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Bootlegger Bungalow: prohibition-era whiskey found in New York house during renovation

Posted at 8:49 PM, Dec 23, 2020

AMES, NY. -- In upstate New York sits a tiny village nestled in a quilt of green patches dusted with snow in the winter.

“When you’re in a small town, everyone knows everyone,” homeowner Nick Drummond said.

The village is called Ames. Population: 150 people – give or take a few.

“We’re one of the smallest incorporated villages in New York state,” village historian Stacy Ward said.

The villagers say rural life has a peaceful charm.

“I love it here," village blacksmith Michael McCarthy said. "I think it’s a quiet little village.”

It attracts people looking for a getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life.

“In Ames, you'll find very friendly people, very rural landscape, beautiful old houses and the Ames museum,” public historian Alicia Jettner said.

The rich history and quaint lifestyle are what eventually drew Nick Drummond and Patrick Bakker to the area.

“We sort of have our growing little flock of chickens and they’re the best and they are a constant source of entertainment,” Drummond said.

“The history is still so visible and alive,” Drummond's partner Patrick Bakker said.

Little did they know the house they moved into would have evidence of its history left behind.

“Every building has a story to tell," Drummond said. "And it’s really a matter of peeling back all the different parts and pieces and sort of analyzing them. You’d be surprised by what you can find.”

What they found took them back to an era when American life was very different.

“It came with some crazy local urban legend that it was built by a bootlegger,” Drummond said.

It was a legend that seemed too fantastical to be true. But then, Drummond and Bakker started the process of renovation and one of the first spots they wanted to tackle was the mudroom.

“I started pulling these rotten wood boards kind of where the foundation would have been under the mudroom and that’s when the first package came out,” Drummond said.

The Grand Discovery

Drummond and Bakker are the owners of the Bootlegger Bungalow.

Before it got its infamous name, Drummond and Bakker moved into the century-old house knowing it would need a face-lift. One of their first projects was to transform the mudroom into a powder room.

“Throughout the house’s whole life, the mudroom has just been an unfinished room," Drummond said. "There was never any wall sheathing or anything like that. It was basically just a shack added to the back of the house at some time around 1920.”

It didn’t take much prying and pulling at decaying walls and floorboards for the house’s mysterious history to begin spilling out.

“I was in the process of removing this rotted wood skirting that went around the mudroom sort of where the foundation would be if it was a truly finished structure, and as I’m peeling back the boards on one of the sides, all of the sudden all this hay falls out and I was very confused," Drummond said. "And at first, I was like ‘oh this must be insulation’ – of course all this is taking place within a few seconds in my head -- and then I look and I’m like ‘well wait a second, what’s that glass thing? And then I pull it up and I’m looking at this old liquor bottle. And then I’m looking at the other package and there’s these other little tops poking out of the hay. And then I look back at the wall and there’s like the edge of this other package tied up with string and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, this is like a stash of booze.’”

Brown paper packages tied up with string filled with an alcohol lover’s favorite thing.

“I was totally excited and we ended up finding the rest of the mudroom was lined with these packages,” Drummond said.

“At the end of the day we were just sitting, and we were like, ‘We really like the house so much more now,'” Bakker said.

Drummond and Bakker figured there had to be more. A little trap door called them to venture under the floor. Drummond crawled into the two-foot space filled with gravel and cobwebs and came across a bunch of boards sealed with flathead screws.

“No one would have gone through the trouble of using a bunch of flathead screws for something like that," Drummond said. "Unless they wanted to remove it in the future. So I saw that and I was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to look inside the floors.'”

All it took was a pry bar to peel back the century-old wood. Peeking into the space like a treasure box, Drummond encountered bottles upon bottles of different sizes. Most of them were empty.

The empty bottles were a slight let-down compared to those still full of whiskey. So Drummond continued his search to other parts under the mudroom floor that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 1920s. He discovered more bottles of Gaelic Whiskey bringing the count up to 72. Seven bundles were found in the wall. Five more were found in the floor.

