Bitter border disputes have sometime erupted between Maryland and Pennsylvania. The first kicked-off in the late 1600s when the precise boundary between the two colonies was unclear. That led to a long period of conflict and a series of bloody incidents referred to as Cresap’s War. Once the Mason Dixon Line settled that matter, those incidents faded into the past. However, this wasn’t the last time conflict erupted on the border. A late 20th century flare up could be called the “liquor war” and here is the story about those incidents.
Cecil County liquor stores near the Mason Dixon Line get plenty of customers from Pennsylvania, as shoppers from the Keystone State sprinted across the border to load up with cheaper booze. Those quick runs, driven by cut-rate prices and lower taxes, caused a border war to flare anew in the 1960s as the Commonwealth’s Liquor Control Board (LCB) agents made forays in Maryland to spy on Pennsylvanians buying cases of whiskey here. The LCB was determined to put a stop to the loss of revenue to the state store system, but Cecil County Sheriffs were just as equally determined to put a stop to the espionage.
Things got particularly heated in December 1969 as interstate trade flourished. The invading agents, hiding off at a safe distance, were staking out Maryland retailers, watching through binoculars the comings and goings of cars. When they spotted Pennsylvania cars loading up cases of whiskey, they radioed across the border, advising men on the other side to seize the car.
None too happy with this spying, local retailers complained to Sheriff Thomas Mogle. The county’s top lawman was sympathetic, and issued a stern warning to the invading inspectors to “get out of Cecil County.” The next time they returned, one of the Pennsylvania enforcement officers was put behind bars, the sheriff slapping a charge of disorderly conduct on the man. Shortly after that in another incident, Deputies arrested four Keystone state lawmen staking out a Conowingo tavern. Sheriff’s Capt. Virgil Greer explained to the Baltimore Sun that “they were harassing the public by sitting there and taking down license numbers.”
Nonetheless, disruptions in trade continued so the Sheriff sternly warned the trespassing officials to highball it out of the county. The “businessmen were getting very nervous about it. Some of them were grouping in patrols and riding in patrols in search of the agents,” he told the Sun. When the fourth encounter occurred in less than a month, the sheriff was ready to form a posse to protect the county’s border. “If we are further provoked, I will as sheriff and office holder of this Constitution, form a posse and patrol the entire border of Pennsylvania and Cecil Line County Line.”
While awaiting a hearing at the jail, one agent was asked by the Whig if he planned to come back to the county again. He replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Asked why they chose to come in unmarked cars, another said: “I can say nothing.”
At one point it seemed an agreement had been hammered out so things could cool off. The LCB officers agreed to notify the sheriff with details about the stakeout, providing the date and time of the surveillance, the location to be observed, and the make and model of their vehicle. But that agreement broke down as the LCB said the sheriff tipped off the liquor stores.
Once seven agents were arrested in a two week period, Attorney General Francis Burch tried to bring some peace to border wars. After meeting with Mogle, he announced a cease fire, but it was an uneasy peace. Mogle told the Cecil Whig, he was going to stick to his guns. “it is obvious that this fellow, Mogle, is doing what he wants to,” a Pennsylvania spokesperson remarked.
With the arrests continuing into 1970 the Attorney General said he would not prosecute LCB agents, but the arrests continued in spite of the warning. Finally Burch sent a stern letter warning that if the sheriff persisted he would have no choice but to take over the cases himself and they would be dismissed. “We’ve been had,” the sheriff concluded. After the Attorney General said he would not permit Maryland officials to prosecute any more cases, the trouble quietly subsided for a number of years.
But the border games flared up whenever the LCB launched an intensive campaign to monitor and arrest people transporting liquor across the line. In the late 1970s, Cecil County was strictly enforcing a registration law, which required 30-days notice from the LCB. One investigator complained his nets were coming up empty. “I haven’t gotten any since registration began said Richard Feeney an LCB enforcement officer. He used to nab two bootleggers a day in Cecil County, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In 1979, John F. DeWitt was sheriff as Keystone State officials stealthily prowled around Cecil County looking for Commonwealth residents heading back with trunks full of inexpensive Maryland booze. The Pennsylvania agents were charged again, and that case made its way through the courts, DeWitt explained the merchants thought they were being staked out for a hold-up. A former Sheriff, Edgar U. Startt, who was by this time a whiskey salesman, recalled warning a Pennsylvania agent if snuck in Maryland and was seen on the highway he would be charged with moving violations.
The Commonwealth’s attorney argued that Cecil County’s annual distilled spirit sales of $16.10 gallons a person was over fives that time of Baltimore. “It could be explained only by bootlegging activities,” he told the judge.
Store owners were posting lookouts of their own, equipped with CB radios to keep track of the agents. Sometimes tractor trailers were parked to prevent agents from viewing the premises. At other places no trespassing signs were posted in the woods and almost overnight no parking signs appeared on the shoulders of the public roadways in the area of liquor stores.
When Rodney Kennedy was sheriff in 2000 Pennsylvania was so worried about its residents buying booze elsewhere that Capt. Leonard McDonald of the enforcement bureau told the Philadelphia Inquirer that they had “conducted about 60 liquor-smuggling stakeouts along the border and had made about 14 arrests.” Cecil County was being made to suffer simply because Pennsylvania booze was too high, local outlets said. “Cecil County is the most strict county of any with deal with, Sgt. Stephen Valencic added. “We had to go through a lot to get in there. But we need to keep track of the borders.”
Perhaps by 2008 the Commonwealth was growing weary of all of this. State Rep. Robert C. Donatucci, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, said the smuggling law was very tough to enforce. “It requires staking out liquor stores across the border, then stopping the lawbreakers once they crossed in Pennsylvania, and in Cecil County we have to let the police know 30 days in advance.” Only 11 people were cited in all of 2007 for illegally importing alcohol even though the law had been on the books since the 1930s. “Enforcement is labor intensive,” he complained.
The border wars haven’t flared up lately, perhaps because Pennsylvanians have been distracted by a debate about modernizing or privatizing the state controlled distribution system. One of the proposals as the internal political wrangling goes on is to eliminate the distribution monopoly and let competition and the marketplace deal with the price advantage that exists for consumers in the “Free State.”