“There’s Only One Thing to Do, and That’s to Get the Kettle Out” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition ~ part 5 of 8

3.9.2021 [archived ~ previously published 9.13.2020]  

Frank Werthner was a trapper from Bustitown.  He also made a moonshine near Larson Lake, northeast of Effie.  In 1923 he was arrested and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. [Photograph courtesy of the Rajala family descendants]

It’s always fun to get information from other sources than just the newspaper. And it just so happens, I have a few to enhance the Prohibition stories of Bigfork and Effie.

Moonshine Meant Food

The Prohibition years overlapped with the Great Depression.  Sometimes making moonshine was a way to put food on the table. David Patrow, son of homesteaders Orin and Katherine (Costello) Patrow, illustrated this in his booklet Bigfork Valley Memories.  Dave was born in 1911 and was probably about fourteen years old when this incident took place.

“A lot of my neighbors made some moonshine. I remember one guy that used to get religion and quit making it.  One day he came along to our place and was kicking about being hard up, so my dad told him, ‘Doc,’ he said, ‘there’s only one thing to do, and that is to get the kettle out.’ Doc threw up his hands and said, ‘I’ll starve first!’ Dad answered, ‘If you change your mind, I’ll stake you enough stuff to get you started.’ In less than a week, Doc was back looking for enough money to get some sugar.  He justified it by saying he saw it in the Bible, ‘Give strong drink to the weary.’

“Later, his wife took the boy [their son] and left him.  He got to drinking too much of his own product, and they found him drowned in the river.  The story goes he had a pint of moonshine in one pocket and a Bible in the other.” [Vol 1 1989,Chapter titled The Moonshine Era]

I found this article in the April 29, 1927 issue of the Bigfork Times and wondered if it could be about the same individual. “Tuesday forenoon Ed Hamilton discovered the body of a man in the Big Fork River near his place in Busti, and notice was immediately given to Deputy Sheriff A. Peloquin of Bigfork and Coroner W. Herreid of Deer River who proceeded forthwith to make investigation which revealed the fact that the body was that of William Daughter.

“Mr. Daughter’s home was near where the body was found, and he was last seen by any of his neighbors about a week before.  It is supposed that he was crossing the river in his small boat and that the boat had capsized, and as the water is very high and swift, the unfortunate man was unable to save himself. The remains were taken to Deer River for interment. Mr. Daughter had resided in Busti with his family for a number of years and was quite well and favorably known in these parts.  For the past year, his family – a wife and son – have been making their home in Colorado where they will receive the sad news.”

William Block

Another character, William Block (in some places, the name appears as Black), was caught by deputy sheriff Jesse Harry and George Keenan in 1922.  “Block was located on the banks of a small creek a mile and a half southeast of Effie.  He had been away for some time and had just nicely got his still working again.  He had only a couple of gallons moonshine whiskey run off but was stoking the fire to make more when the officers came.  He was arraigned and bound over to the next term of the court under a $1000 bail, which he was unable to furnish.”

Several years later, when law enforcement responded to complaints about moonshiners instead of searching out liquor law violators, Mr. Block was again under scrutiny.  At this time, he was living at Farm Camp on the Rice River.  “Sheriff Harmond and a force of deputies accompanied by Deputy Peloquin of Bigfork made a trip to Black’s place last Friday and thoroughly searched his place and surrounding for such evidence as had been reported, but were unable to find any evidence that would warrant arrest for violations of the liquor law.” [Bigfork Times 6-24-1927]

Frank Werthner

Gene Rajala was born a few years after prohibition was over, but he was well aware that his great grandmother’s second husband, Frank Werthner, made moonshine.  Gene shared the following, “Frank and Jess Bowerman were both trappers.  They also made moonshine.  It was important to have a moonshine operation hidden away, and theirs was about five miles from the nearest road.  They had to carry the corn and sugar into their ‘camp.’  In the late 1970s, we went out to see if there were any signs of the old place. Frank knew right where it was, but as expected, there wasn’t anything left to identify it. I know Frank was arrested and did spend time in jail.”

To Gene’s amazement, I was able to find a newspaper article that detailed his step-great grandfather’s arrest. “Frank Werthner, who lives on a homestead in Bustitown, was arrested by Deputy Sheriff Dunn, who found a still, some mash and several quarts of moonshine at the homestead.  He was given a jail sentence of 45 days.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 9-12-1923] The story was short, but it verified the folklore which means a lot to any family.

Harry and Harry

In the mid-1920s, there were two men named Harry, who made a substantial amount of moonshine in Bigfork’s backwoods.

Harry Myers was born in Ohio in 1894.  He lived in St. Paul and worked as a locomotive crane engineer in 1917 when he registered for military service.  In 1924, Myers obtained the distinction of having the largest moonshine operation ever located in the county.

“Myers was lying on top of one of the tanks calmly smoking a cigarette when the officers entered.  He made no resistance.  In each of the four corners of the cabin was a mash tank, each with a capacity of 400 gallons.  All the tanks were full, the officers destroying more than 1600 gallons of mash.  Each tank had a different mixture.  One was filled with corn, one with corn, rye and figs, a third with peaches, and the other with apricots.  Myers showed the accurate knowledge of the distiller.  He knew the chemistry of every beverage and could provide almost any brand.

“In addition to the mash, the officers seized a 90-gallon still, 1500 pounds of sugar, 6 cases of molasses, a 10-burner gasoline stove, and 15 gallons of moonshine.  The moonshine, still, and other necessary evidence were placed in and on the car, and with Myers taken to Grand Rapids.  All of the other material was destroyed.  The tanks were drained, and the entire outfit, including the cabin, was soaked with kerosene and fired.  The destruction was complete.” [Itasca News 4-5-1924]

Harry Frances Clark was born in 1895, and by 1920 was working at the Itasca Paper Company (later renamed Blandin Paper) in Grand Rapids. A year after Myers still was destroyed, Clark’s operation was also dismantled.

Find Huge Still East of Bigfork ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 5-20-1925

“Deputy Sheriff Chas. Tupper of Bigfork brought in Harry Clark, who is charged with operating a still in a remote location near the game refuge, several miles east of Bigfork.  The still was a huge affair well equipped with coils and pipes.  Some mash and some manufactured moonshine were also taken. Clark expressed a desire to plead guilty and will doubtless be sentenced by Judge Stanton while he is in Grand Rapids.”

Transporting Moon

Martin Staley was arrested several times during a six-month period in Bigfork for transporting liquor. He must have thought it to be a profitable endeavor even with the minimum fine being was $50 and 30 days in jail. At some point, though, the judge upped the ante.

In May 1925, Staley was arrested with twenty gallons of moonshine in his Ford coupe. In addition to a jail term of 90 days and a fine of $300, his car was confiscated and sold by the county.

