“Young man, if you don’t get out you’re going to end up with a little round hole in the middle of your forehead.”
The words were polite and calm, but ominous, spoken to a youthful group of summer people during a late night visit to Briggs Beach during Prohibition, according to local resident Howard Huntoon.
Little Compton’s fourteen beautiful miles of coastline have long attracted tourists and sun bathers, but during Prohibition, the beaches also provided a convenient route to smuggle illegal alcohol. “Rum running” became an important way for locals to earn money, especially during the early years of the Great Depression.
Although the rum runners broke the law, their friends and neighbors usually looked the other way and even lied to local enforcement agencies to protect this income stream. Seasonal residents returning for the summer sometimes found cash in their mailboxes, payment for the use of their empty barns and land as hiding places for illegal booze.
Prohibition banned alcoholic drinks from 1920 until 1933, the result of the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Most residents of Little Compton didn’t support Prohibition, and some took advantage of the demand for liquor to earn much-needed money for their families. Eleanor Simons, the daughter of Little Compton farmer John Flores, remembered her father’s secret rum running:
“I think people didn’t want anybody to know but I think they survived better because of it. Dad’s farm wasn’t as profitable to carry us through.”
The potential profits also enticed businessmen from other areas of the East Coast to set up shop. Manuel Avila came to Little Compton after Prohibition closed his bar in New Bedford, looking for a place with less of the competition and violence that was associated with the illegal liquor trade. In Little Compton he became a central figure in rum running.
Avila kept a safe house on Amesbury Lane where his trusted runners could eat, wash, and rest. In 1927, he bought the old Cornell farmhouse on Adamsville Hill. The house became the center of operations for his “gravel business,” a cover for his rum running. Located uphill from the Westport River, the house allowed for secret liquor deliveries at night and there were numerous places where the booze could be quickly hidden on the farm.
Today, the rum runners are often portrayed as exciting figures—cowboys on boats—but rum running required rough edges and desperate deeds, more than the romantic stories indicate. Rum runners faced the constant threat of being arrested or shot, either by the Coast Guard or by their rivals. Smuggling liquor during Prohibition was a dangerous, illegal business in an economically desperate time.
Many people also remember the Little Compton rum runners as farmers and fishermen, husbands and brothers. Manny Avila was known as a strong family man. His godson, Barry Federman, remembered Manny and his wife Nettie as “very fine, generous people, some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet.”