“Moon in a Privy” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition ~ part 1 of 8
[previously published 7.12.2020]
My grandfather, Clarence ‘Conny’ Scheer, began writing the stories of his life when he was in his seventies. By then, he had adopted a block style printing on unlined paper. He intended to write chronologically, but he often veered off a little. In one chapter he focused on the family homestead a mile from Bigfork, but then remembered when he was fifteen and wanted to visit his maternal grandparents in Randall, Minnesota. “I got a free ride there with a man I had known from Randall that hauled bootleg booze up from where he distilled it. Anyhow, he gave me a ride to Randall Swede Hall. He was a good sort of fellow, though.” I wondered if Gramps had ever traveled north to Bigfork when a delivery was made, and if the bootlegger he referred to could have been E.J. Stoutenberg or John Hart who was arrested in Itasca County.
Since 2014, when I started the Reminisce column, I have had a couple of articles referencing the prohibition years. The ingenuity of the men and women willing to manufacture and sell illegal liquor in our Northwoods rivals some big-time producers’ operations. I expanded my research to include articles from the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. I found that liquor-related arrests were more prevalent in the eastern part of the county than in the northern and western communities. For the rest of this summer and into early fall, Reminisce will feature some of the most interesting stories I found.
But first, a few basic facts about the fourteen-year National Prohibition.
~ January 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which established the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, went into effect. It is also referred to as the Volstead Act, because the amendment was drafted by Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, from Granite Falls.
~ March 1933 Congress passed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized 3.2 beer and wines of similarly low alcohol content
~ December 1933 The Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution is ratified. The legal sale of alcoholic beverages, except in those states that have voted to remain dry, is no longer prohibited.
~ Moonshine is illicitly distilled or smuggled liquor. Other names for moonshine include Moon, White Lightning, Hooch, Dew, or Homebrew.
~ Bootlegging is the illegal production, transportation, or sale of liquor.
~ Bootleggers were individuals who made, distributed, or sold the moonshine.
Crimes and Charges
~ Manufacturing of illicit liquor
~ Transporting illicit liquor
~ Liquor Nuisance which meant conducting business, or the place of business selling intoxicating liquors
~ Possession of illicit liquor
~ Lesser offenses were drunk and disorderly conduct and drunk driving
It wasn’t long before Prohibition lost advocates as ignoring the law gained increasing social acceptance. Moonshine was being manufactured on the sly, with any combination of grain and fruit that could be procured. Depending on the operation’s size, it was for personal consumption, sold to locals, or shipped. All were crimes that could land a person in jail.
I have perused the front page of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review and the Deer River Itasca News to obtain a sample of the arrests made for illicit alcohol-related crimes during Prohibition. This amounted to nearly 400 articles and about 600 unduplicated names. The offenses listed above generally had fines ranging from $10 to $300, with or without jail time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, a typical fine of $30 in 1926 (middle of prohibition years) is equivalent to $435 today.
If federal agents made the arrests, the hearing would be before a federal judge. Most sentences issued by the federal court included jail time in a county where the crime did not occur and a hefty fine. There are some occasions where the incarceration was in Leavenworth or another federal penitentiary.
As an introduction to this series, I have selected four articles for each of the significant prohibition crimes, to illustrate what was happening in Itasca County. The very first article I found in the local papers succinctly explained the process of making moonshine.
Find Moonshiners and Seize Still ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 4-14-1920
“Acting on information secured from men who had evidence of an illicit still that was being operated in Balsam township north of Taconite, Sheriff Carson and Deputy Jesse Harry raided the place last Saturday. They found two stills in active operation, secured the stills, some of the product, material used in manufacturing the illicit moonshine liquor, and arrested the three men most involved. The raid was planned so carefully that the suspected men were not aware of the intentions of the sheriff and his deputy till they opened the door of the cabin where the stills were being operated. Moonshine making was in full blast when the officers entered, and they watched it for some time before shutting down operations and arresting the proprietors.