“A Place Where Law and Order are to be Upheld” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition part 4 of 8

3.8.2021 [archived ~ previously published 8.23.2020]

Making arrests, especially during Prohibition, could be hazardous, even in Itasca County.  In July 1922, John Lence caught wind that his home in Taconite had been searched for moonshine and that law enforcement was looking for him.  A train ran between Grand Rapids and Duluth several times each day. Lence was expected to be on the evening train and, if so, would disembark at the Holman station just east of Taconite.

Earl P. Hyatt and Howard Harmon are identified as deputy sheriffs and employed at the Oliver Mine as policemen.  As mentioned in a previous article on Prohibition, there were no specific guidelines for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment when it took effect in January 1920.  It appears that in Itasca County game wardens and mining company policemen had the authority to make illegal alcohol arrests. Hyatt and Harmon were waiting at Holman station.  When Lence got off the train, they planned to place him under arrest.  Lence had already decided as to how he wanted to deal with the situation. He shot both men, claimed self-defense, and was found guilty of murder less than two months later.

Moonshiner Shoots Two ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 7-5-1922

“Enraged because his activities in disposing of illicit liquor had been discovered, J.L. Lence, former Oliver policeman at Taconite, shot and seriously wounded E.P. Hyatt and Howard Harmon, Oliver patrolmen and deputy sheriffs, last Monday evening.  The shooting occurred at Holman, the Great Northern station nearest to Taconite, just as Lence stepped off the evening train to return to his home in Taconite.  Four shots were fired by Lence, three taking effect in Hyatt, and the other in Harmon.  Hyatt was shot twice through the neck and once in an arm, while Harmon was shot through the left breast, just above the heart.

“It appears that activity in moonshining was suspected of several individuals in Taconite, so the officers came to Grand Rapids on Monday and secured search warrants.  A search of three houses resulted in the arrest of Paul Salitero and H.N. Steinhart, and the finding of evidence in the Lence home.  Lence himself was away, however, and Hyatt and Harmon took the evidence they found and brought it and their two prisoners to Grand Rapids.  They then returned to Holman to await the arrival of Lence, who was expected on the Merry Widow train.

“Evidently, Mrs. Lence, or someone else knowing his location during the day, had telephoned him of the officers’ action, for when he got off the train, he had his heavy revolver in his right hand, carrying his grip in front to conceal it.  Seeing Hyatt and Harmon awaiting him on the platform, he opened fire as he stepped from the train, dropping both at once.  He then ran from the platform, and took the road to Taconite, escaping in the gathering dusk. His wife ran behind him, shielding Lence so that others who were on the platform could not shoot the escaping criminal.

“Word of the shooting was telephoned to the office of the sheriff in Grand Rapids and the Oliver police headquarters in Coleraine as soon as possible, and the injured men were taken to the Coleraine hospital.  The entire section between Holman, Taconite, and the mine pits to the north was surrounded, for it was thought Lence was hiding there.  Instead of that, however, he escaped through the cordon of guards and walked to a point two miles west of Coleraine, where he secured a lift from Claude Merritt of Deer River, who had been on the range and who was returning home.  Reaching Grand Rapids, the gunman first secured a lunch, and then went to the county jail and asked to be locked up, saying he had shot the officers.  He was immediately accommodated, and the hastily formed posse called in.”

The following day, the Iron Range News reported that while at Duffy’s restaurant, Lence heard that everybody knew what had happened and he told Deputy Sheriff Ed LeFevre that “he would no longer try to make his getaway.”

Although every effort was made to save Hyatt’s life, he died from the gunshot wounds two weeks later.  Immediately following Hyatt’s death, Judge Charles Stanton called a special term of the district court in Grand Rapids.  The term was scheduled to begin August 17. Both grand and petit jurors were drawn for the purpose of trying Lence, who was now charged with the murder of Hyatt.  It was one of the first murder trials in the county since women had the right to vote and be part of a jury. Alma Chalberg, the wife of Charles Chalberg of Goodland, “was ‘foreman’ of the [grand] jury which was made up largely of women.” [Iron Range News 8-24-1922]

John Lence

John Henry Lence was born about 1874.  At trial he stated he was from Kentucky, but the information in the 1930 and 1940 federal census records indicate he was born in Tennessee.  It is not known what brought him to Itasca County or when he arrived.  There is a Charles and Clara Lence in Bass Brook as early as 1905, but they were born in Iowa and Minnesota, respectively.  John Lence was married at the age of 42, and there are no known children.  He told Judge Stanton that while in Minnesota, he had lived a short time in Bemidji, Deer River, and Cohasset. When he got the job at the Oliver Mining Co., he and his wife lived in Taconite.  I have found no information on Mrs. Lence, other than that she died between 1930 and 1940.

Major Earl Hyatt

Earl Pearl Hyatt was born in Anoka, MN, in 1881.  He married Catherine Stewart, and together they raised two sons, James and Irving.  The 1910 Federal census shows the family living in Anoka, and Hyatt working as a store clerk.  Hyatt received the commendation of major during his nearly 20 years in the army.  He started as a member of the Minnesota National Guard in 1899, and by the time he returned from France after WWI he was a major.

The 1920 census shows Hyatt’s family living in Anoka, but he is not listed in the household. The Grand Rapids newspaper stated that he had been a deputy sheriff in Deer River before taking the job as a policeman for the Oliver Mining Company. Perhaps upon returning to Minnesota, he came north in hopes of securing a good position before moving the family.  General Albert F. Pratt was Colonel in the regiment in which Major Hyatt served in the army.  He was a friend of Hyatt’s and agreed to aid the prosecution in the trial of Lence, the man who killed his comrade.


The murder trial of John Lence began on Tuesday, August 22, with the selection of ten jurors from a pool of sixty men and women.  The following day, after two more jurors were secured, the presentation of evidence began.  There were fifteen witnesses for the prosecution and six for the defense.  Lence pleaded he shot in self-defense and, while on the stand, stated that the officers struck him with clubs. By late afternoon on Thursday, the case was given to the jury who returned a verdict several hours later.

Found Guilty of First Degree ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 8-30-1922

“‘Guilty of murder in the first degree.’ This is the verdict of the jury that tried J.L. Lence for the murder of Earl P. Hyatt, Taconite patrolman for the Oliver Iron Mining Company and deputy sheriff of Itasca County.  The evidence was all heard, the attorneys made their pleas, and the case was given to the jury, on Friday afternoon at 3:30.  It is reported that the jury determined the guilt of the defendant in less than ten minutes after entering the jury room, but that the degree which should be named took them several hours to decide.

“Judge Stanton and a large number of interested spectators were in the courtroom when the announcement was made late Friday evening that a verdict had been agreed upon.  The judge took his place on the bench, and the jury filed in.  After the verdict had been read, each member of the jury stated that it was his or her verdict.  The judge then congratulated the jury members on performing a difficult and disagreeable task in a satisfactory manner and discharged the members.

