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A 'dirty' little dry cleaner: Museum's latest exhibit spotlights Becker County's boozing business

Bottles of "moonshine" are exhibited on the bar at the Becker County Museum. "The History of Prohibition in Becker County" will be on display at the museum Feb. 15 through the end of April. Marie Johnson / Tribune1 / 4
For its new exhibit, "The History of Prohibition in Becker County," the Becker County Museum put together a map of all the Prohibition raids in the county that resulted in criminal charges. There were well over 30 of them. The exhibit opens Thursday, Feb. 15 in conjunction with the museum's 2nd Annual Polar Fest Aquavit Social, from 5-7 p.m. Marie Johnson / Tribune2 / 4
A moonshiner's copper still and coil from the Prohibition era is among the displays of the new exhibit at the Becker County Museum. Marie Johnson / Tribune3 / 4
A new exhibit at the museum tells the stories of H.L. Johnston and J.J. Robinson, who both held the position of Becker County Sheriff during Prohibition. The lawmen kept busy with bootleggers, but were known to be fair and generally lenient. Marie Johnson / Tribune4 / 4

It looked like a harmless dry cleaning business. Customers would bring their stained garments in to husband-and-wife shop owners, Mr. and Mrs. George Aitken, and return later to pick them up, freshly cleaned. Pretty standard stuff. It appeared that it was all legit. But it was all a front.

On March 24, 1927, smack-dab in the middle of Prohibition, Becker County officials discovered the illicit truth in a raid of the business: the Aitkens were selling moonshine whiskey out of the basement. Two quarts of the moonshine, and a large number of empty bottles, were found at the establishment, located at 902 Washington Avenue in Detroit Lakes (where LaDeDa Decor & Design is now).

The little dry cleaning business, it turned out, was dirty.

The Aitkins were arrested, pleaded guilty, and ultimately received not much more than a slap on the wrist. The wife was released with no consequences; the husband got a small fine and then was also released.

The punishment, or lack thereof, was not that unusual around the Lakes Area during that time. Prohibition was a law that almost everyone disliked, and as a placard at the Becker County Museum explains, "Here in the rural farmlands, the good German and Scandinavian farmers weren't about to change their way of life because of the stupidity of the politicians. As law, it was a bad one, and like all bad laws it was universally ignored." Even local judges were seen around popular (illegal) watering holes.

Still, multiple raids like the one at the dry cleaning business did occur in Becker County during Prohibition, in the years between 1920 and 1933. According to information compiled by researchers at the museum, well over 30 of those raids produced criminal charges. Fines ranged from $350 (for selling moonshine) up to $750 (for manufacturing it)—in today's money, that would be about $5,000 on the low end, to more than $10,000 on the high end.

Emily Buermann, the museum's program director, said those fines did little to stop the moonshiners and bootleggers (moonshiners made the booze, bootleggers transported it). They made so much money from their illegal activities that they'd simply pay the fine, spend their couple of days in jail, and then get right back to business the next day.

The museum's latest exhibit, "The History of Prohibition in Becker County," explores all this and more. Opening Thursday, Feb. 15, in correlation with the museum's 2nd Annual Polar Fest Aquavit Social, it will run through the end of April. For a $5 ticket, visitors at the opening and social can try a sample of Aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian liquor, as well as an appetizer, from 5-7 p.m.

Buermann said the idea for the exhibit came up at last year's Aquavit social. There was a discussion about what Scandinavians used to drink in the olden days, and that got people wondering about what Becker County residents used to drink.

"So we thought we'd focus on what people were drinking in Becker County during the Prohibition," Buermann explained.

For about three weeks, the museum's Research Director, Jenn Johnson, and her team poured through Prohibition-era newspapers and court records to track down information on arrests, fines, raids—whatever they could find on the topic of moonshine.

"We did a lot of newspaper hunting," said Johnson. "It was time-consuming, but interesting."

Buermann said old newspapers ended up being "a treasure trove" of specific information, often printing the names of guilty parties and outing businesses that were fronts.

"We think they used it as a platform for shaming people," she said.

If that's true, it probably didn't work very well, given the attitude of the general population. While there were local teetotalers who would stop patronizing businesses linked to moonshine, a lot of Becker County folks took the Prohibition in stride.

"We were so rural—and we were already brewing our own beer, making our own ciders, making our own liquors, before Prohibition hit—that it was not a huge deal," said Buermann. "I think as long as people kept it under control, they weren't ratting out their neighbors."

There wasn't really a Wild West feel about the Prohibition in Becker County, she added: "There weren't any massive raids, no gunfire shootouts, nobody jumped on the train to get away. It was pretty even keel."

Did you know?

Moonshine used to come in fun flavors. Lime, citrus and even Juicy Fruit Bubble Gum were among the flavors found in Becker County.

More on Prohibition

The 18th Amendment went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920, banning the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating beverages in America. Intended to curb the country's obsession with alcohol and reform social problems like alcoholism and domestic abuse, Prohibition instead encouraged criminality and a general disrespect for the law as gangsters, mafia members and everyday, ordinary folks took the business of boozing underground. Under the weight of the Great Depression, the government saw an opportunity to collect taxes on all the alcohol bought and sold during Prohibition. The repeal of the bill was inevitable. President Franklin Roosevelt ended Prohibition on April 7, 1933 when he signed the "Beer Bill," the 21st Amendment. He had campaigned with the slogan that "Happy Days Are Here Again," and that later became the theme song for those first legalized toasts.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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