History and Heritage: Was your house a speakeasy?
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history, written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
Editor's note: on Thursdays, Tierney's Tavern is open for to-go food from 4 to 7 p.m., in what they call "Take Out Thursdays."
Do not leave a voicemail, but try again, they write, to place an order and arrange a pick-up time. The number is 862 - 220 - 6882.
A number of years ago, I was walking along Valley Road with Royal Shepherd Jr., the former Township Historian, my predecessor. When we got to 137 Valley Road he stopped, thought for a moment and then told me that when he was a boy growing up in Montclair, his father and his uncle brought him to the front door of this house. They knocked and a big burly man slowly opened the door. He looked them over and then, with a grunt, let them in. Royal said that he was told that the house was a speakeasy.
The records are vague, and Tierney family lore is noncommittal. The building at 137 Valley Rd. was a candy store owned by Edward and Frank Tierney. In 1932, as prohibition was winding down, the Tierneys procured a special license to sell low alcohol content beer (less than 3.2%) at their store.
According to The Montclair Times the Tierneys applied for a full liquor license on Dec 7, 1933, shortly after Prohibition ended. Thirty-two other establishments in town applied either for a license that allowed consumption of alcohol on premises or the sale of “packaged” alcohol.
According to the published minutes of the town commission, on Dec 14, 1933 most of the applicants, including the Tierneys, were granted a temporary license to serve all types of alcohol. These licenses were to become effective on Dec 28. They were good until Feb 4, 1934 when permanent licenses were to be issued. At that time a tavern couldn’t be within 200 feet of a school or a church. Taverns couldn’t sell liquor on Sunday and pharmacies had to stop selling prescribed “medicinal” whiskey. A few years later Edward and Frank Tierney made their younger brother, William, a partner. William’s descendants still operate Tierney’s Tavern at its much better-known address across the street at 138 Valley Road where it has been since the 1950s.
There were speakeasies in Montclair before Prohibition. The town had nine licensed taverns. However, they were strictly regulated. People who wanted to drink after-hours, or on off-days found their way to a local speakeasy. Temperance groups were horrified by these places and an effort to close them down was started in 1912, seven years before Prohibition. In an effort to protect people’s reputations not all were publicly named. Some, however, came under public scrutiny. On Sept. 20, 1913, six years before Prohibition, The Montclair Times reported that the police closed a speakeasy at 49 Bay St., operated by Nicholas Distrofano. Prohibition was passed in 1919 and went into effect on Jan 1, 1920. On July 29, 1932, The Times estimated that there were about 60 speakeasies in town. An anonymous writer wrote to the Times on March 14, 1931 saying that there were “130 speakeasies.” Other letters complained that the police turned a blind eye toward them. Nobody knows for sure how many speakeasies there were
As any student of history knows, Prohibition was a dramatic failure. It was a “shot in the arm” for organized crime. People found all sorts of ways to get something to drink. Montclair was no exception. When the tide began to change and “near beer” was allowed to be sold, the speakeasies in town sensed the change and went wild. Since licensing was involved and revenues were at stake, Montclair became much more serious about closing the illegal speakeasies down. The names and addresses of the offenders began to appear more regularly in the newspapers. On Sept 7, 1932, The Times reported that seven speakeasies were raided: 25 Midland, 22 Frink, 133 Forest, 127 Valley, 30 Wheeler, 40 William, and 72 Pine. The one at 133 Forest St. was particularly activeL In 1933 Commissioner Lewis said that it was raided eight times. In December of 1932 the police closed another active speakeasy at 208 Glenridge Ave.
However, published reports are cloudy. The police may, or may not, have been very strict in enforcing Prohibition. Public opinion went both ways. Much of what has been passed down is hearsay.
Take a good look at your house. Could it have been one of the legendary speakeasies of the roaring 1920s?