“The sentence was then passed upon Lence, who was present in the courtroom with his attorneys.  Judge Stanton imposed the penalty of imprisonment at hard labor in the state prison at Stillwater ‘for the term of your natural life’.

“During the trial, the defense attempted to enter a plea of self-defense in the killing of Hyatt and the shooting of Harmon.  This was disproved, however, by the testimony of a number of eyewitnesses who showed conclusively that no attempt was made to strike Lence or injure him in any way before the shooting was started.

“It is the general expression of opinion that the state’s side of the case was presented in the best possible manner by Ralph A Stone, County Attorney.  Mr. Stone worked diligently in the preparation of the case and presented the evidence in such a manner that it was clear to the jury, beyond doubt.  The summary disposal of this case, and the immediate sentence of the guilty man, will do much to put Itasca County on record as a place where law and order are to be upheld, and criminals punished.”

The jury for the trial included seven women and five men.  The newspaper listed the women by their husband’s names.  Instead, I chose to identify them by their birth name first. Elvira “Vie” (Crabill) Gary, Cohasset; Josephine Syverine (Noderhaug) Bartels, Cohasset; Emma Ruth (Sturgeon) Franti, Bovey; Eldora “Hattie” (Zimmerman) Franks, Coleraine; Mary (McDonald) Harlin, Marcell; Margaret (Benzing) Passard, Grand Rapids; and Mrs. G. Hill, Marble.  I could not find Mrs. Hill’s given name.  The men were: Albin Rudquist, Third River; James Duffy, Grand Rapids; John Rush, Bowstring; Ed Bowman, Nore; and Ernest Sweedman, Max.

“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.”

“Fined $250 for Having a Quart of Moonshine” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition part 2 of 8

3.6.2021 [archived ~ previously published 7.26.2020]

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol, c.1921. [Wikipedia]

Even though the Prohibition amendment made the transportation, production, and sale of alcohol illegal, it did not provide recommendations on how those laws could be enforced. In 1920, when the Bureau of Prohibition was first established, it was a unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. In 1927, it became an independent entity within the Department of the Treasury, changing its name from the Prohibition Unit to the Bureau of Prohibition. 

The Bureau’s primary function was to stop the selling and consumption of alcohol. The agents were responsible for dismantling bootlegging rings.  Federal agents were notorious for raiding popular nightclubs in cities like New York and Chicago.  In northern Minnesota, they concentrated on smuggling from Canada and the activities of small-time bootleggers.

“The IRS subsequently established the Prohibition Unit, staffed by agents who were not required to take Civil Service exams, leaving the door open for members of Congress and local pols to appoint their cronies, including applicants with questionable backgrounds. The government provided funds for only 1,500 agents at first to enforce Prohibition across the country. They were issued guns and given access to vehicles, but many had little or no training.”  [prohibition.themobmuseum.org]

Itasca County law enforcement personnel assisted federal agents on many occasions. Grand Rapids Herald-Review editor Laurence Alonzo Rossman shared the following on April 23, 1956, Up in This Neck of the Woods column. “Moonshiners were the top public enemies in Itasca County 35 years ago.  Few issues of the newspapers failed to carry the story of some man who tried to operate a still deep in the woods of Itasca County.  Moonshining was on such a sizable basis between northern Minnesota and Canada that federal agents finally brought a submarine chaser to use on the Great Lakes.  It ran down a number of tugs loaded with whiskey, and the fear of the speedy vessel was reported cutting down the rum-running efforts.”

The federal court was held in Duluth and, depending on the length of the sentence, lawbreakers would be sent to a county jail or a federal penitentiary. The Itasca County men convicted at Duluth were sent to jails in Aitkin and St. Louis Counties, while our county got prisoners whose homes are in other counties.

Itasca County generally had six to ten federal prisoners in the jail during Prohibition and benefitted financially from this arrangement.  The United States government pays the county $1 a day for each prisoner’s board, and the county pays the sheriff 75 cents a day.  The difference represents a direct profit to the county.

The smallest sentence issued by a federal judge in Duluth was a fine $34 in 1921.  Ten years later, the largest was five years in Leavenworth and a fine of $10,000. 

Noteworthy Raids

Federal Agents Discover Still ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 8-18-1920

“Activity on the part of federal agents who are endeavoring to stop illicit traffic of liquor brings grief to the men who are endeavoring to make an easy living from the weaknesses of their fellows.  Special agents are investigating many suspicious cases in the vicinity of range towns and other parts of Itasca and St. Louis counties.

Monday of the week, federal agents found a still in a swamp near Calumet and arrested the proprietor, Eli Pastila.  The agents allege that three barrels of mash, a quantity of moonshine, and parts of a still were seized.  Pastila was arraigned before O.A. Portier, United States Commissioner, at Virginia, and held to the federal grand jury, which meets next January.  Unable to raise the $1000 necessary for bail, he will remain in jail.

Nick Korskovich of Marble was arrested last week on a disorderly charge and, upon investigation, yielded evidence which warranted holding him for the federal authorities.  It is also reported that Anton Gerbec of Bovey was also taken in charge by federal agents last week and held for the next term of the United States’ court.

Men who have been engaged in smuggling booze across the border from Canada at International Falls and Fort Frances will find it more difficult to get supplies in the future.  Canadian agents raided the bars and hotels in Fort Frances last Monday and arrested 48 men.  The proprietor of the Prince Albert Hotel paid a fine of $2000, while two others paid fines of $1000 each.  It is evident that the liquor laws in Canada are strictly enforced, and that they have teeth in them.”

In 1929, the Increased Penalties Act or Jones Law was passed. The Jones Law increased penalties for violations previously set in the Volstead Act. First time offenders were now expected to serve a maximum of five years and a $10,000 fine as opposed to the previous six months and $1,000 fine in the Volstead Act.  This legislation seemed to ramp up the arrests as well as the coffers.

Federal Officers Made Raid Monday ~ Itasca News 9-19-1929

“As a climax to several weeks of investigation by employees of federal prohibition forces, raids were made at several points in western Itasca County last Monday night, and six persons were arrested.

C.W. Williams, a federal officer, was in charge of the raids and was assisted by Sheriff Harmond and Deputy Milne.  While warrants were served Monday night, it is reported that several of the offenses charged were of an August dating.

Here in Deer River, two were taken, William Murphy, proprietor of the Liberty Cafe, was charged with possession and sale, and Ernest Menton, who lives near the tourist camp, was similarly charged.  Both appeared in justice court in Grand Rapids Tuesday, pleaded guilty, and were bound to await the district court’s action, which convenes next Tuesday.  Bail was furnished, and they were released.

Others gathered on Monday night are Morris Quinn of Ballclub, Leo MacAdam and Mrs. John Bendwell, of Shady Rest Resort, and Louis Pinette of Bigfork.  Quinn is charged with sale and possession with intent to sell. It is said that because of previous convictions, Quinn faces the possibility of severe punishment. MacAdams, Mrs. Bendwell, and Pinette were all charged with sales.  All pleaded guilty, were bound over to the district court next week, and released on bonds.”

