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Montauk Moonshine

December 2023
1min read


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The summer before last, as part of its “Talking History: Conversations With Local Residents” program, the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, New York, presented a program entitled “When Montauk Highway Was Called Moonshine Lane” and offered the Long Island summer people who attended a glimpse into a very different Hamptons lifestyle.

During Prohibition the intricacies of the Long Island shoreline shielded boats running liquor down from Canada, while acres of corn, potatoes, and rye fueled a local industry. Richard Zimmer, a Bridgehampton native—there he is beside his car in 1933—says there were stills all over. Not that he spent much time poking around them: “Someone might take you for a hijacker, and you might meet your doom right there.” He remembers one poacher who was issued a warning in the form of having the soles of his feet branded with a white-hot potato masher.

Zimmer profited from the enterprise nonetheless. “By the tender age of twenty,” he writes, “my age in the photo, I had already bought my 1930 Chrysler and used it to transport quite a number of cases of moonshine liquor from the east end of Long Island down the Montauk Highway and into Brooklyn for distribution elsewhere.” He fitted his roadster with heavier springs and removed the rumble seat; he would pack in ten cases of liquor, make his way west through the night along the spine of pre-expressway Long Island, and get five dollars a case once he’d reached Brooklyn. “I used to hide my money. I was afraid to bring it home because my mother would kill me.”

The picture was taken not long before Repeal put the prosperous-looking young Zimmer out of business. (In the foreground is his father, Karl, with a fighting turkey he had trained. “That turkey was so fierce that the mere sight of him would send my three younger sisters flying in all directions.”)

Richard Zimmer still lives on Long Island. “I sometimes wonder now where I got the nerve to embark on these risky missions, but I do remember well how marvelous it felt to be able to afford some of the luxuries we always had to do without.”

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