“All the booze that we found is actually a brand that’s still around today," Drummond said. "It’s called Old Smuggler; it is a whiskey blend. It would have been imported from Scotland. More likely than not, it went from Scotland to Canada, and then was smuggled from Canada to New York. And so even though it seems like we’re in the middle of nowhere… we would have been relatively well connected in terms of the Erie Canal and other transport methods. So if you were a bootlegger in this area, it would have been a good location to sort of get booze into the city – into New York.”

So who was the person who hid all this booze?

“He was a barren baron who smuggled old smuggler – of course he was.”

The Infamous Bootlegger

The Bootlegger Bungalow and the man who left bundles of Gaelic Whiskey stashed in the house piqued the interest of more than just the homeowners.

The 100+ newspaper articles written about him prove he was the talk of the town during his time.

“He was known as the count… Count Humpfner," Drummond said. "That was totally a self-proclaimed title. They found out after this death that he made the entire thing up. I love that; I’m just going to start calling myself the Countess of Ames.”

Count Adolf Humpfner plays leading role amongst a cast of supporting characters whose names are almost too wild to be taken seriously.

“Luscious Beers, Harry Berry, Count Humpfner, the missing widow. It’s like all these parts are to a dramatic screenplay or something," Drummond said.

There are no photos to be found of the notorious Count Humpfner, but a newspaper clipping from the 1930s makes it easier to picture what type of man he was.

“This was after his death," Drummond said. "They were auctioning off the contents of his house. And it’s kind of amazing reading through this crazy list of auction items because it gave you such a good sense of who Count Humpfner was. I mean… the guy had a buffalo robe. I don’t even know what that was. But I’m just imagining this tall heavy-set German guy walking around in a Buffalo robe surrounded by dozens of cash registers. It’s fantastic. I love it. I love thinking about that.”

Dr. Richard Hamm is a professor of history at the University at Albany and an expert on the Prohibition era.

“What do you need to do this? Basically, you needed to have the desire to break the law, make some money, a car, and a boat,” Dr. Hamm said. “This was a product of the Anti-Saloon League. The tremendous standard encyclopedia of the alcohol problem in six volumes.”

Starting in the 1830s and 40s, Dr. Hamm says there was a growing temperance movement to make abstinence from liquor the moral and legal standard in the U.S.

“We were a drunken society," Dr. Hamm said. "And there was a reaction to this. There was first a reaction to this isn’t healthy because after all these are the people who vote and create the government.”

At the same time, he says there was a religious impulse to drive out sin and Christian women started forming unions and leagues to dry out the nation state by state. By 1920, they were successful on a national scale.

“In 1920, the United States adopts a policy that it would be illegal to transport, and sell, and store for sale alcohol for beverage purposes.”

However, the criminalization didn’t cut back the desire to drink. The dangerous yet profitable bootlegger market was born.

Dr. Hamm says it wasn’t so difficult to smuggle in alcohol from other countries. Especially on the northern border considering Canada was a country that allowed alcohol imports.

“It was hard not to pass it up when it was so easy,” Dr. Hamm said.

The border patrol – created in the 1920s – only had 450 agents.

“That’s 450 agents for 7,500 miles of border," Dr. Hamm said.

If you were suspected of carrying spirits you were in trouble.

“The prohibition laws both state and national gave very expansive search and seizure powers to government officials,” Dr. Hamm said.

That is likely why Count Humpfner hid his Gaelic Whisky so well.

“Finding this many bottles is just extraordinary," Dr. Hamm said.

Humpfner died mysteriously in 1932, a year before the end of national prohibition.

“He suddenly said something like ‘something’s not right’ and then he collapsed,” Drummond said.

He was rushed to the hospital, but didn't make it.

“They come back to the house. They end up finding a bunch of papers and things all over the house. They find 45 grand in cash – which is like finding 500-thousand bucks in someone’s living room – they find multiple aliases, foreign bank accounts, multiple deeds, like 23 deeds to properties in New York City," Dr. Hamm said.

Many tried to claim his fortune, but it ended up going to his wife who had run away after an unsuccessful divorce.