Federal Agents Raid Craigville ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 10-16-1929

“Federal prohibition officers staged a raid at Craigsville, just over the line in Koochiching County, last week.  Several arrests were made, and some stills located and seized.

The four men arrested gave their names as Joseph Desaudel, Isaac Hibbler, Ole Kas[illegible], and Louis Arseneau.  All were arraigned before Otto A Poirier, US court commissioner at Virginia, Kas[ ], and Hibbler furnished the bail of $2000 to guarantee a later appearance.  It is alleged that the others were second offenders, and they had more difficulty in obtaining bail.  It was alleged that evidence in the shape of intoxicating liquor had been obtained at all of the places raided.

The federal officers were well informed concerning conditions at Craigville, for they went into the woods a quarter of a mile from the village and found two stills.  At one of them, 1400 gallons of mash and 45 gallons of moonshine were found.  Other arrests in connection with ownership of the stills are expected.”

Sentences and Fines

The federal court was held several times a year in Duluth, and most of the cases were for violation of the liquor laws.  Here are snippets from the 1920s.

~ The busiest place in northern Minnesota has been at the federal court in Duluth where the grand jury returned approximately 225 indictments. Several weeks will be taken for the trials of defendants. Most of them were accused of violation of the liquor laws.

~ In one day, 32 defendants, of which 26 were Italians, faced the court and were fined small amounts.  However, the whiskey makers found the court very much more severe, and some fines were as high as $500 and six months in jail were given out.

~ Paul Dossen, an Itasca County miner, was fined $34 for having a pint of moonshine whiskey.

~ Frank Indriery was fined $250 for having a quart of moonshine in his possession in a soft drink parlor in Nashwauk. 

~ One day, 46 men faced Judge McGee, and of these, only four were born in the United States. 

And the 1930s.

~ Frank Rettinger of Arbo Township pleaded guilty to a charge of maintaining a liquor nuisance and was sentenced to serve eight months in the Itasca County jail.

~ Calvert Bardino, Keewatin was found guilty of transporting liquor and sentenced to 18 months in the federal prison at Chillicothe, Ohio. 

~ James Foubister and Michael Silverman of Duluth were each sentenced to serve five years in Leavenworth and pay a fine of $10,000.  They were the heads of a widespread alcohol ring operating at Duluth and vicinity.   The 1930 United States Census states that Foubister’s occupation is a city commissioner and Silverman’s as an automobile salesman.

~ John Bilodeau, Calumet, was sentenced to serve eight months in the Crow Wing County jail at Brainerd.

~ Glen Lemaster of Willow Beach, west of Deer River, paid a fine of $250 on a possession charge. 

~ Millie Adams, Craigsville must serve 90 days in the Crow Wing County jail at Brainerd

“Moon in a Privy” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition ~ part 1 of 8

3.3.2021 [ archived ~ previously published 7.12.2020]

This still and other supplies were confiscated from a bootlegger in Deer River in 1922 by Ed Jess.  Also pictured are Ed Carson, Jack Jones and George Galbreath.

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.”

Liquor Nuisance

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.”

“25 to 30 foot high snowdrifts”


I remember being told by well-meaning adults not to stand near the icicles that hung along the edge roofs.  One might fall and stab you, they said.  Many kids scoffed at these warnings and actually broke off the icicles as high as they could reach, so that they could be used as swords while playing King of the Hill. I never heard of anyone being struck by a falling icicle, that is until I found the following article.

Hit by Icicle Falling from Tank ~ Deer River News 12-24-1936

“John Martin, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Marsh Martin and a junior in the local high school, had a narrow escape last Saturday that he will remember for a long time.

“John was going to the high school manual training room for some work.  He was walking up North Street past the water tank, when he was struck upon the head by an icicle which dropped from the water tank. A high wind was blowing, and it is believed this broke the chunk off and carried it to the east 15 or 20 feet to the sidewalk.

Though badly stunned, John kept going until he reached the school building, when Stanley Gibbs took him to a doctor’s office.  Three stitches were required, to close the wound, but John, with his usual pluck, was around Monday night distributing the Duluth Herald as usual.

“Because of the conditions of the tank and the danger of falling ice, the village council had decided to close the sidewalk on the west side of North Street for the remainder of the winter.”


Some winters are snowy, some are bitter cold, and some are unusually warm. Below is a sampling of all conditions. My grandfather, Conny Scheer, remembers the February storm of 1921 because he had just turned six-years-old and was disappointed that school in Bigfork was canceled.

North Country was Snowbound ~ Itasca News 2-25-1921

“What was generally accredited as being the worst snowfall of the northwest in years was the northeast storm of Tuesday and Wednesday.  There was a driving wind during the forty-eight-hour snowstorm, and this made piles, together with the fresh fall, 25 to 30 feet high snowdrifts, according to Duluth newspaper reports

“While four feet of snow winter after winter was common in the inland area a quarter of a century ago, the present drifts of 2 to 4 feet were not equaled in the memory of the older inhabitants. Unlike a northwester, there was no time during the storm period that the temperature was cold. For the first time since this line of the Great Northern road was built in 1898, trains were abandoned for two days.

“In Deer River all vehicle traffic and the M&R road was tied up most of the time until yesterday morning.  The railroads had cars in snowbanks at different times notwithstanding it had two engines working the snowplow.  As the county snowplow has not yet reached Deer River, the bus runs and all auto vehicles over roads leading to this village are still hung up.”

In February 1927, John Duncan, the caretaker at Winnibigoshish Dam reported that the official total of snowfall at the dam to date is 44 and a fraction inches, but that settling due to its own weight and thawing days have brought the depth down to approximately 32 inches.  The newspaper editor explained, “A more understandable statement of what the snowfall means in precipitation can be gotten from the fact that the season’s fall to date is equivalent to nearly four inches of rainfall.  Such an amount of precipitation coming at one time would flood the country. When the snow melts in the spring it will have a material effect on the lake levels of this region.” [Itasca News2-17-1927]

Two years later, Guy Bilyeu, the tender at the Pokegama Dam shared data about November temperatures there.

Friday, November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, the recorded temperature was 19 degrees below zero. It was the lowest November temperature recorded since 1919. Other unusually cold temperatures were: 11-24-1903 ~ 37 below, 11-26-1919 ~ 26 below, and 11-30-1927 ~ 16 below.

Spider Spins December Webs ~ Itasca News 12-22-1923

Sure sign of warm winter on shortest day of year

John Yuill, superintendent at the lumber yard sat on a log. 

There wasn’t anything strange about that, or John, or the log.

It was Thursday, December 20, 1923, the shortest day of the year. John had a friend sitting beside him and they were lost in wonderment.

They weren’t holding hands.  There was no chance for a scandal, no grounds for a divorce suit.

