When I started researching my genealogy in 2011, I only had a few family stories to guide me: stories about a family bar in Dunkirk, New York and my great-grandfather selling bathtub gin during the Prohibition era. Like any family story, there’s a few details that have changed over the years–but the story, at it’s core, proved to be true. This week’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks theme is “black sheep,” and this is the story of the hilarious–and shadier–side of the Kuznicki family’s business pursuits.
On the evening of May 8, 1934, Thomas Kuznicki walked into a bar on East Second Street with two one-gallon jugs of moonshine to sell. This was a few months post-Prohibition (which ended on December 5, 1933), but operating a household still (especially without paying tax) and selling moonshine at the age of 16 was prohibited in New York state. Three state alcoholic beverage control officials confiscated Thomas’ moonshine, turned him over to the Dunkirk city police and booked him on a charge of “disorderly conduct.” Thomas was released on Tuesday night and instructed to appear before a judge on Friday evening; instead, he went to his high school’s football game (Thomas was the high school quarterback), and he told the judge that “he had stolen the liquor from his mother.” Thomas was arrested, kicked off the football team and expelled from high school.
Thomas’ parents, Michael and Victoria, owned and operated Kuznicki’s Bar and Restaurant in Dunkirk, and Thomas’ uncle, Stanley Tofil, owned and operated Tofil’s Bar and Restaurant in the same city. On the side, the families made moonshine, and their sons would deliver the liquor to different houses and bars in the area. Stanley Kuznicki, Thomas’ brother, would carry the moonshine in his instrument case, and the Tofil boys would hide the bottles in their younger siblings’ old baby carriages. Thomas was the first to be caught, but it wasn’t the last time one of the family’s stills was found out.
On March 13, 1939, investigators for the Internal Revenue bureau searched the Kuznicki’s home and found a 20-gallon copper still, five 50-gallon barrels, 100 gallons of mash and a small quantity of “white mule.” A neighbor had “detected the odor of fermenting mash on two occasions” and had filed a formal complaint; federal investigators acquired a warrant to search the premises, arrested Michael Kuznicki and released him in property bail of $1,000. Michael was later charged with possessing illegal alcohol mash and was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury.
In November of the same year–the second “Unlucky 13th”–Michael and Victoria were arrested for “alleged operation of wild-cat distilleries.” Michael was still awaiting trial for his arrest on March 13th, and Victoria entered a plea of not guilty after federal investigators found a 15-gallon copper still, a condenser, barrels, mash and a gallon of distilled spirits without tax stamps in the Kuznicki’s basement. Both cases were later dismissed.
The family continued to make moonshine for years after Michael’s and Victoria’s trials in 1939, and they sold the liquor (without paying tax) at Kuznicki’s and Tofil’s. The December 6, 1941 edition of the Dunkirk Evening Observer details that Stanley Kuznicki and two of his friends were fined $25 and sentenced to six months in jail for stealing 17 pounds of copper, some of which was used to make another copper still.