Bootleggers were two steps ahead of the law

Don McAlavy: CNJ columnist

Tom Jernigan began his professional career in Portales when he was elected sheriff of Roosevelt County in 1929. Those were the wild days of prohibition.

There were quite a few shoot-outs and drunks being rounded up in the enforcing of the prohibition. You young whippersnappers don’t recall prohibition, but that was a deal where the federal government outlawed liquor from 1919 to 1933 in the United States.

It was a silly attempt to make better citizens out of us grown people. Some of those grown people built illegal whiskey stills in the woods, under their barns and in their bathtub. But between Portales and Clovis the stills were mostly hidden underground in the sand hills.

In October of 1931, Sheriff Jernigan was said to have captured the largest still in New Mexico, located five miles south and two miles east of Melrose. It was actually over the county line in Curry County. Our Sheriff Rufus Witherspoon of Curry County and his deputies claimed their share of the credit. This still had a capacity of 1,250 gallons and could produce 500 gallons of liquor per day. That’s a lot of booze.

The bootleggers had a heyday in selling booze all over the country in speak-easies and even in rural areas. Everybody in that nefarious business was making money. Some made a living at it. It was a way to feed their family during the Depression. Most of the time the bootleggers were two steps ahead of the law. After prohibition many of them became upright citizens.

One of the most amusing illegal booze incidents was in Portales on a Friday, the first week in February, 1931. That evening at 1:30 a.m., Sheriff Jernigan and his deputies dumped over 150 gallons of booze into the sewer in the alley between Warnica’s and the pool hall. This booze consisted of beer, whiskey, near whiskey, rattlesnake poison and bonded liquor. Some was contained in cream cans and iron barrels, and when poured out was a thick, rusty color.

On Feb. 5, 1931, the Portales Valley News reported: “A large crowd witnessed the pouring out, amid tears and watering of mouths. They absorbed the fumes but were denied a taste. It is reported that at the other end of the sewer, where the disposal plant was located, that the jack rabbits became so vicious that they whipped several bull dogs!”

One has to wonder if those who reported the jack rabbits whipping the bull dogs had been in some booze other than that which was poured out!

In 1932, Tom Jernigan decided to leave the office of sheriff and run for a state senate position. He was unsuccessful. By 1934 he had left Portales. He held many government jobs the rest of his life, working as a U.S. Marshal in Roswell, for the State Bureau of Revenue, as chief of the Division of Liquor Control in Santa Fe, for Veterans On-the-Job Training, and the Land Department. He also served again in the Navy in World War II. (He had served in World War I).

Born in 1893 at Llano, Texas, he died on May 14, 1975 in Albuquerque, survived by his wife, Ora (Guffy), his four children, a brother, nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

That experience in cleaning up the illegal booze in and around Portales served him well. He turned out to be a great lawman.

Most of the facts in this story were gathered graciously by Sharon Jernigan Tingley.

Tom was the son of William Franklin Jernigan and Josephine Riley. The couple had moved to Portales in 1912, where they lived the rest of their lives. Will Jernigan was a carpenter and he ran the Custom Mill in Portales. He and Josephine died within six months of each other in 1930.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: