Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol, c. 1921.

Itasca County during Prohibition - Federal agents

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 benefited 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

The next column focuses on the ingenuity of Itasca County moonshiners.

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 reminiscewithchris@gmail.com or text or call 218-244-2127.

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