“See America First ~ and Don’t Forget Craigville!” ~  Itasca County during Prohibition ~ part 8 of 8

3.18.2021 [archived ~ previously published 10.25.2020]

“Saturday Night in a Saloon” is one of the most famous photographs taken by photographer Russell Lee. It was shot in a bar that were still operating in Craigville in 1937. Lee was employed by the Farm Bureau Administration and traveled throughout the United States between 1936 and 1943 documenting American classes and cultures. The popularity of the photograph is the result of the producers of the television show ‘Cheers’ (1982-1993) using it in a montage with the theme song at the beginning of the show. [Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Access permitted reproduction number LC-USF34-030584]

Craigville is an unincorporated village located in section 36 of township 63-26, in Koochiching County.  Effie is four miles from the northern boundary of Itasca County, and Craigville is just over the county line (although locals know that at times Craigville has extended south into Itasca County).

The community is named for John Craig who was a woodsman who emigrated from Canada in 1883. John Craig (1941-2015) explained, “My grandfather came to Grand Rapids as a lumberjack for the Itasca Logging Company and he was the foreman in charge of all the camps.  His job was to hire lumberjacks and make sure the camps were running.  In the spring when they took the logs away, his job was to set up new camps for the next year.  Usually they built five camps every year and that was his perpetual job, keeping the places running.  That’s really how the town of Craigville got started. It was when they hired them [his crew] up at Craig.” [2010 interview, Itasca County Historical Society (ICHS)]

It is not clear exactly where the last camp that Craig built was located.  He died in January 1912.  John Reid of the lumber company Blake, Hawkins and Reid, stated in a 1960 lecture. “We built the first structure there [at Craig], a log camp, in 1912.”  [ICHS]  Reid bought out his partners in 1914 and operated a successful saw mill and lathe mill in Craigville until the Depression curtailed the need for the product in 1929.

Craigville Snapshot

The site had such extensive logging around it that during logging season thousands of loggers might be found in the local taverns. For most of the fourteen years that Prohibition was in place, the taverns of Craigville remained active. There were no lawmen in Craigville and it was a full day of travel from International Falls where the county jail was located.  Plenty of moonshine was made in the area, and it was rare that a tavern didn’t have what was needed to supply their patrons. Thus, Craigville was visited by folks from Itasca County as well as hordes of loggers.

Marion Brown (1902-1999) was a brakeman on the Minneapolis & Rainy River Railway between Deer River and Craigville during the latter part of Prohibition.  He commented on the way some situations were handled by the federal agents. “They [saloon owners] had an agreement with the bartenders in the event that the federal men would come down and close the joints up.  And they would put an official sign on the door.  But they had a standing agreement, the owners, and the bartenders, that the bartender would say that he was the owner.

“Well naturally, they would arrest him and take him to Duluth, and they had a standing agreement that he got five dollars a day for tending bar, and he also got five dollars a day for sitting in jail in Duluth.  And those feds wouldn’t be at the top of the hill about two miles out of Craig, and there would be another bartender in these joints.  The signs on the door didn’t mean a thing.” [Interview with Marion Brown conducted by John Esse 1975 ICHS]

In February1926, Frank Miller, the proprietor of a hotel in Deer River, reported to the Itasca News that he had seen the sights and sounds of Craigville and recommended that others do too. Miller had been to one of the logging camps with a local physician to check on a family member and they stopped on the way home at a saloon. “‘We saw seven fights [bar brawls] in fifty-two minutes,’ said Mr. Miller. ‘And believe me, they were no petting parties.  It was just zip-bang-whang from start to finish.’

“Entering a refreshment establishment with one of the proprietors, the bartender was found prostrate across the counter.  The owner shook him savagely.  An argument followed, ‘Come out doors and tell me that,’ yelled the barkeep.  Out they went. Bim-Bam-Flooie! And it was all over.  The other partner appeared.  ‘Hey! What you doing’ with that fellow? I hired him.’ ‘And I fired him,’ was the reply.  ‘What you goin’ to do about it?’

‘You would have thought it was the month of June,’ said Miller.  ‘They sat around on ice cakes, piles of timber, just anywhere, at midnight.’ Mr. Miller insists that the management of the Great Northern railway has overlooked a good bet.  On the side of every box car put out by the company, is painted in large letters: See America First!  He says the slogan is incomplete, and at the next meeting of the commercial club will ask for a committee to appear before Great Northern officials and ask them to add at the bottom: And Don’t Forget Craigville!” [2-11-1926 Itasca News]

Two months after Miller’s visit to Craigville, the infamous gunfight between Dan McGinty and Mike Cunningham took place in the Gem Cafe.  Although Cunningham was seriously injured, he shot McGinty through the heart, killing him instantly.  Cunningham survived, but did not return to Craigville. My guest contributor, Mark Anderson wrote about this in a 2016 Reminisce column. Email me to request a copy.

Howard Park was born in 1922 in Internationals Falls.  In about 1925, the family moved to Craigville where his father, Mike, built a saloon, poker parlor, lunchroom and sauna.  Many of the lumberjacks were Finnish and patronized all facets of the business built by a fellow Finn. The Eagle Bath House was a busy and lucrative place.  Howard described it as one of the nicest businesses in town. Practically all the buildings were tarpaper sided shacks and saloons.  Ours had siding that was blue-gray mineral surface roofing with battens.  It was about 32 x 60 with the rear 15 feet devoted to a sauna and dressing room.  An adjoining shop allowed feeding the sauna heating stove.  We also had the only electric lights in Craig via a generator and several banks of large glass batteries.