“The men arrested are all residents of Bovey. Their names are William Bows, Peter Snyder, and Victor Loungrie. When arraigned on Monday before Justice of the Peace Keo Leroux, all waived examination and stated that it was their desire to appear before the district judge and plead guilty without waiting for a trial. According to their wish, they were arraigned before Judge McClenahan on Tuesday morning. They pleaded guilty and were told that their sentences would be made known later in the week.
“The stills are models of ingenuity and remarkably efficient, according to the evidence given by the sheriff and deputy who saw them in action. One was made of a five-gallon milk can, which had a pipe soldered into the cover. The fermented mash was placed in the milk can, the can then put on the stove and the steam-driven off through the pipe. This pipe was made from a coil that had at some time been part of a beer pumping outfit, and part of the coil was placed in a pail of ice. The condensed steam, containing the alcohol, dripped from the end of the pipe into a bottle placed in readiness. The second still was of somewhat similar manufacture but was made out of a large copper wash boiler. A larger and higher cover than such as are ordinarily used had been made and the pipe vented from the top of this cover. The cooling pipe was led through a barrel of water and ice, which caused the alcohol in the steam to condense and drip into the bottle or jar placed in readiness,
“The liquor resulting from this treatment is perfectly clear but strong with alcohol and burns as readily as kerosene. It is reported that the moonshiners were selling it at $25 or $30 a gallon and disposing of large quantities of it. According to the best information that Sheriff Carson could obtain, the mash from which the liquor was distilled was made from stock food and molasses. The purchase of large quantities of these materials by the men under arrest, none of whom owned any amount of livestock, first led to suspicion being directed toward them.”
Find Big Plant in Spang Town ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 8-13-1924
“One man, one still, one Ford automobile, one coil stove and 23 gals of moonshine was the net result of a raid conducted by Sheriff O’Brien and his deputies in Spang township last Saturday night. The man who is charged with transporting liquor is John Arends of Hill City. The officers located the plant earlier in the brush Saturday night and waited for the owner to come. When Arends had some of the jugs of moonshine loaded in the car, the officers stepped out and caught him. He is charged with transporting liquor and is ready to plead guilty and take his sentence. Judge McClenahan is expected here next week when Arends and several others now in the county jail will be sentenced.”
Bad Moon Brings Four to Court ~ Itasca News 5-28-1925
“Friday was a bad day for a few local fellows who are not in sympathy with the 18th amendment to the constitution of the United States.
“Deputy Sheriff Dunn picked up Otto Salinen, and Marshal Ruby apprehended John Hendricks and John Okars. Mr. Dunn took all three men to Grand Rapids for hearing before Justice Leroux. They were charged with being drunk and disorderly. Salinen was fined $20 and costs; a total of $31. Hendricks drew a $20 fine or 15 days in jail, and Okara was given a choice of $30 or 30 days with costs included. None had paid the fine at our last report.
“Saturday morning Deputy Dunn uncovered a big cache of moon in a privy on the south side of the alley on block 6. Two 5-gallon jugs of liquor had been left there, but there was evidently a mix up in the timetables. Samples were taken, the liquor poured out, and the jugs broken. Tuesday morning Peter Dedrick was taken before Justice Leroux in a liquor nuisance charge. He pleaded guilty and was fined $100 and costs, which he paid.”
Moonshiners Find Little Peace Here ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 2-6-1924
“Continued and successful efforts are being made to make Itasca County unsafe for moonshiners. Sheriff O’Brien and deputy Dickie went to Calumet on Sunday and arrested Mike Barovich, an old offender, who is now awaiting trial at the spring term of the court for possession of liquor. When the officers entered his place last Sunday evening, his wife attempted to destroy the evidence by spilling the moonshine, but made the mistake of spilling it into the bread box in the kitchen cabinet, just as the officers were in the room. The bread box had a tin lining, and the officers strained out several quarts of moonshine from the crumbs. Bail was fixed at $1000, which was not furnished, and Barovich will face trial in March.”