According to Wally Surgis Jr., bootlegging during Prohibition provided the perfect pathway to illegal activity for Lithuanians and other immigrants for whom alcohol consumption and production was a way of life. In fact, pervasive alcoholism and crimes-under-the-influence in burgeoning immigrant communities drove much popular support for the Christian Temperance movement that resulted in Prohibition.
Wally Jr. reports that his Surgis (Sudrius) grandparents in Auburn were illiterate but owned a still. During Prohibition, Wally’s father, Walter Surgis Sr., and his sister were employed by their parents to haul illegal, home-made alcohol to customers. Grandfather Frank Surgis Sr. actually became quite rich from his bootleg trade, and later went to live with his daughter on East Mason Street in Springfield, where medical treatment for black lung disease eventually ate up all his earnings, so that he died in the same poverty he thought he had escaped.
Young Wally Sr. continued on the wrong side of the law, eventually running with the famous Southern Illinois bootlegging gang headed by immigrant Charlie Birger and serving sentences at the Menard state prison in Chester for bank robbery and bootlegging.
Wally, Jr. adds: “During Prohibition or the Depression, my father and a friend from Auburn got hold of some phony deputy sheriffs’ badges and went into the bars in Springfield under the guise of being officers of the law. They confiscated the slot machines, took them somewhere and broke them open for the money inside. It didn’t take long for the big boys in Chicago to come downstate to put a permanent stop to this.
“My dad’s friend got wind of this and left town, but my dad was caught and taken out to Lake Springfield to be done away with. He somehow managed to escape when they stopped the car, dove into the lake and swam away. He didn’t say, but I assume he was probably under fire as he swam to safety. He then got out and walked the railroad tracks back to Auburn to stay off the road. He said he packed some clothes, went hitch-hiking and didn’t care which direction, as long as it was far away. He ended up in Oklahoma, worked the coal mines there for a while and then rode the rails to Colorado. Dad stayed gone for three years and figured it was safe after that to come home. I doubt if he ever stole a slot machine again.”
Wally Sr.’s criminal career did not prevent him from working later for Pillsbury Mills and the city of Springfield. He was also famous for fishing and gardening and sharing produce with the poor of East Reynolds Street through friend and barkeep Tony Romanowski (Ramanauskas).
Sandy Baksys discusses the conditions that led some members of Springfield’s Lithuanian community to alcoholism and crime, among many other topics, in her blog (see link above). This excerpt is copyright Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois. Reprinted with permission.