Chapter 8 1933—BUFFALO

The Author in June 1931 with his children, (l to r) Don, Ray and Jack

The day after our marriage things began to happen fast. Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as President. Two days later all banks were closed. December 7, 1933 the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st. No need to repeat history here; except how we lived with these important events.

The depression had started much earlier than 1933. The stock market crash caused several men, who had lost their capital, to commit suicide. Money was their God. Iron and steel magnates at Tonawanda, New York closed down their factories, dropping thousands of workmen from the payrolls. Reportedly the operators and owners took to their sea-going yachts for a vacation until the economic climate improved. I personally saw dozens of men gathering on street corners in Buffalo. How could they feed their families? There were no jobs of any kind available. Police officers on horseback with raised sticks charged into the groups ordering them to disperse. They had no valid permit to assemble on the streets. I saw many men searching through trash and garbage cans looking for a crust of bread. Prices dropped. Bacon was 15˘ a lb., a full course dinner cost 35˘.

The author with friend in June,1931

I saw fallen fruit covering the ground in the orchards on the farms of the country sides. Farmers said it did not pay to transport their produce to city markets. Those in need of food had no money to buy. I went to pay our monthly rent with a check. "What good is that?" the landlord said, "The banks are closed." He wanted cash.

In New York City soup kitchens were set up in the streets to feed thousands of men lined up for a free bowl. I often wondered how their wives and children were fed. Many citizens of Buffalo began to take a dim view of those of us who worked for the Federal Government. How come "they" still draw a good salary? We are penniless. The question was put to their Congressman. He took prompt action in Washington. Many in the Federal Building in various departments began to leave. Their jobs were abolished or they were transferred. One dedicated career official told me a rhyme I had not heard before. "The rain it rains on the just as well as on the unjust fellow. But mostly on the just because : the unjust steals the just's umbrella."

The author with father and children about 1933

A 25% cut in federal spending was imposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Prohibition was rapidly coming to an end. The U.S. District Attorney, Dick Templeton, was busy with "plea bargaining" in thousands of incomplete prohibition cases. Violators could still be brought to trial, so samples and chemists must be available.

In May 1933 Virginia and I drove to Ahoskie and got the three children, after their school was out. They were to live with us during the summer. It was great having them in our small apartment. They had lots of fun visiting the parks Niagara Falls, movies, and Crystal Beach on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. It was not as rough as an ocean beach. Virginia and the children got to know one another quite well--a happy family. We also visited Virginia's father on the farm near Lockport. We picked cherries and berries, etc. My work load had been light. When I returned to work after two weeks vacation, a letter was on my desk to close the laboratory and I was transferred to the New York City laboratory at a reduced salary. Two of the chemists were transferred elsewhere and the others were dropped from the payroll.

I took the train to meet a deadline. After closing the apartment, Virginia with two of her girl friends drove the children to New York City. There were six persons in a coupe to drive 400 miles. After two days sightseeing the Bronx Zoo, etc., and by prearrangement with Doris, the kids were put on an ocean ferry boat to Norfolk. Ray, now thirteen, was put in charge of her younger brothers, for the long boat trip. I could not sleep until we learned they had landed safely. Virginia returned to Buffalo to ship our few possessions in the apartment to New York City.

We rented a small "one room and sink" apartment on Barrow Street, Greenwich Village. Our car was put in storage at Hoboken, New Jersey. Who needs an auto in New York City? In early July I had reported for duty to the chemist in charge, George Romig, in the nearby Federal Building.

Sister Genevieve and husband George Fella with Ray, Don and Jack about 1933

My first assignment in New York City was very interesting. This job required sampling beverages and rendering a sworn certificate as to quality. The Brooklyn army base, a huge warehouse for military supplies had, over several years, stored good liquors from seizures made by the U.S. Coast Guard. Many ships loaded with foreign liquor tried to run the three mile off-shore limit, land their cargo ashore, then beat it. Some ships were caught and their cargoes forfeited.

The U.S. Army agreed to put the liquors under tight security at the Brooklyn base. The liquors were in cases and usually made by well-known foreign manufacturers. There were dozens of ship loads deposited, carefully cataloged by seizure number, number of cases, brand, etc.

The army kept a good record. On my first visit to the base, to size up the magnitude of the job, I found there were about 105,000 cases of liquor in over 100 lots. Sampling this enormous storage would require 2-3 weeks and even more time making the laboratory tests. I would need men to help draw the samples and a number of chemists to do the laboratory work. Anything I needed was OK'd. It was high priority, urgent, and ordered by top government officials. Why all this interest and haste?

Before going into the technical aspects of sampling and testing this liquor, it is important to state what I recall of the events leading up to this new and unusual situation. In the 20's much rum running liquor was dumped--forfeited--of no legal market value. Seizures of other (legal) commodities, after forfeiture, were generally put up at public auction and sold by the U.S. Marshal to the highest bidder.