John and his friend, Jacobson, just sat there watching a spider spinning its web on the sunny side of a nearby balsam.

Two other warm days warranted mention in the Deer River News.  The first was December 26, 1928 when the low for the day was 27 degrees above zero and the high was 35.  The second was December 30, 1931. “Mrs. Edwin Johnson of Zempel brought to the News office root vegetables pulled from her garden that morning.  They were in splendid condition, unharmed by any condition of the weather.  Mrs Johnson also reported that she has strawberry plants in bloom under their light covering.  What a winter! And yet people go to Florida!”


It appears that there are fewer news stories reporting deaths caused by winter calamities during the 1920s and 1930s, but there are certainly some close calls.

The oldest house in Deer River, built by P.R. Brooks in 1893, was destroyed by a fire on January 22, 1923. The home was owned by Claude Merritt and occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lasher. Mrs. Lasher heard the roar of the fire, grabbed her small granddaughter off the floor, and had to duck under flames at the top of the stairs to get out the back door. No one was seriously burned, but the Lashers lost everything they owned and there was no insurance on the building.

“The house was first erected on what is now Creamery Hill. The body [framework] only had been made and Mr. Brooks bought it and moved the logs. From the house to the Brooks store, forty rods south, about ten rods west of where the City Blacksmith shop now stands, a walk of double railroad ties were laid over what was then a wet swamp.” [Itasca News 1-24-1923]

Sought Wild West but Nearly Froze ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 2-21-1928

“Raymond Somerville and George F. Tuttle, two 14-year-old boys from Superior, started out to see the wild west last Friday night but got no farther than Grand Rapids.  At this place they were rescued from their precarious position on the blind baggage [railway baggage, express or postal car that has no door or opening at one end] of the midnight train by officer Carno and placed in safe keeping until relatives in Superior could be reached.

“When discovered on the back end of the tender of the night passenger train, the boys were so nearly frozen that one of them could not speak and neither of them was able to walk without great difficulty.  They had left Superior early in the evening and ridden in the below zero temperatures and high wind which prevailed. It was considered by those who learned the circumstances that the officer probably saved the lives of the boys as a comparatively short distance more would have sufficed to chill them so they would have tumbled from their perch while the train was moving.

F.J. McGibbon, a deputy sheriff from Douglas County, came up on Sunday and took the two boys to their homes in Superior.  The two young lads expressed repentance and said they had had enough of adventuring to the far west at least until warmer days would make travel easier for those who had little money.”

In January 1929, Mrs. John Lehto, walked three miles to the Mack Post Office. When she arrived both her legs were frozen from her knee to her ankle.  She was immediately brought to Deer River and placed under a physician’s care at the Miller Hotel.  Three days later she had recovered enough to return home. I could not find anything more about Mrs. Lehto, but imagine that no matter her age, she was wearing layers of skirts and stockings under a knee length coat rather than woolen pants. I shudder just thinking about walking three miles in the cold wearing a skirt and stockings. The extreme cold weather was blamed for three fires in January 1930. The Cut Foot Sioux Ranger Station garage caught fire and the building was destroyed. The home of Ed Minton, a few miles west of the Itasca County line caught fire and was destroyed. Some household furnishings were saved. Julius Van Overschelde of Bass Lake Township credits the local telephone system for saving part of his home. “The upper story of the home was burning fiercely when the first neighbors reached there, but with plenty of help called by the telephone the fire was put under control and extinguished before the contents of the lower floor were seriously damaged.” [1-22-1930 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]


There were more stories about organized and ongoing outside winter activities in the 1920s and 1930s than in previous decades. Here is one in Grand Rapids and another in Deer River.

Skating Rink is Nearly Completed ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 12-18-1929

“Young people, and older ones as well who like to skate, will soon have an opportunity to indulge in this sport.  Work was started this week on a skating rink, at a convenient place, and within a few days the ice will be ready for the pleasure of those who go skating.

“The rink is located on Crystal Lake, at the north end of Leland Avenue, just a block from the high school campus.  The snow was removed from the ice and banked at the sides.  The surface is being scraped smooth, and water will be pumped over the ice, so that all cracks and crevices will be filled, and a smooth surface obtained.  The work will all be completed this week, and the rink made available for the young people during the school vacation.

“The skating rink is being sponsored by the Grand Rapids Lions’ Club, assisted by the village council, and the Boy Scouts.  James Duffy has been engaged as caretaker and watchman, to see that order is maintained, and all comers given equal privileges on the ice.”

Blueberry Slide Work Progressing ~ Deer River News 12-2-1939

“Taking advantage of the fine weather, the large crew of men working on the WPA project repairing the road into Blueberry Hills and constructing a ski and toboggan slide west of the tower, have made fine progress this week.  Forty-three men are employed on the work. Milton Rhodes, area supervisor for the State Forestry Department in Hibbing, was here and visited the project and predicted the new slide would be a popular spot for outdoor sports this winter.

“The slide is located a little southwest of the [fire] tower.  Slides are being arranged for persons of all ages, the kiddies and the grownups.  The main slide is on a long, steep, hill, at the bottom of which is a bog about two hundred feet long, and on the opposite side is another and smaller hill, to stop the sliders.  A track about twenty feet wide is cleared for the entire distance.  From the stopping place a path has been brushed and cleared along an easy route to travel back to the starting point.  A large parking place will be cleared at the top of the hill, and a warming house built and furnished.”

“Turpentine on a Sugar Lump”

2.21.2021 [archived ~ previously published 3.9.2017]

If you haven’t had a cold yet this winter, you are one of the lucky ones. As we all know, there is no cure for the common cold, but there have always been remedies for the symptoms. Turpentine on a sugar lump is just one old time remedy. Remedies that were available at the drug store one hundred years ago and are still sold today include Luden’s Cough Drops, Vicks VapoRub, Bayer Aspirin and Kleenex tissues.

Home Remedies

No doubt anyone over the age of sixty-five can remember hearing about the home remedies used for cold symptoms by their own parents.  Below are just a few of the remedies I have extracted from local histories.  Each of the sources cited are available at the Karjala Research Center at the Itasca County Historical Society.

Delia Westrom ~ Alvwood Township

Delia recalls the home remedies of her childhood: “Colds, grippe and the flu were the most common ailments.  They used turpentine and lard for a chest plaster (bless your hide), quinine, cough medicine, sulfur, laxatives, and horse liniment, commonly known as quack medicines.” [Squaw Lake Consolidated Schools by M. Kreuger]

Delia was the daughter of John and Augusta. Bloomquist.  She married Emil Johnson in 1903 and was appointed postmistress at Alvwood from 1914 until it closed during WWI.  When Emil died unexpectedly, she married John Westrom.

