Prohibition Raid Found ‘One of Finest Distilleries’ in South Plaza

The southwest corner of 51st and Main has been a popular eating spot for several decades. A 1917 map of the block shows only five houses on the block, including 5101 Main, which newspaper reports at the time described as a large and comfortable home where some very fine whiskey was being made despite prohibition being in effect.

One of the greatest troves of Midtown history comes from the crime logs, which hold fascinating newspaper accounts of car wrecks, runaway wives, domestic robberies, suicides, murders and other events.  They sometimes offer the best window into a past that was not intentionally preserved. That is true of the South Plaza block from 51st  Street to 51st Terrace, Main Street east to Walnut Street.

A recent photo of the corner where a home once stood at 5101 Main.

At the southeast corner of 51stand Main, now a popular eating spot, local newspapers in 1925 tell the story of one house where prohibition agents found “one of the finest equipped distilleries ever found in Kansas City.”

As part of our Uncovering History Project, the Midtown KC Post is taking a look at each block in Midtown, including a set of 1940 tax assessment photos which is available for many blocks.  Today, part one of the story about the block from 51st Street to 51st Terrace, Main east to Walnut. In two weeks, more about this block and how it developed as Kansas City struggled with commercial growth.

Police Sample Whiskey, Find It Tastes Authentic

The record begins on the afternoon of April 10, 1925, when police arrived at 5101 Main and asked to search the large, comfortable home where Holland native and chemist Daniel Vandenburg lived with his family.

Their knocks were answered by five children, the oldest a 14-year-old girl, who told them they could not enter without a search warrant.

The officers eventually got in, and they found an elaborately equipped electrical lab in the attic of the home. They also found three kegs of whiskey.

 The police said they tasted the samples “as a matter of science,” of course, and they “had the exact flavor, kick and color of pre-war stuff.”

Vanderburg showed off bottles of cherries, other fruits and syrups, and “proudly concocted fancy drinks from these to show the raiders the quality of his product.”

The official record leaves blank the outcome of this raid. But Daniel Vanderburg shows up again in December of 1925, when law enforcement officials – this time federal agents – once again raided the home.

Federal Agents Declare Home Houses Finely-Equipped Distillery

“One of the finest equipped distilleries ever found in Kansas City was raided last night by federal prohibition agents at 5101 Main Street,” The Kansas City Star reported on Dec. 27.

“A 150-gallon still and twenty barrels of corn mash were on the third floor. There was found also air purifiers and an electric “aging” device. Several large gas plates under the still were still burning when the agents arrived. A steady stream of white liquor was pouring from a spout in a keg.”

“In a room on the second floor was the bottling department. Labels for many kinds of liquor were in a drawer in a wash stand. Several hundred empty bottles were in boxes while other boxes contained bottles of liquor ready for sale. Tinfoil caps, corks, ‘caution’ labels, a capping machine, a hand pump for mash, various crocks and jars were also found. The purifying process included the straining of liquor through charcoal and chamois skin.”

A.J. Maat, a 25-year-old man who had recently come to town from Montana, admitted he was the owner and operator of the still. He, Mrs. Daniel Vandenburg, and another man were arrested and held at the Country Club police station. Daniel Vandenburg later pleaded guilty in federal court to operating an unlicensed distillery in his home and fermenting mash. He was sentenced to one month in jail and a $100 fine for the first count, and six months in jail and a fine of $1000 on the second charge. Charges against his wife were dismissed.

Another Web-Equipped Still at 45th and Wornall

Maat figures into another crime story on Aug. 17, 1925. He was among three people arrested at 4515 Wornall Road with a 75-gallon still, seventeen barrels of mash, 250 gallons of homemade whiskey, and more than 100 pint bottles ready for sale. Charles Reber, 28, and his wife, Mary, 25, said they came to the house about two months earlier. They identified Maat as the chemist of the operation.

Officials said he played an important part in the special process that included aging and electrifying whiskey, which, when finished, was red.

The whiskey was bottled with an assortment of labels, including: Blue Ridge Club; Old Morgan; Private Stock; Clark’s Rye; LaRoma Peach Brandy; Old Evans; Superior Jamacian Rum; and “Smith Brothers, bottled in bond, distilled, aged Kentucky whiskey.”

Police said they dumped the bottles, except for a supply for evidence.


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