During the prohibition era a doctor could (but seldom did) give an Rx (whiskey) for an aged patient who needed a "wee drop" as a night cap. This was legal. The pharmacist did not keep any on hand but could obtain it from a supply house, a member of the Wholesale Druggists' Association. Supply houses were required to keep its storage of bottled-in-bond whiskey under security, and subject to U.S. government inspection. The same was true for narcotic drugs. Very few bottles were kept on hand because there was little demand. But now, however, the prohibition law was coming to an end. Why not increase the stock? This could be done before repeal of the law; if the huge seizures at the army base were put on auction sale before the end of the prohibition law, members of the W.D.A.(only), a small group, could bid and take legal possession. What a bonanza! They could buy now at their own price-sell after the repeal of the 18th Amendment.

By December 5, 1933, 36 states had ratified the 21st Amendment and it became effective on that date. The potential purchasers of this huge quantity of liquor would want an inspection by a qualified government chemist. Was the liquor of good quality? Had any of the bottles been emptied and refilled with seawater? Etc. The 105,000 cases should contain over 1,200,000 bottles, quarts or fifths.

In sampling I decided to draw a bottle, at random, from each lot of every label brand of liquor. I personally accompanied the samples by auto each day to the laboratory, and later supervised the analysis. No defective samples were found that I recall at this time. my report on the liquor seizures was made. I understood that copies of this report were made available to potential bidders at the auction sales.

One note of side interest. In making the laboratory tests only 25 ml (less than an ounce) was withdrawn from each sample bottle. This was sufficient. We could not return the sample bottle to the army base, because the bottle seal had been broken. What to do with the remainder? The first few bottles I emptied into the laboratory sink. Generally the other chemists were not interested in this disposal. But the word got to the main office that good liquor was being thrown away. Many officials and clerks came up to the laboratory at the end of each day to make "organo-liptical" tests to verify the analysis report.

Romig allowed no drinking in the laboratory, but he could not prevent his superiors from making daily visits. If a bottle could fit into the side pocket of the winter overcoat it strangely disappeared from the laboratory. This easy disposal of the many dozens of bottles did help prevent a storage and future laboratory problem. One sample did not so disappear; a bottle of Napoleon brandy. It was the smoothest brandy I had ever tested or tasted. Priceless. Reportedly it came from bottles which had been stored in French soil for over 100 years. No matter how high his official rank I refused to let anyone carry away this valuable bottle. I wanted it as a souvenir.

One chemist in the New York laboratory was getting his Ph.D. at New York University by working on his thesis at night. George Vlases was of Greek origin. We became lifelong friends. We helped each other greatly. Years later in the Customs Service in Washington he was one of my chief assistants. When I retired, he took my position.

While in the New York laboratory I became dissatisfied in the way the Bureau had treated chemists in the various field laboratories. I had been reduced in grade and salary ($4,000-$3,200 per annum), although I had seniority in years of service, wife and three children to support, and veteran is preference (WWI). Many other chemists in charge in various cities retained their salary ($3,800); were single, low seniority, and non-veterans. All of this in the same organization. None of the chemists in the main laboratory in Washington received cuts in salary or grade, whether competent or not. My protests to Washington were in vain. I was just unlucky. It was unfair and showed lack of organization and no leadership.

George Romig was a nice young man; single. We got along fine. I made several trips out of town to testify as an expert witness in Federal Court. Another trip was made to Hartford, Connecticut to take samples from another big seizure of liquor intended for public auction. I had to bring twenty bottles back to the laboratory for tests. Virginia went with me. Returning, we reached Greenwich Village late at night, locked the car, and went inside a nearby restaurant for dinner. Coming out, I noticed the car door had been forced open and our suitcase was gone. Strange, not a single bottle of liquor was missing. Perhaps we ate too fast. We had driven off before the thief returned to carry away the liquor. Next day, after delivery of the bottles to the laboratory I went to the local police station and made a report of the robbery to the detective in charge. Quite common--he said there were many such reports. Oh, we could get our empty suitcase back easily. It would be found in a nearby alley trash can. Thieves did not want to be caught with the bag. They were quite satisfied with its contents. Since the bag was an old one, I said we would just forget it. No need to go all the way up to Tammany Hall! Other than this Virginia and I enjoyed life in Greenwich Village. It was carefree and we had many friends.

After the prohibition era ended there was much work for those on the government payrolls. The manufacture of beer, wines, and spirits began to get on steam. All of these required supervision and/or inspection because of the high Internal Revenue taxes on these products. U.S. gaugers were posted at distilleries and bonded warehouses. Inspections had to be made at wineries and breweries, and the number of these was increasing.

One day in January, 1934 George Romig came into the laboratory and said he had just been offered a job in an upstate brandy distillery. It already had its permit and was in operation. A federal storekeeper--gauger was now on duty there. Romig turned down the offer. Perhaps some other chemist may be interested. I got the job--pay $60 a week, about the same as my present job--but without tenure. Title? I would be superintendent, and come under the direct control of wealthy owners and their attorney in New York City. They bought the plant at Hammondsport as a financial venture; all Jewish. Since I had never even visited a brandy distillery this job would present a challenge. The company had been incorporated under the fictitious name: George's Roulet Wines Company. The sharp attorney, Mr. Roth, acted as spokesman. I never learned the real names of the owners or stockholders. Doubtless he was one of them. He was my boss.