Itasca County During Prohibition
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.”
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]
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.”
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 $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.
There are three more columns about Prohibition: The Role of Women on the Iron Range, The Infamous Dr. Dumas, and The Lawless Town of Craig. Note: If you want to know if someone is on my list of those arrested for prohibition crimes or if you have stories or photos to share, please contact me email@example.com or text or call 218-244-2127.