“My father served moonshine, Canadian liquor, and a home brew to the jacks as did the other saloons.  He also served as mediator during fights, loaned money, and kept a ‘tab’ for the jacks which they paid when payday came again.  I can remember seeing him coloring moonshine with caramel to look like bourbon.  Also using charred wood kegs to ‘age’ some of the harsher booze.”  [Correspondence Howard Parks and Bill Marshall 1995-2000, ICHS]

Howard was about six years old when he had a bit of a run in with a lumberjack he refers to as Pillicuffie. This may be Billy Coffie, a man I have found mentioned elsewhere. I have a vivid memories of Pillicuffie.  For some reason, probably on a weekday, only a few jacks were in the saloon, my father must have been out temporarily, and I was sort of babysitting the store.  My memory is faint but Pillicuffie started to tease me or something and I became angry.  I ran into a side room where my father kept his only gun, a single shot 410 shotgun, and grabbed it to chase Pillicuffie. 

“Well, I knew I would not shoot him for such a small reason, and he realized it soon also.  So he, in turn chased me around the bar with me threatening him with the gun. (He had more guts than sense to provoke a 6-year-old with a loaded gun.) Anyway, it was resolved, probably with my father’s returning to the saloon.” 

Sadly, in January 1929, Howard’s father Mike committed suicide.  Howard, his younger brother, and their mother Lydia were devastated. Lydia, with the help of her sons, kept the business running for a few more years before selling it.  The steam bath was the only place to get clean other than the river, so it remained a viable business into the 1950s.  

Seclusion Made it Easy

It seems hard to believe that there wasn’t more of an effort made to follow shipments of supplies that could be used for making moonshine.  Maybe northern Minnesota was just not a place to worry about compared to the large cities where organized crime and moonshine went hand in hand.  Marion Brown recalled: “We used to haul practically by the carload, it wasn’t brown sugar, but it was some type of hard sugar that felt and handled more like a bale than a sack of sugar, and raisins.  That’s what they made the moonshine out of, and the going price for moonshine I know at that time to these joints, from the moonshiner was four dollars, four and a half dollars a gallon.  We had one moonshiner up there that was better than the rest of them, and he would get five and a half, six dollars for his, but his clientele were more or less the business people, the loggers and people like that around the area. [Marion Brown Interview 1975, ICHS]

Alcohol arrests in the far north were minimal.  These are the only records I found in the local papers. 

~ “Frank Flint was arrested in the northern part of Itasca County, near Craig, by Deputies Dickie, Dunn and Tupper.  He pleaded guilty to operating a liquor nuisance and paid a fine of $100.” [12-17-1924 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]

~ “John Quinn and Ethel Hines, formerly located at Craig, moved to an old logging camp west of Bigfork, where they were in Itasca County instead of Koochiching, in order to be handy to sell liquor to the road crews operating in that vicinity.  Quinn paid a fine of $100 and costs, while his consort paid $50 and costs, and it was intimated to both of them that Itasca County was not a place for them.” [8-3-1927 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]

~ “Cornelius B. Francisco of Craig was arrested last Saturday by a deputy sheriff and charged with maintaining a liquor nuisance at the Effie Fair.  Francisco pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 and costs or serve 60 days in jail.” [9-10-1930 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]

~ “Victor Parsons of Craig was arrested at a dance near Effie by Harry Lamson, special dance deputy.  Parsons was charged with selling liquor at the dance, and when arraigned before Judge Keo Leroux pleaded guilty. As this is a matter for determination by a district judge, Parsons was remanded in jail until he could be brought up in district court.” [3-2-1932 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]

Why Quit a Good Thing

Gene Rajala was born three years after Prohibition was repealed, but he told me that anyone who made good moonshine always had buyers. “We had a moonshiner who made moonshine way later.  He lived about two miles from us and when he’d come by, he always brought my dad a pint or half pint. His name was Archie Loven, but you won’t find his name [in the newspapers] because he was too smart.  He always had a nice big shiny car and wore a bow tie.  His wife, Lizzie had really nice clothes compared to the farmwives and homesteaders around here. He wasn’t employed. He had a homestead but never cleared land or farmed it or had livestock.  He was just kind of a ‘fancy Dan’ moonshiner.

“He took his product to the dances at all the town halls.  He’d park in the parking lot and sell half pints from the trunk of his car.  You never got rid of a half pint bottle (slender, easy to fit in shirt pocket) – it was worth more than the whiskey in it! Archie had contacts with the town hall supervisors and maybe some of the bands. They were here making and selling moonshine up until the 1950s.” [Interview 10-10-2020]

I verified the facts on the Lovens, but have not (yet) on another moonshiner Gene remembers.  “Tryanoski’shad made booze in Chicago and then set up an operation on Holstrum’s Spur which was in Koochiching County.  They brought all their equipment with them and also some folks who had been making it for them. One of them was named Joe Hammond.”  [Interview 10-10-2020]

Final Words

I wrote the first of this series in July, encouraged in part by the memories of my grandfather, Clarence Scheer.  I’m sure if he was still alive Gramps would chuckle as you did at the names he recognized and the ingenuity of the moonshiners.  Regarding Craigville, there are many more stories to be told, some of which I will highlight in this column in the future.    

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