Joseph Ralph Agosta was little more than a toddler at the time, but he thinks he knows where the evidence was buried.
Agosta, 92, a Goodyear retiree and Navy veteran from World War II, remembers being about 3 years old and barely able to walk when two men came to his childhood home on brick-lined Cole Avenue in South Akron.
They belonged to the Baird Street gang of bootleggers.
“They stole a car or truck or something,” Agosta said. “Now I’m not sure if they buried the whole vehicle or buried a motor. It was stolen and they tried to hide it. … I remember a couple guys talking about it and pointing at it.”
According to family lore, the men dug a hole in the dirt floor of the garage behind the house, wrapped an engine in plastic, lowered it into the ground and covered it up.
The house and garage were demolished long ago, but Agosta believes the motor is still there. “I would say so,” he said.
Agosta and his three siblings grew up in the house in the 400 block of Cole with their Sicilian immigrant parents, Nancy and Salvatore “Sam” Agosta.
“We lived in a ‘really nice’ home that didn’t have a sink,” he recalled. “It didn’t have running water except on the front step there was a pump. We had one stove that heated the house and we cooked on. And one double bed upstairs.”
The rent was $10 a month.
Agosta’s father, Sam, a World War I veteran, couldn’t read or write and did whatever he could to provide for his family during tough times. He joined the bootleggers during Prohibition, although it didn’t exactly make him rich.
“We didn’t get to play with money,” Agosta said. “We was poor as church mice.”
Sitting in his Firestone Park living room, Agosta recounted boyhood memories of those bootlegging years. Over the decades, he’s shared the tales with his wife, Marjorie, and children, Kathy, 65, Sam, 64, Vic, 60, and Joe, 57.
Agosta recalls being about 7 years old and making weekend trips with his family to a Norton farm off Cleveland-Massillon Road in the 1930s.
“There was a hill to get to the farm, and my dad couldn’t go up it with his truck, so he had to turn around and back up the hill,” he said.
Other families were gathered at the farm, too. The women and children enjoyed an outdoor party while the men disappeared into the barn.
“My dad went there every day, I guess, and took us on Sundays to have a family picnic,” Agosta said.
Taking a look
Children weren’t supposed to go in the barn, but Agosta took a peek once and saw strange contraptions with copper pots, cylinders and coils. It reminded him of a shiny furnace, but the men were making whiskey from corn mash in three stills.
“They was cooking,” Agosta said.
His father didn't mention what he was making in the barn.
“No, but we knew it was whiskey,” Agosta said.
And what did his mother think?
“She never said nothing,” he said. “My mom didn’t drink at all.”
He remembers attending parties at the Baird Street home of his godfather, Ralph “Shorty” Nicastro, who stood no more than 4-foot-5 and was known as the smallest bootlegger in Summit County. Nicastro operated a fleet of fast automobiles and trucks for delivering bootleg liquor.
The Baird Street dinners attracted some well-dressed guests from downtown Akron, he recalled.
“We would have two big tables in the backyard on the driveway, and the mayor would come and sit and eat with us,” he said. “We’d have at least a dozen people, and they’d have cigars.”
Agosta doesn’t recall which mayor — “Don’t forget: We were little” — but the time frame would suggest C. Nelson Sparks, who served from 1932-1933, or I.S. Myers, who served from 1934-1935.
Later, the men would go into Nicastro’s basement to let off a little steam.
“After they had dinner outside on the driveway, the mayor — and I forget how many big shots were there — would hang a big washtub on the wall, get their shotguns and use it as a target,” he said.
Agosta heard rumors that underground tunnels connected two or three houses on Baird Street, although he never got to explore the passages.
“Them homes are still there,” he said. “Right before the railroad tracks.”
Hiding the booze
In addition to the buried engine in the garage, the Agosta home on Cole Avenue also had a secret stash.
“We had a safe under the steps going to the second floor,” Agosta said. “One step would lift up … and we hid the whiskey.”
Agosta remembers going with his father to pick up sacks of sugar from a county jail storeroom — some of the deputies were aiding the bootleggers — and transporting the goods to the Norton farm for use in the stills. He also recalls dropping off whiskey to some unusual customers downtown.
“I think we delivered booze to the police department,” he said with a laugh.
None other than U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness broke up the Baird Street gang after receiving a 1934 tip at his Cleveland office to investigate a conspiracy "to violate the Internal Revenue Act by aiding evasion of payment of federal excise taxes on illicit whiskey."
In 1935, a federal grand jury indicted Summit County Sheriff Ray Potts and Deputies Pat Moran and J.J. Graham for conspiring with bootleggers. Also charged were nine members of the Baird Street gang, including Ralph Nicastro.
The defendants were convicted and sentenced to federal prison, but Agosta’s father wasn’t among them. By sheer luck, Sam Agosta happened not to be at the Norton farm when agents raided the barn, broke up the stills and seized the whiskey.
His bootlegging career behind him, he worked for the WPA in the 1930s and helped build the Rubber Bowl. He later drove a dump truck, hauled asphalt and led a quiet, law-abiding life. Salvatore “Sam” Agosta was 96 when he died Jan. 30, 1988.
Those bootlegging days were so long ago, but they’re still vivid in Joe Agosta’s mind.
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
And if anyone is searching for a 1930s automobile engine, he thinks he knows where to find one.
“On Cole Avenue,” Agosta said.
Better bring a shovel.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.