Esther Connell ~ Rosy Township

“Mama concocted a cough syrup for us by using the buds of the balm of gilia [gilead] herb and a syrup.  It worked pretty good.  But when we came down with a really bad cold, we got a dose of castor oil and a plaster of turpentine and lard on our chest.  (Uff da!) But it really worked.” [Remembering Rosy by Esther Connell]

Esther Amelia Johnson was born in Minnesota to Swedish immigrants Gust and Carrie.  She married Raphael Connell and lived to the age of 96!

Emil Johnson ~ Good Hope Township

“For cough medications mother cooked up a concoction with syrup, molasses and some spices when cooled and hardened became a very good tasting cough drop.  A supply of this didn’t last long as it was snitched for candy.  Known in Swedish as Kneck. Other home remedies were not as welcome.  Turpentine on a sugar lump, sugar lump yes, but not with turpentine.  For a bad chest cold how would you like to get plastered down with hot melted lard and wrapped up in wool rags? Encountered many earaches.  The cure – a pad of sheep’s wool soaked in hot fat shoved into the ear…” [Journey Through Time by Emil Johnson]

Emil Albin Johnson was born in Squaw Lake in 1922 to Magnus and Ida.  Emil’s parents were both Swedish and had immigrated as children to Minnesota.  Emil served in WWII and when discharged married Helen Lindgren from Jesse Lake.  Emil died in 2017 at the age of 95 years.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

Luden’s Cough Drops

Cough drops had been made and sold from glass containers like candy since about 1850, but it was William H. Luden who created and packaged the medicinal lozenge. Mr. Luden had already successfully made candy drops in the back of his father’s jewelry shop in Reading, Pennsylvania when he decided to try a medicinal lozenge. 

Mr. Luden collaborated with a pharmacist to develop a unique cough drop formula.  He colored his cough drops amber instead of the usual red, and the honey-licorice menthol throat drops were introduced.  His marketing plan was brilliant.  He gave samples of his cough drops to railroad workers, which in turn gave the product national exposure in a fairly short time. 

The advertisement in a 1922 Bigfork Settler states: “No tax now ~ Luden’s menthol cough drops ~ Price 5 cents straight ~ give quick relief ~ Famous Yellow Package ~ sold the world over”

During WWII, the Luden’s factory worked overtime to supply troops with their favorite throat drops from back home.

Vicks VapoRub

In 1890, pharmacist Lunsford Richardson worked with his physician brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick.  Druggists at the time often fashioned their own remedies, and Richardson patented twenty-one medicines. The wide variety of pills, liquids, ointments, and assorted other medicinal concoctions included Vick’s Chill Tonic, Vick’s Turtle Oil Liniment, Vick’s Little Liver Pills and Little Laxative Pills, Vick’s Tar Heel Sarsaparilla, Vick’s Yellow Pine Tar Cough Syrup, and Vick’s Grippe Knockers for the flu. These products sold with varying degrees of success, but the best seller was Vicks Magic Croup Salve, which he introduced in 1894.

“‘He had what they referred to as a croupy baby — a baby with a lot of coughing and congestion,’ explains Richardson’s great-grandson, Britt Preyer of Greensboro. ‘So, as a pharmacist, he began experimenting with menthols from Japan and some other ingredients, and he came up with this salve that really worked. That’s how it all started.’

Richardson’s salve — a strong-smelling ointment combining menthol, camphor, oil of eucalyptus, and several other oils, blended in a base of petroleum jelly — was a chest-soothing, cough-suppressing, head-clearing sensation. When the salve was rubbed on the patient’s chest, his or her body heat vaporized the menthol, releasing a wave of soothing, medicated vapors that the patient breathed directly into the lungs.” [greensborohistory.org]

In 1911, the Magic Croup Salve was renamed Vicks VapoRub and most of the other Vicks products were discontinued. The flu epidemic of 1918 increased sales of VapoRub from $900,000 to $2.9 million in just one year.

A lengthy syndicated article in the November 9, 1918 Itasca News explained how Vick’s VapoRub could be used in treating the Spanish Influenza.  “The influenza germs attack the lining of the air passages.  When VapoRub is applied over the throat and chest, the medicated vapors loosen phlegm, open the air passages and stimulate the mucus membranes to throw off the germs.  In addition, VapoRub is absorbed through and stimulates the skin, attracting the blood to the surface and thus aids in reducing the congestion within.”

Ten years later Vicks published a children’s book to help promote the product. The book told the story of two elves, Blix and Blee, who rescued a frazzled mother whose sick child refused to take nasty-tasting medicines. Their solution, of course, was the salve known as Vicks VapoRub.

Bayer Aspirin

Advertisements in the Itasca News during the 1920s state the following: “The ‘Bayer Cross’ on the tablets in the thumb-print which positively identifies genuine Aspirin prescribed by physicians for over 20 years and proved safe by millions. Handy tin boxes of twelve tablets cost but a few cents.  Druggists also sell larger packages.

Safety first! Insist upon an unbroken ‘Bayer package’ containing proper directions for Headache, Earache, Toothache, Neuralgia, Colds, Rheumatism, Neuritis, Lumbago and for Pain generally.

The Bayer company was founded in Germany in 1863 as a dyestuff factory. Obviously, they manufactured other items and by 1899 had developed the trademark, Aspirin.  This was a modification of salicylic acid, found in the bark of the willow.  It was registered worldwide for Bayer’s brand of acetylsalicylic acid and was distributed as a powder to physicians to give their patients.

“Bayer lost its Aspirin trademark status in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom because of the confiscation of Bayer’s U.S. assets and trademarks during World War I by the United States and the subsequent widespread usage of the word to describe all brands of the compound.” [Wikipedia]

The company’s logo, the Bayer cross, was introduced in 1904.  It consisted of the horizontal word Bayer crossed with the vertical word Bayer, both words sharing the Y and enclosed in a circle.  In 1915 the drug was sold as over-the-counter tablets. At that time the thumbprint of authenticity was added.


“In 1924, facial tissues as they are known today were first introduced by Kimberly-Clark. It was invented as a means to remove cold cream. Early advertisements linked Kleenex to Hollywood makeup departments and sometimes included endorsements from movie stars who used Kleenex to remove their theatrical makeup with cold cream. It was the customers that started to use Kleenex as a disposable handkerchief, and a reader review in 1926 by a newspaper in Peoria, IL found that 60% of the users used it for blowing their nose. The other 40% used it for various reasons, including napkins and toilet paper.

By the 1930s, Kleenex was being marketed with the slogan ‘Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket’ and its use as a disposable handkerchief replacement became predominant. In 1943, Kleenex began licensing the Little Lulu cartoon character to popularize the brand. [Wikipedia]

And about chicken soup, that stands on its own merits.  We all know warm broth feels good on a sore throat, and that onions, garlic, and red pepper open our sinuses.

What are the Odds?

