“Too Far Out in the Wilderness to be Found” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition part 3 of 8

3.7.2021 [archived ~ previously published 8.9.2020]

It is safe to assume that long before January 17, 1920, when Prohibition was official, those who planned to make alcohol for human consumption had stockpiled the ingredients needed – grain and fruit or sugar. Because moonshine was made in secret, there are no standardized measurements, so it was often trial and error.  Basically, it was equal amounts of water and corn or a malt grain (rye and/or barley) plus a one-quarter ratio of sweetener. 

“Five gallons of water, five gallons of grain, and 10 pounds of sugar. This mixture is stirred together and needs to be covered to allow for fermentation, which can take a couple of weeks. 

Distillation is the process of separating a mixture of liquids with different boiling points. In this case, we’re trying to separate ethanol (alcohol) from water. Pure ethanol boils at 78.4 degrees Celsius, and water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, so heating the mash will make the ethanol boil off first.

A still has three separate parts – something to heat the liquid, something to help water vapors condense before they escape the apparatus, and something to cool and trap the alcoholic vapors. These parts are the vat, column, and condenser.” [https://www.instructables.com/id/Build-a-Whisky-Still]

Obviously, those manufacturing moonshine went to great lengths to hide their illegal operation and any outward signs that might indicate they had a second occupation. Containers of mash and homemade stills were found in barns and attics, sheds out back, and even in a rented room of a boarding house.  Two types of ingenious locations were deep in the ground and deep in the swamp.  

Deep in the Ground

The Grand Rapids Herald-Review reported that Nick Partina of Calumet had a two-story basement, and it was in the lower level that his moonshine set up was found.  “Sheriff Carson and Deputy Sheriff Jesse Harry went to Calumet and examined several places suspected of harboring moonshine operations.  At the Partina residence, they investigated the house first and later searched for a cellar.  Finding a trap door in the linoleum they were assured by Mrs. Partina that they would be unable to get into the basement there and that it was not in use.

Sheriff Carson swung down into the basement, however, and aided by a flashlight began an investigation.  No evidence was found here, but upon kicking aside a pile of old boards and other rubbish in the basement corner, a second trap door was found.  This being lifted, they discovered a flight of stairs leading into a second cellar 10 feet deep. A complete still for the manufacturing of moonshine was found together with more mash in several stages of preparation.  Several gallons of moonshine were seized and the still taken as evidence along with samples of the mash.  This unusual basement was equipped with electricity for lighting and also for heating an electric heater being used for making the mash.  [3-23-1921]

George Stupar immigrated from Croatia in 1916 and settled on the Iron Range.  He lived just north of Nashwauk, and had his moonshine still cleverly concealed until February 19, 1922, when he was arrested.  The officers searched for quite a while as they were sure he had an illegal alcohol manufacturing operation on the premises.

“Noticing in one place where the ground appeared to have been recently disturbed, a pick was secured, and a trap door found.  Lifting this disclosed a flight of stairs that led down into a pit or cellar, well walled up with timber, and which contained several barrels of mash and a copper still of large capacity.  The fermented mash was cooked on a common wood stove, and the pipe was led from the stove to the surface of the ground, where it was connected with another old stove that was used for heating water with which to wash clothes.  Anyone noticing the smoke coming from the old stove on the surface of the ground would have thought it had recently been used for heating water and would not have looked close enough to see the pipe leading up from the sub-cellar below.  The arrangement fooled the officers for some time, but the puzzle was finally solved.

