Prohibition Sent a Parade of Desperate Characters Through Region

Though historians and sociologists have never adequately explained the origin of the fervor that swept the nation into prohibition, results of that "noble experiment" were numerous and catastrophic—the rise of organized crime, rampant police corruption, widespread disrespect for law and order, and an orgy of public drunkenness unparalleled in the history of Western Civilization. Even such a remote place as northwestern Minnesota did not escape massive social unrest. Human nature assured our participation in it, as did geography—we were close to Canada and far from Chicago.

Our neighbor to the north did not share our tee–totaling enthusiasm. Canada’s famed liquid refreshment being widely available, cross–border smuggling seemed a logical remedy for Minnesota thirst. Some booze came across border lakes in fast, mufflered inboards, but most by land. Typically, a luxury automobile would be fitted with false floorboards covering compartments padded to quiet clinking bottles. A conservatively dressed couple, with perhaps a Bible prominently displayed on the seat; or maybe a group of sportsmen, complete with rods, tackle, and dangling stringers of fish—would drive it across. As agents wised to various ruses, more ingenuous smugglers fitted cars and trucks with false gas tanks, transported whiskey in bulk. In either case, once inside the US, Canadian whiskey was deemed too precious to drink straight. It was often mixed 50–50 with American moonshine, the Canadian imparting some color and taste, local hootch supplying the desired aftershock. That local product was described by one well acquainted with its potential, as follows: "its jolt has been known to stop the victim’s watch, to snap both suspenders, and to crack his glass eye, all in a single motion." He further advised sampling it sitting down, so "a man might not have so far to fall." This last tip was hardly an exaggeration. By 1926, a hundred Americans a week were dying from bad booze.

Potholed Highway 59 being too hard on bottles, most southbound whiskey came down 75 through Moorhead rather than Pelican Rapids, and thence on southward via US 52. A story from Fergus Falls is worthy of note. After filling with gasoline, a rumrunner’s auto was struck broadside at a downtown intersection. Soon someone in the gathering crowd noticed something unusual dripping from the steaming wreck. Several bystanders were reported on hands and knees, sopping up Canadian whiskey with handkerchiefs—and perhaps gasoline as well—wringing the dubious liquid into their mouths.

In Pelican Rapids, a lone rum–runner had braved the potholes and was putting on gas at Frazee’s, when he was hailed by a constable. The runner, obviously a novice, bolted, drove off without paying. The constable pulled a revolver, fired at the fast disappearing auto. A mighty howling arose from the Great Northern tracks. A trainman hanging on the end of the "Pelican Flyer" had taken a bullet in the arm. Subsequent negotiations resulted in a twenty–five dollar gratuity instead of legal action. The bootlegger escaped.

Up in Spruce Grove, three boys from Paddock Township got into an argument with a bootlegger over jug missing from the front seat of a Ford. The score: two dead, one wounded, another bootlegger on the run.

But bigger fish were around. Sporadically run out of Chicago, gangsters often found a roost in St. Paul, where a "gentleman’s agreement" allowed them to enjoy the city’s pleasures, but only with discretion. Occasionally, participants were less than discrete, and had to seek refuge in the lakes area, which allowed them to slip across into Canada should officers pursue them here. John Dillinger was rumored courting a girl or two in St. Cloud. "Public Enemy Number One," George "Baby Face" Nelson was reputed to have hid himself near Detroit Lakes—either on a farm near Buffalo Lake or on a resort on Strawberry Lake, depending on the story. Jim Fairman, a mechanic at Detroit Lakes’ Gifford Chevrolet, had his lunch interrupted by a stranger requesting a ride home. He hauled the man north of Floyd Lake where he was directed to three late model Packards parked in the woods. Fairman raised a confused protest. Then the guns came out. "Here’s a man who can fix the car for us," one of the men said. Fairman diagnosed the problem, was escorted back into town to pick up parts. After his release, he perused pictures on the Post Office wall, swore he had been abducted by Baby Face Nelson.

After fourteen years of great expense, ineffectual enforcement, and continuous mayhem, the government threw in the towel. Under the prompting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Congress repealed prohibition on December 5, 1933. The manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol was immediately legal in eighteen states. But not in Minnesota. We had our own statutes to undo, but by spring, Minnesotans were, in the words of a hit song of the day: "No longer slinking, respectably drinking, like civilized ladies and men." Minnesota bootleggers turned to legitimate, though less profitable pursuits. Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and cohorts, met predictable violent ends.

Organized crime—of course—had seen the change coming, survived by investing heavily in other illegalities—drugs, gambling, prostitution, extortion, loan sharking, and union pension funds—and remains one of the great legacies of prohibition. The other is a hard–learned civics lesson written in the hearts and minds of the American people: Our government, though mostly well intended, is not always right.

~Roger Pinckney
Pelican Rapids Press, September 3, 1997