Sunday, October 05, 2008

Grampa was a Bootlegger?

In September 2005, Cousin Duane was driving two of my first cousins and me around Leonard, Minnesota to see the old family sites. We stopped at the farm once owned by our great grandparents, Ole M. and Malla Johnson, from 1917-1948. After knocking on the door and getting no answer, we could not resist the urge to peak in windows and walk the grounds a bit before getting back into the car. Ole had built that farmhouse with his own hands, and though time and lack of attention had taken its toll, that house still stood straight and proud, aware of its solid heritage. The voices and Norwegian brogues of our mothers and their own cousins and playmates who sledded, rolled, and scooted in our footsteps at an earlier time, echoed in our minds.

Duane is a generation older, and so, of course, we had been prodding him with many questions about our family history. As Duane pulled the car out of the driveway and proceeded down the road toward Grampa's farm, the place where our mothers were born, he mentioned that our grandfather used to keep a still out in the woods for a short time.

A still? Cousins Cheryl and Craig and I quickly looked back and forth at each other.

"Did Grampa ever tell you about that?" I directed my question at Craig, knowing that Grampa shared far more stories with his grandsons than his granddaughters (it had to do with the male bonding thing).

"Not about that," Craig said, with subdued amazement. A history teacher turned counselor, he was always ready for a good yarn.

During the Prohibition years of the 1920s, it was difficult for new, solitary farmers to make any profit. Clearwater County was not the only area in Minnesota affected, let alone the nation. It was actually a Minnesota congressman, Andrew Volstead from Granite Falls, who came up with the idea of making alcohol sales illegal, and thus promoted the start of Prohibition with a bill he sponsored. Ironically, Granite Falls, Minnesota was also the birthplace of my grandfather.

Grampa became a young widower in 1921. His two little girls (my mother and aunt), were sent to live with their paternal grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, so that Grampa could give all of his attention to farming and make a go of it. Proud and stubborn, Grampa would never have given in and sold his farm only to work on someone else's--it would have negated the reason his grandparents emigrated from Norway to America in the first place. But flax, alfalfa, potatoes, and corn yielded little cash then, and many farms continued to struggle for years to come. Some locals saw an opportunity with the arrival of Prohibition and tried their turn at making illicit liquor, whether they drank it themselves, or not.

Grampa kept his still well hidden in the woods behind his farm. Duane said that a bear damaged it once. Grampa fixed the damage, but he gave up on the idea of making liquor altogether after one of his brothers blew up the still.

"Blew it up?" we all chimed in unison.

It was not meant as an act of kindness to keep Grampa on the straight and narrow. As it turned out, Grampa had refused a brother's request to take part in the bootlegging. Feeling vengeful or playfully mean, or both, the brother sneaked back to the still when Grampa was away, along with a cousin or friend, and some dynamite: WHAM! No more still.

"What happened after that?" we asked Duane, our ears straining like tots listening to a ghost story around a campfire.

As kids, my cousins and I never had an inkling of such an event, in spite of all the hours spent with Grampa and our great uncles and aunts. Evidently, some family lore was quickly squelched, especially when repeating it meant a revival of some festering old wound. Cousin Craig said he could always tell there was a certain tension between Grampa and one of his brothers, in particular, but he was never sure what it was all about.

It was a good thing the still was done in, however suddenly, because Duane mentioned that the authorities had already taken steps to control the widespread bootlegging problem within the district. A few bachelor farmers had been arrested and sent to jail for breaking federal law. The U. S. Marshal had not planned to come after Grampa or certain others right away because they had families to feed, so they chose instead to make an example of a few select others. So, Grampa's hidden still was not such a secret, after all, especially to those who mattered.

I will never hear Grampa's side of the story, or his brother's, if either of them ever would have talked about it. My guess is that they would have avoided it, scoffing and laughing off any inquiry, like soldiers coming home from the war who wanted nothing more than to forget certain parts of the past. But, anyone can understand the frustrations of a farmer living in fear of his property being repossessed, or worrying about being deemed a failure in the eyes of his family and neighbors. Grampa never failed to help neighbors in need, and frequently let neighbor kids ride to town with him on the back of his dray whenever he headed to the bank or to get supplies. He also proved tolerant whenever young nephews successfully raided his cookie jar down to the last crumb, or showed up on an almost daily basis to hang out at Uncle Ernest Johnson's because they could ride horses bareback without the disapproving clucks of female relatives.

It is clear that bootlegging of illegal liquor during the 1920s was carried out not just by gangsters sporting machine guns. There were many everyday folks, including normally law abiding Norwegian-American farmers like my grandfather, who out of necessity and a unique brand of assertiveness (pioneering spirit, if you will), took part in creating illegal supplies for an ever-thirsty demand.


  1. CHERY,

    What an interesting family history --- and a story that has far reaching implications. The South, too, is full of tales from this time frame where struggling farmers found it more profitable to covert their corn into liquid --- and an entire sub-culture evolved. Most of the information from that period is still hush-hush in these parts --- and some get miffed at just the mere questioning about the possibility of bootlegging in the family. History, is, however, history and the "tell but don't dwell rule" seems to cover most folks! Thanks for telling this wonderful family story. Bootlegging and other issues are often greeted with "Shhhhhhhhhhh. Let's not talk about this" here in the Hill Country.


  2. Hi Terry,

    Although my grandfather dabbled briefly, it was quite funny finding out about the still. I'm sure that isn't the only thing those boys got up to!