Stupar pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ninety days in the Itasca County Jail.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 2-22-1922]    

It had been rumored that Matt Piispanen, who lived near Max, had been making hooch for his neighbors, but no one mentioned that the still was under their Finnish bathhouse. “When the officers investigated Piispanen’s place, he claimed he did not drink and that he did not like anyone who handled intoxicating liquor.  A search of the house, however, revealed loose boards in the floor of one room.  When these were raised, two barrels of mash were found, one of them ready for the still.  Encouraged by this success, the officers searched the bathhouse and found the still constructed from copper tubing and a wash boiler underneath the floor.  They were now determined to investigate all the floors, and underneath the floor of the garage found two five-gallon jugs, one two-gallon jug, and two kegs filled with moonshine. Piispanen is bound over to await the district court’s action, charged with the manufacture of liquor and possession of a still and mash.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 3-4-1931]

Deep in the Swamp

I have two examples of moonshine operations located deep in swamps, and one that was never discovered.

Jeff Bishop, a Reminisce reader from Grand Rapids, shared a story his father-in-law Eino Kekkonen, told him about coming face to face with a moonshiner in 1926 when he was ten years old. I have not located any documentation that this operation was discovered during Prohibition, and since there were some building remnants, it is possible moonshine was made until 1933.

 “Twenty years ago, before he died, my father-in-law, Eino Kekkonen, took me to his deer hunting country where he grew up to show me around. It was east of Wabana Lake and south of Murphy Lake. Eino showed me the spot, and you could still see the hollowed-out hillside and scraps of stovepipe, sheet metal, and such.

His father, Albin, was a carpenter and logged by himself in the winter with his draft horses. They were out in the bush there that fall looking for timber for his father to cut when they walked right into a moonshine operation. It was set up into a hillside in a small bowl of a balsam swamp, and the crew was there making shine. Eino was scared out of his wits being ten years old and hearing stories of people getting killed by moonshiners. His father, however, kept his composure, and the man in charge approached him. They vaguely recognized each other but were not acquainted. The man inquired what they happened to be doing back there. His father remarked that he was looking for timber to cut that winter but that this particular area did not seem to have what he was looking for, and he was going to scout elsewhere. At that, the men shook hands, his father was handed a jug of shine, and they said farewell.”

It seems that it was winter when the stills were underground, and spring and summer when they were in the swamp.  The further away from roads, it was figured, the less likely the smoke from the stove could be seen.

840 Gallons of Mash ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 7-18-1923

“Marko Kapudja and Dave Stupar thought they were too far out in the wilderness to be found, when they established camp five miles north of Marble, out in a swamp.  Deputy Sheriff Dickie thought otherwise, however, and came upon the men when they were sampling a run of moonshine.  Their outfit included three stoves, two stills, a number of barrels, 840 gallons of mash, 30 gallons of moonshine and a hundred-pound sack of sugar.  All that store of supplies packed in five miles across the hills and swamps for there was no road to their place.  The men have both agreed to plead guilty and will be taken to Bemidji for sentence.”

Although the above article was a record for the amount of mash found, I believe this next one had the nicest equipment.  Joe Rabonovich of Calumet was the owner of the operation. He was not apprehended on site, he was arrested with liquor in his possession before the day was over.

Breaking Up Biggest Moonshine Outfit ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 5-25-1927

“One of the largest moonshine outfits ever captured in Itasca County was brought in by members of the sheriff’s force who conducted a raid south of Calumet.  The entire outfit was new and up-to-date and had evidently just been installed.  From appearances, the first batch of moonshine was about to be produced when the officers raided the place.

Two stills were captured, one of 35 gallons and the other of 50 gallons capacity.  Twelve barrels of assorted mash was ready for distribution.  This mash was made partly of apricots, partly of corn, and partly of raisins, thus evidently intending to give possible customers a choice in their brand of liquor.  Other equipment included 20 jugs each of five gallons capacity and four new 15-gallon kegs.  Even the shack in which the outfit was housed was new and had just been completed.  It was located in a swamp, somewhat difficult to access.

The stills were brought to Grand Rapids, the jugs were broken, the mash spilled, and the shack and the barrels were burned.  So, the moonshiner who attempted to get his start here will find it necessary to begin over again.”

1 Comment

  1. Vickie says:

    It was so amazing how widespread bootlegging was. Lots of good history to read.


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