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Rural Becker County was the perfect location for making illegal alcohol

Photo by Pippi Mayfield/DL NEWSPAPERS1 / 5
La Barista created a signature drink for the event, Prohibition Punch. Above, the Becker County Museum collection includes a still that once brewed alcohol in Height of Land Township, a popular place for illegal stills due to the wooded area. DL NEWSPAPERS/Pippi Mayfield2 / 5
On display at the Becker County Museum are various jugs from the Prohibition era in Becker County. DL NEWSPAPERS/Pippi Mayfield3 / 5
On display at the Becker County Museum is cigar paraphernalia from the Prohibition era in Becker County. Museum Director Amy Degerstrom gave a presentation last week on the popularity of bootlegging throughout the county in the 1920s. DL NEWSPAPERS/Pippi Mayfield4 / 5
Patrons were welcome to look through the memorabilia, right, during the Friday evening presentation. DL NEWSPAPERS/Pippi Mayfield5 / 5

In 1901, William “Pussyfoot” Johnson was tasked with closing down every saloon in the state of Minnesota. There were 13 in Detroit Lakes alone.

He and his deputies were headed for Mahnomen, stopping along the way at each town, smashing containers and dumping the alcohol in the streets. By the time they got to Mahnomen though, they met some major opposition.

There were five saloons in Mahnomen, and all the law enforcement in town met Pussyfoot and his men at the town line and fought back. Pussyfoot and his eight marshals were arrested for destroying property. 

Since there was no courthouse in this area at the time, the men were taken to Duluth, where all nine were fined $500 each for the damage they had done. But, the court fees it took to prosecute them were all forwarded to Mahnomen to pay.

After that, Pussyfoot came back with a vengeance, frequently coming to Becker County and shutting down saloons.

It was historic stories like this that visitors learned Friday night during the Becker County Museum’s Hidden History Happy Hour, which this time focused on bootlegging in Becker County.

Museum Director Amy Degerstrom researched old newspapers — basically tabloids with wonderful stories, she said — to find out just how popular Prohibition, bootlegging, the women’s temperance movement and such were in Becker County. Turns out, pretty popular.

“They are a view into our history and really make it come alive,” she said of the newspapers.

By the time Prohibition was in affect from 1920-33, it had taken “many, many years to come to fruition,” Degerstrom said.

Women’s groups had been started as early as the 1870s, trying to do something about the saloons. Women were dependent on men’s paychecks, which were being spent in the saloons on alcohol and tobacco rather than needs at home.

In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed, and it was only a matter of time before alcohol was deemed illegal. Detroit Lakes had a local chapter as of 1886, and Degerstrom said she found local records of the WCTU stretching until 1981.

In fact, much of the drug and alcohol education that schools use came from the WCTU years ago.

Bootlegging was a “very longstanding challenge in Becker County.”

The Height of Land area was the most popular because of the heavily wooded area and curving roads.

“Section 19 was specifically the place to be,” Degerstrom said.

There were stills about every third farm, she added.

Farmers would hide their stills in the manure piles because the heat from the manure would help brew the alcohol. Law enforcement could sometimes find the farms with the illegal stills easily because the livestock got into it and were drunk, Degerstrom said.

Regardless of the illegalities surrounding alcohol, speakeasies, referred to as blind pigs or blind tigers, were still in business. Degerstrom explained the name, saying saloon owners would simply charge customers to see a “blind tiger” or some other big attraction and then serve a complimentary alcoholic beverage, so they weren’t technically selling alcohol.

Another sure sign of a speakeasy was the fact that they would paint their front door green, letting patrons know they could get alcohol there.

Residents had some reprieve when Twin Cities Judge Wilbert Booth was kind to the people of Becker County, where he visited often. In 1922, he said that all stills and equipment that had been confiscated had to be returned to their owners. That cleared 450 cases on his docket.

By 1924, 1,800 bootleggers had been arrested in Minnesota. Only 372 were sent to jail. In 1926, there were 103 moonshine-related deaths in Minnesota, because it was hard to regulate the alcohol content in the homemade beverage.

Then on April 7, 1933, 3.2 beer became legal, and municipal liquor stores became popular.

Many people still brew alcohol, though it’s legal now.

“Bootlegging is in our blood here,” Degerstrom said with a laugh.

The next Hidden History Happy Hour will take place in June. It will focus on the history of medicine.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.