Thursday, July 13, 2017

Another glass of Mexican wine

Snow-packed streets in Victorville lead to the Stewart Hotel in this undated photo. It was here where silent film actor William S. Hart convalesced in the winter of 1920 while members of his crew purloined Mexican wine from a stopped Santa Fe freight train. (Courtesy of Mohahve Historical Society and Victor Valley College)

By Matthew Cabe
Victorville Daily Press

In a late-blooming but wildly fruitful film career, William S. Hart established himself as an actor who portrayed cowboys with authenticity and integrity, both unwavering.

A Broadway actor with Shakespearean chops who first performed on stage in 1888, Hart was 49 when he starred in his first silent Western, “His Hour of Manhood,” in 1914.

Hart’s Westerns were informed by his childhood. Though born in Newburgh, New York — a still-small town on the Hudson River, 125 miles south of where the horses run track in Saratoga Springs — Hart’s formative years were spent in the rural Midwest with ranchers, Civil War vets, outlaws, gold prospectors and saloon proprietors.

And so he saw the Old West differently from what had been depicted on screen in the early dawn of motion pictures.

According to a bio on the Hart Museum website, his films are distinguished by “gritty realism,” and Hart is credited for creating the “good bad guy” role — immoral characters who find the path of “clean, honest living.”

The persona melded with the man; Hart is remembered as a philanthropic gentleman, a proponent of clean living. But a tale from Prohibition-era Victorville hidden within the pages of his memoir, “My Life East and West,” humorously challenges that notion.

In the winter of 1920, the 56-year-old Hart spent a day in an icy Sacramento River filming scenes for “White Oak,” released the following year by Paramount Pictures. The nearly frozen river proved costly.

“I should have gone to bed; instead of that we went to Victorville for our desert scenes,” Hart wrote. “The river scenes were only the start of the story, but they came mighty near finishing it, for at Victorville my sister Mary made me smoke that little glass cigarette and it registered one hundred and three.”

Poor Hart was laid up in the Stewart Hotel on D Street for three days with pneumonia. He received care from Harris Garcelon — the region’s only doctor — who introduced the actor to the Victor Valley years before, according to historian Dr. Edward Leo Lyman.

Meanwhile, Hart’s “company could not work” without their star, so they bummed around the city, loitering in Forrest Park.

This idleness led to an unexpected discovery of what Hart described as “ninety-seven million gallons of the finest Mexican wine” stowed in one of the rail cars of a stopped Santa Fe freight train.

“Where was it going, I don’t know,” Hart wrote. “I only know it never arrived there, and that through the medium of several short pieces of garden hose, enough wine was siphoned out of that oil car to irrigate the Mojave Desert.”

Alcohol was illegal and all, but illegalizing anything rarely gives pause to those in want. Hart’s boys scrambled for buckets, milk pans, garbage pails and washtubs, brimmed their receptacles and went on a two-day bender, transforming city streets into a “public dance-hall.”

“The more timid citizens telephoned to San Bernardino, forty miles away, for help,” Hart wrote. “The sheriff and twenty deputies, all armed to the teeth, arrived on a special train. They did not need guns. They needed many husky men and many stretchers.

“The merrymaking had ended. Every foot of available space outside or inside at Victorville was occupied by a sleeping cowboy. The courthouse was full — the jail was full. Nothing was sacred to those Bacchanalian inebriates.”

Hart wasn’t guiltless, though. He too partook and did so in front of Walter A. Shay, who served as San Bernardino County’s sheriff from 1918 to 1931.

“The sheriff was a real sheriff; no one had been harmed, no damage had been done,” Hart wrote. “He returned with his deputies to San Bernardino.”

I’ve been told of contraband liquor in Victorville. Of sweat-browed men pushing barreled booze through underground tunnels as unwitting citizens walked the streets above.

On Richard Thompson’s Mojave History website, I’ve read about Guy Wadsworth, a notorious Oro Grande bootlegger, who peddled “turtle juice” and “would rather make one dollar illegally than two legally.”

I’ve seen the Mohahve Historical Society’s photograph of deputies confiscating crates of rotgut.

But the revelry of Hart’s crew forced the issue into broad daylight, proving powers that be don’t always believe in whatever asinine law they’re sworn to uphold.

Dr. Lyman called the moment “the most hilarious and unbelievable ... episode of the town’s history.”

I call it one hell of a good time.