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Traveling exhibit highlights Tampa's colorful Prohibition history

TAMPA — During the days of Prohibition, Tampa was a wet spot.

Rum flowed in from Cuba and moonshine from surrounding rural areas.

Prohibition didn't curtail drinking. Instead, it went underground — in some cases literally. Local lore tells of tunnels leading from the Ybor City port up into speakeasies.

"The area had some logistical advantages," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center. "Florida was one of the wettest states and Tampa was one of the wettest cities."

Considering Tampa's boozy heritage, it's perhaps fitting that a national traveling exhibit "Spirited: Prohibition in America," is at the Tampa Bay History Center through Oct. 20.

The exhibit includes local artifacts from 1920 to 1933. One photo shows men during a raid in an Ybor City back yard, where liquor was hidden underground in burlap sacks known as hams. An arrest ledger details the offenses of the day in Hillsborough County.

"Did you point out my grandfather?" asked Manny Leto, the History Center's director of marketing.

A few rows down the ledger is Tony Leto, arrested May 30, 1930, for sale and possession of intoxicating liquor.

"It made criminals out of ordinary people," Kite-Powell said, including some who made moonshine in bathtubs. "At best, it could taste bad, but it could actually kill you."

There was money to be made, and that attracted organized crime.

"Tampa was called Little Chicago," Kite-Powell said.

Today, evidence from those times is scant. The tunnels did exist, he said, but no one knows exactly why they were built or how far they extended.

As a kid, Rosann Garcia fell in love with Ybor City, where her grandparents lived. In 1991, she started leading historic tours of the area that include tales like this one:

During Prohibition and for privacy, men would go into the Las Novedades Restaurant at 15th Street and Seventh Avenue. They would duck into tunnel leading to the El Pasaje hotel, built in 1886 by Vicente Martinez Ybor. There they would play cards, drink and visit ladies of the night, Garcia said. To outsiders, it would look like they were still at the Las Novedades Restaurant.

Across the street from the restaurant, Sam Bobo owned the Blue Ribbon Supermarket. During a renovation, he discovered a large basement with brick walls. He found arched entrances to two tunnels, barred with iron gates.

Some say they were used to transport liquor through the port, Garcia said. Others said they also smuggled in Chinese people who then worked on nearby farms.

"There were so many gambling houses and houses of ill repute," Garcia said, "that Ybor was well known among sailors as a place to have a good time."

Prohibition drove respectable establishments out of business, said Charles McGraw, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tampa.

It brought together people who typically hadn't mixed when middle-class white people started patronizing nightclubs where blacks performed. It was "exotic and outrageous," said McGraw. "The culture was being changed from below."

If all this has you thirsty for more, McGraw will talk about how Prohibition changed our culture over sangria at the Columbia Cafe inside the history center at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Contact Elisabeth Parker at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

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