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Updated: 07/30/2014 08:00:08AM

Punta Gorda’s ‘blind tigers’

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Good day to all! Did you know that bootlegging and illegal alcohol establishments were common-place in Punta Gorda’s early history? As a certain television Marine Corps private might say, “Surprise, surprise!” When the town of Trabue (Punta Gorda) was platted in December 1884, Southwest Florida was the nation’s last frontier, accessible by only water routes and rough cattle trails. Soon though, the new town became the nation’s southernmost railroad terminus. With that came all sorts of characters, leading to adoption of a city ordinance early in the 20th century forbidding lewd characters, skin games (fraudulent games of chance), vagrants, and “blind tigers.” “Blind tigers” were typically lower class establishments providing cheap, illegal alcohol to the “common man.” Of which there were plenty, what with the frontier town full of rough and tumble fishermen, cowboys, or as better known in Florida, cow hunters, and construction workers. It’s believed the name came about due to proprietors charging admission to see a “rare and curious” animal, perhaps an Oriental opossum or an arctic raccoon, and then providing alcohol gratis. Or, perhaps the liquor was really, really bad. Poorly prepared moonshine can be deadly. It’s also believed Marshal John Bowman’s crackdown on “blind tigers” and illegal whiskey led to his assassination in early 1903.

The Prohibition era, 1920-1933, also provided opportunities for moonshiners and bootleggers, with Southwest Florida’s swamps, large estuaries and numerous mangrove islands, away from the more populous east coast. One of Punta Gorda’s best known was Henry “Pa” Little. Pa Little arrived in Punta Gorda from Georgia during the 1890s and eventually resided in a one-room shack along the narrow gauge railroad track running down the alley from the ice house at King Street (U.S. 41 north) and Virginia Avenue to the railroad dock at the end of King Street. Word was he had been an animal trainer with the circus in his younger days and he validated that by training two sandhill cranes and a small dog to march in step with him during local parades. I’m sure he was a grand spectacle in his green-and-gold uniform commanding them to “march” and “halt” with him. When he got older and was unable to work much, to help make ends meet, he took to bootlegging, smuggling in limited quantities of alcohol readily disposed of. Remember, social security and other assistance programs didn’t exist. Whenever a shipment arrived, he’d march the cranes down Marion Avenue, letting his clientele know. It likely was no secret in the small town, but law enforcement could never catch him with the “goods.” Seems he had also trained his dog to climb a specially made set of stairs to the roof and bark whenever strangers — particularly if they were in uniform, I suspect — approached.

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