Milton Historical Society & Museum Director Allison Schell displays a Prohibition-era bottle of moonshine and a copper still, circa 1850, that was used to produce illegal alcohol during that time.
From the August 2014 issue
The colorful display of old bottles filled with bootlegged liquor is like a magnet, drawing visitors to it nearly every time someone begins a tour of “Dry Spell: The Prohibition Experience in Milton.” The new exhibit at the Milton Historical Society & Museum is designed to flow from the left, showcasing the beginnings of Prohibition and support for the 18th Amendment, which in 1920 made making, transporting and selling alcohol illegal. But once museum-goers catch a glimpse of that bootlegged booze, they veer to the right.
“They see the bottles — this is where they go first,” says the museum’s director, Allison Schell, pointing to the case that also contains steins, goblets and a bottle of rye from 1933. “It’s really funny. I love watching directions people choose.”
One bottle is labeled “Doctor’s Special.” Smaller print describes the contents: “Old Scotch Whiskey.”
“That was one way people got around the system. They would get alcohol prescribed to them as medicine,” Schell explains. In that era, Miltonians may have picked up their “prescription” at Welch’s Drug Store, then located across the street from the museum.
“Dry Spell” is Schell’s first temporary exhibit since taking the historical society’s reins more than a year ago. The raised area at the rear of the museum seemed fitting for changing displays, and she’d like to rotate them every six to 12 months.
With the 80th anniversary of the amendment’s repeal last year and a growing interest in the Roaring ’20s, Schell says the Prohibition era in coastal Sussex “just seemed like a really perfect exhibit to talk about.” It highlights items from the museum’s collection, including minutes from the Milton chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and borrows other items from several state historical agencies.
Sussex County natives may enjoy perusing copies of a petition against repealing the 18th Amendment. “People have come in and said, ‘Oop, that was my great grandmother,’” Schell says. “Southern Delaware was largely dry.”
A copper still, circa 1850, showcases how moonshiners made liquor. “These are actually really rare to have because most of the time they were destroyed” by authorities once confiscated, she says. The one on display at the museum has holes in the bottom, rendering it useless to hold liquid.
For comparison purposes, a large brew kettle of far more recent vintage (circa 1990) illustrates how Milton-based Dogfish Head Brewery makes its craft beers. “That’s our first Dogfish Head item,” Schell says.
The show will run through the end of December at the Milton Historical Society & Museum, 210 Union St. For info, call 684-1010 or visit historicmilton.org.