2.17.2021 [archived ~ previously published 3.10.2019]

Amelia Hadley (aka Elizabeth Boxell) is the primary character my
historical fiction novel, What Amelia Knows

What are the odds that a girl whose favorite book as a child was Little House in the Big Woods, who made her younger siblings act out scenes from the book years before the television show debuted, would start writing about history fifty years later?

What are the odds that she would learn of the 1897 murder of her great great great grandfather in the Big Woods less than 100 miles from the Ingalls family home, and this would spurn her historical writing?

Well, I really have no idea what the odds are. Math was never my forte, but my love of history has never waned. Eight years ago I attended my great aunt’s 90th birthday celebration and learned from a cousin that his mother had written a bit of history on the brutal ax murder of John Hadley (pseudonym), a grandfather to both of us.

After two years of research about the unsolved murder and the circumstances surrounding it, I decided the story needed to be written, and I was going to be the one to tell it. I had amassed thousands of documents, but I was stuck. I didn’t know if it should be written as a true crime story or a fiction novel. I didn’t know how to write creatively. And I didn’t know if I could learn.

Reminisce Column

No one starts a writing career with a book, so I began taking classes and writing short pieces. One day I got up the courage to walk into the Western Itasca Review, Deer River’s newspaper office, and talk with the editor and publisher, Rebecca Passeri, about writing a column which would focus on local history. She suggested I bring in a couple sample articles, and the first Reminisce column was published in September 2014. That fall and winter I spent hours at the Itasca County Historical Society reading the old Deer River newspapers (1897-1930) and collecting stories I thought were interesting and worthy of further research.

Since that first article, I have written weekly columns with enough total words to equal three books. I have developed a writing style that fits – historical fiction and nonfiction. This means that everything I write is based on real historical events, or at least as they were documented in the newspapers. For the Reminisce column, I spend many hours researching before I begin to write. Over the years I have developed several collections of stories focusing on a topic such as Law and Order, which recounts criminal activities. A few other topics are Forgotten Postmarks, Rural Schools, and Sportsmen’s Tales.

I have hundreds of stories in the works and am pleased to have the opportunity to continue the Reminisce column. You can expect to see the column in the second and fourth Sunday edition of this newspaper. This summer I will continue with a series, Resorts with a History, which will look at the beginnings of some of the region’s earliest resorts which are still in operation. I am also working on a series about Historic Landmarks in Itasca County. According to my research, there are sixteen. I’ll cover five or six before the end of the year. Of course, there will also be a few Law and Order stories, and the balance are likely to be similar to the remainder of this one, snippets of local history with a common theme.

What are the odds? These are a few stories from bygone days that illustrate some remarkable odds for individuals living in our community over one hundred years ago.

Hunting Odds

In October 1903, Andy Morrisey, a local Deer River businessman had lost his gun in Squaw Lake while duck hunting. Ten days later he found the weapon, still under water. Remarkably, he shot and killed a duck with the ammunition that was in it when it fell in the lake.

In November of the following year, there was an article about a man from Hibbing who had been deer hunting near Crooked Lake and had killed two yearlings walking side by side with a single shot. Two weeks later the following article appeared in the paper.

Three at One Shot ~ Itasca News 12-10-1904

“Ben Tibbets, of Ball Club way, probably made a record the last day of the hunting season that never before was equaled in this section. Considerable attention has been given by the daily paper to a man on the Range who shot two deer at one shot. Ben went the fellow one better by getting three.

Mr. Tibbets saw the deer, which he had previously wounded, in some thick brush. He fired, scoring three at one shot, a doe, and two fawns, two of which he had not seen at all. The three deer were just a few feet apart. Ben is exceedingly economical with ammunition.”

Survival Odds

In the March 31, 1906 issue of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review there appeared the headline, “Girl in Trance for Six Days.”  The accompanying story explained that Ethel, the six-year-old daughter of Ben and Mary Johnson had laid down because she wasn’t feeling well, and when her father checked on her he could get no response. The child was pronounced dead, and preparation was made for her burial. The parents noticed that the body was still warm and refused. She was left in bed not making a sound or movement. On the sixth day, she opened her eyes and spoke in a feeble voice. At the time the paper went to press several days later, Ethel seemed to have recovered, though the physicians were puzzled and unable to tell what had happened.

On the 1910 United States census, the Johnson family is documented as having moved to Cambridge and had lost one child. All members of the family were listed, but there is no Ethel, or a child aged ten. It seems that Ethel had died, although I could not find a record of her death.

The subject of the next story lived another five years, and his death had nothing to do with his head injury.

Lives with His Brain Exposed ~ Itasca News 8-24-1907

“After a day’s drunk here Thursday afternoon, Andrew West, barn boss at Dumas’ mill, aged about forty, boarded the west bound local freight and went to Ball Club where he continued his spree. At an early hour next morning Matt Barnes saw the man sitting in the office of the Ball Club hotel and noticed his clothing was covered with blood and blood covered the floor about him. Mr. Barnes made an investigation and found a deep cut in West’s head.

Answering inquiries, the man said he was hit by the train while getting off from it. An investigation was made along the track and blood on the track showed where he was lying, and his hat was found with the brim cut off ragged as if a car had done it. As West was seen at nine o’clock, long after the train on which he rode had gone it is supposed he was hit by one of the midnight passenger trains. He was brought to Deer River on the local, and Doctor Hanley dressed the wound. The cut was an inch deep, through the scull [sic] and two inches long. The brain could be seen through the indentation. West claims he never lost consciousness and all through the performance of the doctor he was strong and steady nerved. He was taken through to the hospital at Grand Rapids on the local.”

What are the odds that this Little House in the Big Woods fan would ever get a book written about her ancestor’s murder in those woods? Again, I can’t say, but I can say that I did get it completed!  After a few years stuck in a drawer, I pulled out my notes in July, and on December 31, 2018, I finished the first draft of my manuscript!  I am in the of revision, am working with a professional editor, and am the historical consultant on a movie which will also explore this unsolved murder.

“This 48 below weather has to be experienced, to be appreciated”


In the early 1900s the cold temperatures weren’t considered newsworthy unless the thermometer read at least 40 below. Three exceptionally cold winters that did rate a spot in the news were January 1904 – 40 below, January 1909 – 44 below, and January 1912 – 48 below. Side comments included, “Good weather for the ice crop but h— on Sam Torgerson’s nose,” and “this 48 below weather has to be experienced, to be appreciated.” [Itasca News 1-7-1909 and Deer River Times 1-25-1912]

Ice and Snow

No matter what the temperature, livestock needed to be cared for and work needed to be done. Logging was the primary industry in northern Itasca County in the early years, and winter was the time that trees were cut and skidded out of the woods. The waterways needed to be frozen over for logging to be done. In years when there was more ice than snow, the frozen waters provided transportation and entertainment.

