When Roger Touhy returned to the Valley he invested most of his small fortune into aused car dealership not far from the tiny house in the Valley where he was born.
"My automobile business," Touhy said, "was bringing me in from $50,000 to $60,000 a year. But the big money was in alcoholic beverages. Everybody in the racket was getting rich. How could the bootleggers miss, with a short ounce of gagging moonshine selling for $1.25, or an eight-ounce glass of nauseating beer going for 75 cents?"
The Touhy brothers, Johnny, Eddie, Tommy and Joe had already gotten involved in the booming bootleg business via Terrible Tommy O'Connor. They worked mostly as hired enforcers, but they occasionally hijacked a syndicate beer truck. It was almost natural that Roger join them and eventually he entered the bootlegging business. They entered the business through the back door, leasing a small fleet of trucks with drivers, from syndicate boss Johnny Torrio's enormous bootlegging operation. Using the money they earned from those leases, Roger and his brothers bought a franchise from Torrio for the beer delivery routes to rural northwestern Cook County, the area where Roger grew up.
The beer delivery business could be lucrative as long as expenses were kept to a minimum, so the notoriously tight-fisted brothers opted not to pay for police protection. As a result, Chicago and Cook County police, probably working in a 50/50 split with Johnny Torrio, or at the least working under his orders, made a practice of stopping and impounding the brothers' trucks, probably kicking back half the fines collected to Torrio.
When the expenses started to mount it occurred to Tommy Touhy that the police would never suspect a commercial vehicle of delivering booze. They decided to test the theory. The boys bought two used Esso Gasoline trucks-Esso being the forerunner to Exxon-and they made several successful shipments that way. It was a practice they continued to use even though most of the drivers the Touhys employed were off-duty cops. Virtually every truck the Touhys owned was disguised as a meat delivery truck. After that, their trucks were never stopped and the brothers shipped all their beer in commercial vehicles, either marked as gasoline, meat or coal delivery trucks.
Ambitious and flush with cash from the beer routes, the brothers entered a bootlegging partnership with two north side Chicago hoods, Willie Heeney and Rocco DeGrazio, both of whom were amateur narcotics dealers who would eventually reach top spots in the syndicate under Frank Nitti and Tony Accardo. The Touhys and their new partners pumped out rot-gut beer from a rented garage and made enough money to open a short-lived nightclub a few doors down from their brewery. Using their profits from the brewery and speakeasy, Roger and Tommy opened a string of handbooks, and then used the cash from that to buy Heeney and DeGrazio out of the business.
Now the prosperous owner of a beer delivery service, a small brewery, several handbooks and a car dealership, Roger asked Clara Morgan for her hand in marriage. She accepted and the couple married in a simple church ceremony in Chicago on April 22, 1922.
For the next three years, the brothers worked to develop their various enterprises, building up their suburban beer routes and expanding into labor extortion and gambling, but like most other Irish hoods, resisting the easy money of prostitution. Then, in late 1925, as Johnny Torrio was just beginning to expand his criminal empire, the brothers leaped out of the small time by entering a partnership with Matt Kolb, a five-foot three-inch, 280 pound former ward politician, syndicate bagman and pay-off expert, who ran a $3,000,000 rot-gut whisky and needle beer brewery not far from Roger's car dealership.
Earlier in the year A1 Capone, who was then still Johnny Torrio's chief of staff, told Kolb that he was out of business unless he paid 50 percent of his gross to Rocco DeGrazio, Roger's former business partner and Capone's new business agent on the north side. Although Kolb acted as bagman for Johnny Torrio, he despised Capone. Rather than work for him, Kolb called Roger and Tommy Touhy and by mid-year their partnership was in place. It was a simple arrangement: Kolb was the money man, Roger was business manager and Tommy was the muscle.
It was Kolb who encouraged Touhy to move his operation out to the suburbs, largely because his brothers were already operating in the area and because Kolb understood that peace would never reign in Chicago as long as prohibition was in force. But Kolb also held considerable clout with the new County Sheriff, Charles Graydon, who had owned an ice packing business several years before. The brothers knew Kolb was right: peace would never reign in Chicago's underworld with so many different-and violent-street gangs vying for a limited amount of business. But that wasn't the case out in the rural northern portion of the county. In fact, when the brothers first started peddling the syndicate's beer they were stunned at the amount of business, both existing and potential, that was out there. Better yet, there was barely any competition for the market and there were scores of people willing to operate speakeasies if Kolb, who was worth a million in cash, put up the money to open them.
By 1926, the Touhy brothers and Matt Kolb were operational in suburban Des Plains, a small but prosperous community where they started a cooper shop, brewery and wort plant. They expanded that to ten fermenting plants, working round the clock, each plant being a small brewery in itself with its own refrigeration system and ice-making machine with a bottling plant. The investment paid off. By the end of the year, the partners were selling 1,000 barrels of beer a week at $55 a barrel with a production cost of $4.50 a barrel.
They sold their beer to 200 roadhouses outside of Chicago, mostly in far western Cook and Will County, north to the Wisconsin Lake region. Richer then ever, they hired more muscle men and with Tommy Touhy leading the assault, the brothers punched, shot and sold their way into a considerable portion of the upper northwest region of the city, "Our business"
Roger said, "was scattered over a lot of mileage. A barrel here and a barrel there. Nobody realized that Matt and I were grossing about $1,000,000 a year from beer alone....I didn't become a giant in the racket, but you might say I was one of the biggest midgets who ever scoffed at the Volstead law."
Since making wort-the main ingredient for beer as well as bread-was legal, Roger and Kolb claimed their entire operation was a bakery since "I was producing enough wort for all the bread baked in a dozen states. It was a big enterprise and I paid fifteen cents tax on every gallon I made."
To counter Chicago's off-beer season-the winter months-they set up a slot machine business, placing 225 machines in gas stations, dance halls and chicken dinner stands. 'The only way to make money faster" he said, "is to have a license to counterfeit bills."
They kept the local politicians happy, aside from bribing them outright, by doling out 18,000 free bottles of beer every week through one of Kolb's underlings, Joe Goebel of Morton Grove. The County President, Anton Cermak not only took the beer which he resold or gave away to the party faithful, but had Touhy print his name and picture on the front label.
To keep the cost of police protection low, always a priority with the Touhys, they hired off-duty Cook County highway patrolmen. "Our local law," Roger wrote, "was mostly Cook County Highway Patrol. I figured out a way to keep the roads open for us, with top priority for our beer trucks. Whenever we had a job open as a truck driver or what not, I hired a cop right away from the highway patrol to fill it...we paid no man less than $100 a week, which was more than triple what the patrol guys got for longer hours."