whose name I carry now. She was an old fashioned lady, and I am certain she tried with all her strength to please him. She spoke only rarely to me of his abuse, but I am certain it was heavy on her heart. When I was three she left him, driving us in a Model-T Ford from San Francisco, the city of my birth, north to Washington state and the then very small city of Everett (ca 27,000 population), where I grew up.
About that time (1929), a great depression was descending on our country. She met my stepfather Alan (probably knew him from San Francisco and maybe it was he who drove that Model-T those 900 miles). We stayed at his parent’s farm in Arlington, a small town north of Everett, until she found a job at a hospital in Everett. It would be 20 years before they married, but they lived together intermittently for much of that era. My stepfather was a bootlegger, and he earned a fairly good (sometimes) living smuggling low priced hard liquor from Vancouver, BC, and selling it at a good profit in Everett.
We eventually settled in a house they built together a few miles south of Everett, and I started school there in a small two-room schoolhouse. My stepfather continued traveling to Canada and sell cheap booze to the neighbors wherever we lived. She told me that he sat down and cried (totally unlike him) the day they repealed Prohibition. He also made homebrew and probably distilled something as well.
In those days, many houses (even in city areas) had outhouses, but we changed homes and locations regularly, six times by the time I was eight. That’s when we were living in a small house in the south Everett suburb of Lowell (three-rooms/$3 monthly rent/big yard) with a flush toilet in the woodshed! In the very cold winter of 1934, that toilet froze, and we had to use the neighbor’s old-fashioned outhouse, but Alan had kept them supplied with good Canadian booze and his own homebrew, so it was probably no problem. He had an aversion to living in a house with its own indoor toilet. He was living two miles away in Everett and caring for his mother. We didn’t see much of him, which was just as well. It was a really small three-room house!
Alan continued homebrewing, and one day I was rummaging through stuff in a closet, when I discovered his “stash” of fat 32-oz quarts. I shook one bottle a bit, and when I set the bottle back in its space, the bottle cracked and popped in a low-key explosion. It scared the hell outta me! But I kept quiet about it, not wishing to be blamed. When my mother found the mess, she was not amused! Indeed, she was all over his case for a long time, during which I was free to be little Freddy. Trust me, I was cute: blonde, blue-eyed, small—76 pounds—even as I turned thirteen. I wasn’t a nice little boy but you, dear reader, already knew that, didn’t you?
What a revelation that was! If one of those bottles exploded I was home free for days! If I wasn’t a nice little boy, I wasn’t a dumb one either. Or maybe just too smart for my own good.
Alan’s recipe was classic Prohibition homebrew. In a heavy 12-gallon porcelain crock he assembled the ingredients: a 2-1/2 pound can of Blue Ribbon Hop Flavored Malt Extract, 10 pounds of corn sugar (corn sugar was dextrose, better for homebrewing than household sugar—sucrose). He dissolved all that in some hot water, and added tap water to ten gallons total. Fermentation was induced by the addition of a cube of Fleischman’s Baker’s Yeast. Production took about three weeks total.
The stuff cost him about a penny a quart, and he sold it for maybe ten times that. It had truly wretched flavor, but it was a bargain for all involved, especially me. This was the Great American Beer of the Prohibition era, and it ruined the good name of homebrew for half a century.
If the homebrewers (and they were truly numerous) of that era had had access to the information we have at our fingertips these days, Prohibition would not have lasted two years. The above recipe was the universal standard of that benighted era. The alcohol content of such beer was probably over 7 percent ABV. Not especially low powered, but the raunchy taste of cheap malt extract and corn sugar kept it from having any loveable qualities.
My downfall came when I took a bunch of Alan’s World War I souvenirs (German Iron Cross and a good selection of this and that) and gave them away to friends at school. Then, for reasons I can’t fathom now, I wandered about the paper mill parking lot collecting valve caps from the tires of parked autos. That’s right, valve caps! I had two pockets full of them. I’ve no idea why. She asked me where I got them, and I told her I’d “found them.”
“You found two pockets full of valve caps?” Apparently she doubted my veracity—imagine that. She was earning 25 cents an hour at the paper mill. I was not a cheap kid and Alan wasn’t spending that much time in the house, where I had free run all alone much of the time.
Life Away from Home
On a sunny Wednesday in March of 1936, a 1935 Pontiac drew up alongside our house, and a portly gentleman was ushered in. Mr. Olson had come for me. My mother had finally had it, and she really couldn’t afford me any more in any case. I was carted away to the local Lutheran-operated Forest Park Childrens’ Home. I would cost her $12 a month, a monumental expense for her at that time in our lives.
It was good for me—I surely would have gotten myself into serious trouble. I was allowed to visit her every Sunday after church. She really was the most wonderful mother a child could hope for. She had labored heartily for my benefit for all of my life. I had flunked the first grade (which she didn’t tell me about until I was fifteen) and she had moved out of Everett and up to Bryant, near Arlington (30 miles north), to change my school. She told the folks there that I had been in the first grade “last year” and she had lost my report card, but that I belonged in the second grade. Guess who did just great as a second-grader.
I lived in the children’s home for just over five years. Those wonderful Norwegian ladies were great people. To my knowledge, no child was ever mistreated there and spankings were exceedingly rare. Most other childrens’ homes in that time truly mistreated their young wards. They were, many of them, managed by religious fanatics who shouldn’t have been allowed near children. We children at Forest Park went to nearby public schools. We made friends with, and talked it over with our peers. We heard many horrific stories about children’s homes of the time.
I soon learned to actually be a nice little boy (well—mostly), and when I turned fourteen, my loving mother Amanda wanted me back. I said she was wonderful, didn’t I? So I moved back in with her. Alan was still around, but we didn’t see all that much of him and she was now employed as a bookbinder with a local print shop. Alan was a regular, and we became better acquainted, but he did his homebrewing at very infrequent intervals at his own mother’s home in north Everett.
My goal in life at this point was to escape Everett, and make a good home for my beloved mother. While rummaging through her stuff (I was 15 by then and that is what 15-year-olds actually do), I discovered a horror: my adoption papers. I was shocked, since she had never mentioned that. I couldn’t take it. I left the house and walked over to a nearby park, sat under a tree and cried my eyes out for about two hours. Why? Because I thought that I would lose my wonderful (adopted) mother. I loved her so much. She was so great and had done so much for me with no help from society. I’ve never had a desire to meet my birth parents, even years later, after I learned their names.
I quit high school right at the start, so I could go to work and help this wonderful woman manage. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was energized. That was a war I didn’t want to miss for any reason. I joined the Marines at seventeen (1943). I rejoiced at being able to escape from Everett, but I did miss my mother.
After the war (1946), I returned to Everett, and three years later (1949) they finally got married. Alan’s homebrew remained the vile-tasting stuff it had always been, but he furnished it to myself and my friends as we wound our way through college (not easy if one hadn’t gone to high school) after the war. By then it cost him two cents the quart, but we didn’t care. Booze was booze. We were college men, and we drank for effect. His 7 percent stuff was potent, and that’s what we were after.
I did learn better than to brew such nonsense, and in time I found that one didn’t have to make Prohibition-style homebrew to brew good beer at home. My father’s homebrew did indeed teach me about beer—and what not to drink.
Fred Eckhardt lives, write, and drinks far too much good booze, in Portland OR. He did have a small part in changing how homebrew can be made to high standards.