Moonshine Long After Prohibition


Sheriff Marvin Mitchell and deputy Darwin Holsman, right, inspect the home-made still which Holsman uncovered in the Bigfork area. The blowtorch was used to provide additional heat for the mash in the copper boiler.

As I mentioned previously, many of the articles for 2023 are based on stories I found intriguing from the six-part Diamond Jubilee issues of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review (June 16-July18, 1966).

In August 1954, Bigfork deputy Darwin Holsman found a moonshine operation in full swing at the cabin of Abel Kinnunan. Prohibition had been repealed in 1933 meaning that alcohol could be sold and consumed, but it was still illegal to manufacture it.  I recalled another incident of post-prohibition moonshine, so there is enough for a column.

I wrote an eight-part series Itasca County During Prohibition in 2020. The articles contain many interesting tactics used by moonshiners of all ages, male and female. There are quite a few names of those arrested and convicted which make for interesting reading. The columns are archived and can be found on my blog

Here is a quick review of the fourteen-year National Prohibition.

January 1920 ~ The Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which established the prohibition of alcohol, 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. In essence, it was illegal to manufacture, transport, sell or have possession of illicit liquor.

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.

It may have been illegal to make alcohol, but there were plenty of homemade stills of various sizes throughout Itasca County. Moonshine was the most common name for the illicitly distilled liquor. Other names for moonshine include Moon, White Lightning, Hooch, Dew, or Homebrew.  

This is the article featured in the July 18, 1966, Diamond Jubilee edition of the Grand Rapids Herald Review.

Bigfork Deputy Finds Moonshine Still ~ 8-19-1954

“Deputy sheriff Darwin Holsman of Bigfork, making a routine trip to serve papers, uncovered an old-fashioned moonshine still in operation in the Bigfork area Wednesday. Holsman stopped at the cabin of Abel Kinnunan of Hibbing to ask directions to another man’s home.  He noticed an old copper boiler heating on a two-burner kerosene stove and spotted a blow torch nearby. But Holsman drove away before he realized that he walked in on a moonshiner.

Deputy Holsman said that the man heated the mash with the kerosene stove and used the blow torch for extra heat against the side of the boiler. As the mash evaporated it went into a copper pipe and a series of coils in a barrel of water.  The steam became liquid and ran out a hose at the bottom of the coils into a jug.

Sheriff Marvin Mitchell notified the federal alcohol tax unit of the case.  The unit is expected to bring action against Kinnunan.”

I could not find anything more in the newspaper.

Another post-prohibition story happened during the time that the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) had a camp on Deer Lake near Scenic State Park. In 1934, Rayner and Sally Broberg moved their family from Chicago to northern Itasca County.  The Brobergs built and operated a small resort called Green Wing, southeast of Bigfork. John G. Broberg (1929-1993) was five years old when they left Chicago. In 1991, he put together a booklet of stories he had written about life at the resort. It includes everything from harvesting ice, dealing with wolves, porcupines, bears, moose, and the Feds. This story comes from his collection.

CCC Raid

“We had at least two moonshiners in our general area who evidently enjoyed their trade and continued to produce white lightning after the prohibition law ended. Neither of the moonshiners could have made or sold a lot of whiskey. One of them would never have been caught except for a bizarre set of circumstances, since he was a low-profile individual.

The CCC camps were built in the 1930s in the area of Green Wing.  One camp was on a lake four miles south of us and the other was situated on a lake five miles north of Green Wing.  I would estimate there were several hundred young, single males from about eighteen to perhaps thirty years of age in these two camps. They were supplied uniforms and given their food, lodging, limited medical care, and thirty dollars a month.

The camps appeared to be run by Army personnel.  The CCCs job was to build parks and roads.  They were also used as forest fire fighters when the need arose. They helped build Scenic State Park, which is located seven miles north of Green Wing.

These young men could quit and walk away from the CCCs if they chose to do so, and some did. It was undoubtedly a very confining atmosphere for restless men. The isolation, lack of female companionship, general boredom, and shortage of other things to do other than eat, sleep, and work made them mischievous.

The camps did not have liquor and the men couldn’t readily get it without going thirty miles to Bovey or Coleraine.  None of them owned cars, so it was likely their alcoholic consumption was limited.  The CCC boys knew at least one of the local moonshiners.  They undoubtedly had walked to his house and made small purchases prior to the night of their big caper.

Frenchy (not his real name), the moonshiner, lived on a lake back in the woods.  His house was surrounded by dense trees and brush.  The clearing around his house extended only about fifty feet in any direction.  One night the CCC boys hatched a scheme to steal Frenchy’s entire supply of white lightning.

A group of them headed for Frenchy’s place.  They scattered themselves all over the woods and hid. One young man knocked on Frenchy’s door and asked if he could buy a pint. Frenchy told him to sit down and wait since he never kept the liquor in or close to his house. Frenchy disappeared into the woods.  He returned about fifteen minutes later with a pint. The young man paid for his bottle and departed.

The CCC boys located Frenchy’s barrel of booze that night by watching his movements. They carried the barrel back to their camp. As one might expect, the entire camp got drunk, sick, and hung over.

Unfortunately for Frenchy, the county sheriff heard about the mess and had to take action. Frenchy was arrested and incarcerated.” [The Green Wing Story by John G. Broberg 1991 ~ Itasca County Historical Society archives]

If you happen to have an idea about who “Frenchy” is, I would love to know!

The April column is about gold fever in Itasca County.

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