“Orin Patrow of Evergreen made a flying trip to Bigfork early Friday morning, coming all the way from his home on skates.” [Bigfork Settler 2-23-1911]

“Harry Horton and Ed Carlson skated up the river to town a distance of about twenty miles and reports this as being the quickest way they have ever made the trip, making it in one and a half hours.” [Bigfork Settler 12-18-1913]

“Skating for the week has been fine and many youngsters have put in happy hours on safe ponds and the river, but owing to no moon, not many larger people have been out nights on the ice.” [Itasca News 11-18-1916]

In the winter of 1918 and 1919, the cold temperatures were noted as a good thing for the economy. In February 1918, orders for ice to be sent to the west coast topped 230,000 tons! “Northern Minnesota ice is in strong demand this year, and this crop, which is never a failure in this section, is a very large income producer. The failure of the ice crop in the western states has led to a last demand from this section, and at Detroit 3000 carloads are being removed for shipment to Spokane and from there for distribution to the ice stations of the Northern Pacific railroad. If all orders are filled Detroit will ship out 230,000 tons of ice this winter and this section of the state is the nearest point where good ice may be secured for western purpose.” [2-13-1918 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]

The following month, after a bit of a warm-up, “The hearts of loggers and forest product operators were gladdened on Monday by a prediction of colder weather and snow. A few more days of sleighing will mean a great deal to several men. It is important to the Itasca Cooperage Company that the largest amount of logs to be used for staves and heading will be secured. Several forest products operators have a large quantity of posts and poles in the woods and if brought out, these will tend to eliminate a shortage which some consider inevitable.” [3-6-1918 Grand Rapids Herald-Review] The Itasca Cooperage Company was incorporated in January 1918 to make headings (barrel tops), staves and other wood products. In 1921, the company expanded to Grand Rapids.

Frozen Limbs

I remember wearing rubber boots over my shoes when I was in grade school and wonder to this day why I never experienced more than a little frost bite. Thank goodness the winter weather gear has improved tremendously since then. I imagine there were many situations involving the careful thawing out of toes and fingertips. Hands and feet did not always fair as well, and amputation was sometimes necessary.

S.J. Ness met with a painful accident last week by burning his hands. He had frozen his hands and for a remedy had bathed them in turpentine and afterwards while lighting his pipe the turpentine caught fire, burning his hands very badly. [Bigfork Settler 1-31-1907]

Feet and Hands Frozen ~ Itasca News 1-4-198

On Wednesday morning about eight o’clock the section crew on the Minneapolis & Rainy River [rail]road discovered by the track near Jessie Junction the body of a man lying in the snow and apparently lifeless. Investigation, however, showed that he was alive, but his feet and hands were badly frozen. The man was brought to Deer River, and Dr. Fairall found that both hands and feet would have to be amputated. The man was sent to the hospital at Grand Rapids and he died the same night.”

Frozen Feet Riding Freight ~ Itasca News 1-6-1912

“Ed Stewart, aged about thirty, who says he is from Minneapolis, rode between cars on a freight train from Cass Lake Monday night, and when he jumped off and discovered he had both feet frozen. He was assisted to Dr. Hanley’s office and after having care was sent next day to the hospital in Grand Rapids. It is not known here yet whether his feet will have to be amputated.”

Froze to Death

In the early newspapers there was at least an article every winter about someone freezing to death.

“Report reached here from Bena, Sunday that the body of a man frozen to death, later identified as Arnold Petro, a German who until recently, was employed in tailor shops at Grand Rapids, was found by the railroad track early Sunday morning near Bena. The body was held at the freight house at Bena by railroad hands there to obtain identification. The coroner of Cass County took charge of the remains and found in the pocket of the dead man a union card which bore his name. Petro had no money on his person and as he had not been working for some time, it is supposed he was stealing a ride on the ‘blind’ baggage and fell off after freezing to death. George Burger saw the dead body a short time after it was found and says it was frozen stiff and showed no marks of violence.” [Itasca News 1-2-1904] The definition of blind baggage – railway baggage, express or postal car that has no door or opening at one end especially immediately behind a tender.

Frozen Body Chopped Out of Lake ~ Itasca News 1-8-1916

“On Monday of last week Ole Lindstrom of Jesse Lake, who lived on forty acres which he bought, on the new road between Jesse Lake and Spring Lake, went hunting dressed in rather light clothing. He wounded a deer and in following it, lost his way in the woods and being missed by neighbors, a search was made for him. The deer he wounded was found and in tracks covering about twenty-five miles the party found the body of Lindstrom in the frozen slush ice of a small lake. He had thrown his gun away some distance back and in his pocket was found a small empty match book. The body was found on Friday of last week.

“Lindstrom was about 21 years of age and single. He leaves two sisters who reside in Denver, Colorado. Undertaker George Herreid was summoned and went up, also in the capacity of deputy coroner and took charge of the remains which he brought here Monday. The remains were shipped Friday morning to Denver, Colorado, for burial.”

House Fire

There were often more house fires during the cold weather of winter, in part because many homes had a stovepipe going through the roof, with no chimney. In the following examples, each family suffers the loss of their home and most of their belongings. Fortunately, no lives were lost and in both cases the community of Deer River provided a helping hand to the families.

Hot Stove Pipe, Sad, Poor Family ~ Itasca News 12-19-1914

“A sad case is that of last week at Jesse Lake when at 5 o’clock in the morning, fire caught in the roof near the pipe of the cookstove of Albin Kekkonen’s house, and in a few minutes the family was without a home and the parents escaped with but the rough clothes they had on and the children in their night robes.

“Mr. Kekkonen was in town yesterday, and he said it is a mystery why he and his wife could not put the fire out. He said there was fire in the cook stove only, the pipe was not overheated, there was no wind, and he had plenty of water on hand which he used lavishly on the blaze from the start.

“Kekkonen has already rolled up the body of a log home, but is without means, and the women’s clubs of Deer River will try to raise aid for the family.” Regarding the log home, my guess is that Kekkonen had logs that he could use or that he had moved a log structure onto his property.

Family Suffers Fire ~ Itasca News 2-3-1917

“Monday morning at about nine o’clock fire, which had gained full headway, was discovered by Mrs. Harry Kentfield in the garret of her house, the Martin log [home] at the top of the hill on the county road, about two miles from town. Settlers happened along at the time, helped the woman save a few household articles, but nearly all was lost. Going to the back door, Mrs. Kentfield noticed smoke and at once it became so thick from the tar paper which largely made up the composition of the log structure, that she barely had time to carry out the baby. Mr. Kentfield was cutting wood in the timber a short way from the house, and Frank Voigt, who happened along the road, went down and notified him of the fire.

“The family moved into town in one of the Ingersoll houses, and with goods, furniture and clothing given them by villagers they have been able to get along. Mr. Kentfield works as night watchman at the Deer River sawmill and is a steady worker the year round. Mrs. Kentfield has been in a hospital most of the time for the past year, and there has also been sickness among the children of the family. If there ever was a need of public help, this probably is a case where charity is deserving, and we believe the family would not be averse to receiving any aid offered.”