“She would send him letters and found send ‘a thousand kisses’ at the end of every letter," Drummond said. "So in typical 1906 fashion, if you send a letter to someone telling them you love them, you can’t possibly be beaten. So basically they threw the case out, and they said, 'Look, she loves him, she sent a thousand kisses, we won’t grant the divorce.' And she ran away. And it’s funny because he actually sabotaged the divorce proceedings, they never actually were divorced, and she ended up getting the fortune.”

Drummond said Bakker say they don’t know if she had any kids. However, they do believe he was the man she described because the only written word from him was the biggest lie of his life.

“He published an article in the paper written by him and it was this thing basically saying, ‘Any suggestion that I am associated with this still is blasphemous and if you say anything I will stick my lawyers on you. And how dare you attack my good character; I have nothing to do with it.' And so it’s great – the one thing we have from him is him denying he was a bootlegger,” Drummond said.

A Special Visitor

Thanks to the incredible tale of the Bootlegger Bungalow, a man who was once the talk of the town is back in the spotlight with the gossip-mill churning at the museum, the flower shop down the road, the Blacksmith’s forge and within the historic homes that line the one intersection of the village.

“I thought it was really interesting. I was like ‘oh wow!’ Ya know it’s not something I expected,” public historian Alicia Jettner said.

“It’s amazing to me that they were able to hide it for almost 100 years,” village blacksmith Michael Mcarthy said.

“Course it was during Prohibition and so it was a dry place, but clearly not that dry,” village historian Stacy Ward said.

“To find a case of alcohol in Ames, New York in the middle of the state is a little surprising. To find it at all is kind of amazing,” Richard Hamm said.

"I mean we lived there a year and we walked on top of that floor everyday not knowing what was underneath there," Bakker said. "That’s such a crazy thought.”

Actually, two other families had lived in the house not knowing they were sitting on a gold mine. A young woman who lived in the house only a decade after Count Humpfner’s death found out about the discovery through social media and paid Drummond and Bakker a visit.

Now 96-years-old, Frances Skoda moved into the house with her family back in 1941. Skoda's parents bought the house only eight years after national prohibition ended, and owned it for nearly three decades, but she says they never knew about the dozens of whisky bottles hidden around the house.

“I was flabbergasted," Skoda said. "I had no idea. I don’t think even mom or dad knew it.”

Skoda and her niece Gail got a tour of the latest home-in-progress. Along with them, black-and-white photo proof of what it used to look like. Flooded with memories from her young-adult life, she took over the role of tour guide, filling in historical gaps that connect the home’s prohibition past to its modern renovations.

“I was glad to come. I haven’t been here in a long time. It’s good to be back," Skoda said.

The Bootlegger Bungalow is leaving a lasting impression on many people from one generation to the next.

“It made us think about things through a different lens and all of the sudden preservation of certain parts of the house we had never thought of before became important to us," Drummond said. "I mean the mudroom which we had never really thought much of, it was just a shack. And now all of the sudden it’s at the center of all this craziness and now the question is sort of ‘how do we restore this in a sensitive way, how do we pay homage to this incredible history.’”

“If it was up to me, we probably would have ripped up the floor as soon as we found the first thing but Nick is very good in realizing how something that historic is only historic and original once,” Bakker said.

They are laying a sturdy foundation for new memories and being careful not to paint over a house that has become a character itself.

“After finding the booze, we sort of initially thought that might be the end of the story, but in a lot of ways it was the beginning,” Drummond said.

“I’m sure we’ll move in the future, but I don’t think we’ll sell the house," Bakker said. "I think we’ll keep it just because of the story it has now.”

As for the booze, they’ve already heard from many interested collectors.

“Value is hard because it’s very much bottle-by-bottle and depends on the condition and fill level, but for most of the full bottles, we were told to expect values between 500 to 1,200,” Drummond said.

If you’ve been wondering all this time whether or not the whiskey's drinkable, Drummond and Bakker did a tasting of their own.

“I mean, I’m not really a whiskey drinker, but it’s drinkable!” Drummond said.