Prohibition era secret rooms, tunnels come to light in Milwaukee

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BAY VIEW, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Emilio De Torre was making sure Turner Hall's gymnasium had adequate support one day, and stumbled upon a room he believes was meant to be hidden. 

"Low and behold there's a cutout there which went to another room, where we believe they stored booze during the Prohibition era because it's got this hard to find opening, where as you come down the bar stairs, you can just get the beer as you come back," said De Torre. 

Bar owners say there was even a network of tunnels during prohibition. Puddler's Hall Owner, Casey Foltz, said they haven't seen much use since alcohol became legal again in 1933. 

"Down in the basement there are the remains of what would have been the tunnel system through some of the bars here in Bay View. It's been blocked off. I haven't taken a sledgehammer yet, but I've heard plenty of stories of people as kids, you know, running through the tunnels," said Foltz. 

De Torre says a similar system existed underneath Old World 3rd Street, connected to the Milwaukee River. 

"The proprietors of the bars would be able to get their booze through these different tunnels, and then run them into the different bars. And so, our Vel Phillips tunnel was closed, I think, during the 70s when they were expanding the sewer system," said De Torre. 

The Milwaukee County Historical Society says Milwaukee was notoriously lax about enforcing prohibition, but that did not stop people from skirting the law and getting caught. 

"Courts were completely clogged with cases. They had to create a whole new court just to handle prohibition related cases," said the Director of Collections at the Milwaukee County Historical Society Director of Collections, Ben Barbera. 

Ben Barbera says brewing was the fourth largest industry in the city prior to prohibition, and despite those federal raids, booze kept flowing. 

"Establishments where they were bootlegging and making liquor that had escape hatches, where people could escape if there was a raid. A lot of establishments had a kind of secret back door, where you could bring your illicit alcohol in," said Barbera.

De Torre says digging deeper paints a more solid picture of the drinking clubs that survived in Turner Hall. 

"We found the notes, and recipes for hooch and all sorts of things amidst the artifacts," he said.

They were called "Bimbo" clubs, which stems from a German word meaning comradery. 

"They'd write each other letters on vacation. They had collections to support one another in times of need...and they'd tap into the 'Bimbo fund,'" De Torre said.

Eventually prohibition ended and Milwaukee celebrated, but there were some lasting changes. Breweries consolidated and only Miller, Blatz, Schlitz and Pabst were able to survive. 

"A couple kind of hung on for a few years after and then shut down because their reserves had been decimated by prohibition, so we really only had four significant breweries left," said Barbera.

The brewing industry also fell off as one of the primary economic drivers of the city as people grew used to drinking at home while taverns were illegal. 

"You see fewer breweries. You see it as less of an economic impact, and there's fewer taverns and drinking outside of the home as well," Barbera said.

However, culture remains through taverns, and even sports, in a city that gave less mind to prohibition than most. 

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