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Becker County was blissful for bootleggers

The Women's Christian Temperance Union was a national powerhouse in the years leading up to prohibition, and worked tirelessly to outlaw liquor in the U.S. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Prohibition may have taken alcohol out of the county legally, but the fact is there was plenty of production and rum-running going on in the woods of Becker County.

On Friday, Feb. 7, Becker County Museum Director Amy Degerstrom will be presenting “Agitate, Educate, Legislate,” an event filled with interesting facts about the bootlegging ways of Becker County and the Christian women who changed everything for the nation.

“I will spend a lot of time talking about Height of Land area,” she said, because a large part of the production took place in the woods around that area. “It makes sense because there are lots of trees and land and hiding places.”

That’s only the surface of Prohibition in Becker County, though.

It’s no coincidence that the year women finally got the right to vote, alcohol was banned throughout the nation. Though the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union strived to keep things safe on the homefront with the banning of alcohol, it actually had the reverse effect.

“It was the rise of underground speakeasies, that criminal element, which leads to the mob and gangster mentality. People get angry when they can’t get their beer,” Degerstrom said with a laugh.

While she said she’s not surprised that bootlegging was big in Becker County, she said she’s more surprised about the Christian women’s movement and the local force.

“I was a little surprised about how active the WCTU was.”

She said since Detroit Lakes was still a fairly new community — officially about 50 years old at the time – it was still “rough and tumble.” The timber mills were just closing, the railroad workers were present, the brothels were populated.

“There are remnants of that early era. The women and businessmen were actively trying to change that,” she said.

She said the county was very active on both sides of the debate – the bootlegging and the temperance.

“The fact is women were trying to gain control of their households and their lives,” she said. “Paychecks were being lost in saloons.”

Interestingly, Prohibition provided jobs on both sides of the law. There were the police and patrols, regulators and licensures. But there were also jobs for those brewing the alcohol, transportation and sellers. Though illegal, it was also very profitable.

The museum has plenty of artifacts from that time period that Degerstrom will have on hand to view. There are stills that were used for brewing the alcohol, confiscated bottles and arrest warrants.

“People have a strong opinion about alcohol. They still do. This will be a fun one,” she said of the presentation.

This is the third Hidden History Happy Hour Degerstrom has presented. The first was a year ago during Polar Fest on the history of women’s lingerie. Last summer, she also presented a Hidden History on Frazee’s seedier side with brothels, prostitution and crime.

She said bootlegging will follow the Frazee presentation nicely because there was plenty of involvement there, too.

Not only were Minnesota and Wisconsin very popular when it came to bootlegging, because they are so rural, but also because they are located on the Canadian border, over which legally-made booze was smuggled.

While legal now, home-brewing is still popular. She said the thrill is may be gone since it’s legal, but the art of it never went away.

Doors open at the museum at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7, with the program beginning at 7:30. Food and drinks will be provided by La Barista. Your $10 ticket will get you food and one drink ticket. Tickets are available at the door.

Not only is the program a part of the Polar Fest activities, it is also held the night of Daddy’s Little Sweetheart Dance, so moms can stop by after being taking pictures of dads and their sweethearts and then being shooed out of the Holmes Theatre.