The history of rumrunning and bootlegging in Highlands has continued to be a popular area of research for people looking to learn more about the town. Whether residents at the time were personally involved in the lucrative business or not, there is no doubt that everyone knew at least one person, in most cases a relative, who was active in some form of moving illegal alcoholic beverages from boats three miles offshore to Highlands to underground caves, tunnels, or basements for transfers to Newark, New York, and points in between under cover of darkness.
One in a series of interviews I did in the 1970s about rumrunning and its impact on Highlands was with Thyra Bennett who lived on Cornwall Street and had many memories of that exciting time.
Thyra Bennett lived with her mother and stepfather from 1920 to 1937 on Cornwall St. and in the interview more than half a century later, she still giggled out loud about her memories of the prohibition era.
“There’s a lot to remember,” she laughed, “in addition to rumrunning and illegal hooch, it was the people. They were a unique lot."
“Take my Uncle Walt,” she said. “He had an outhouse with a glass window in the door. Said he always wanted to be able to see what was going on.”
Thyra was born on Miller St, daughter of Nora and William Spangler. She went to the public school which was then at the top of the hill on Miller St. “Miller St was a straight road then,” she explained, “not with a bend like it has now.”
The school burned when she was in 8th grade and she remembers the kids “were so happy then, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to be afterwards.” That was because classes were next held in the courthouse at the corner of Valley and Miller streets and graduation was in the Methodist Church. Like most of the Highlands youngsters, Thyra went to high school at Leonardo High, with Atlantic Highlands High, the two choices for local students since Highlands did not have a high school of its own.
But back to prohibition, Thyra said she remembered it well. “My mother’s three brothers were all in it. There were lots of rumrunners. Of course everybody knows Walter Kenner,” she said, referring to the man who undoubtedly was the most popular, most daring, and most outrageous of all the area’s rumrunners. “But here were others,” she said. There was the one who had a “house full of nooks and crannies, they could never find anything in his house. The house was across the street from Jack Ahearn, right next to Billy Noonan’s property, all property on the waterfront South Bay Avenue.
Meisternecht was another popular name of the day, Thyra continued. “He was shot and killed on Shrewsbury Avenue. And do you know…nobody ever found out who killed him. He was working around the boats, lots of boats came in here.. There was another guy who got killed, too, at the Tuxedo Hotel, Doc somebody. Never found who killed him either. It’s true,” Thyra recalled.
According to this native, “about 50 to 75 percent of the clammers were rumrunners, they had high speed boats, but the lobstermen were really the ones. The clammers had the small boats, the lobstermen had the big, fast ones. But they all had a good time.”
True? Probably most of it. Embellished? Probably a bit. But all great memories for somebody who lived through it.
The following article was originally posted on Muriel Smith's website, Veni Vidi Scripto. If you are interested in reading more about local history and current events, visit Veni Vidi Scripto.