© 2023 Tim Spitzack. All Rights Reserved.
Moonshine on the Mississippi: Fact and Fiction
A 'Wet' River in a 'Dry' City
From the cockpit of my kayak, Pig’s Eye Island near South St. Paul looks impenetrable, a veritable Midwestern jungle tangled with silver maples, elms, willow saplings, smartweed, vines and a variety of other wetland sedges and vegetation. As I drift closer, I see a thin break in the brush where I can squeeze through a narrow tunnel of greenery. It leads me to the muddy shore of the island, whose interior is remarkably open and spacious, albeit littered with pale, naked driftwood from recent floods. Viewing the clearing, it’s easy to see how islands like this once concealed the moonshine stills of one of the largest illicit liquor operations in the Northwest.
Drawing upon exhaustive research for his book “John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936,” author Paul Maccabee chronicled how severe the situation became in St. Paul after Congress ratified the 18th Amendment on Jan. 16, 1920, making it illegal to produce, transport or sell alcohol. By 1922, then-St. Paul Police Chief Michael Gebhardt estimated three-fourths of the citizens of St. Paul were distilling moonshine or making wine.
The thick, bushy islands near South St. Paul were popular sites for making moonshine, a term first used in Britain in reference to any activity done late at night. Moonshine is most commonly made by grinding corn or rye into meal and soaking it in hot water in a copper still. Malt and yeast are added, which starts the fermentation process, and the “mash” is heated until the alcohol steam is condensed to liquid.
During Prohibition, federal agents were employed to scour the city and surrounding woodlands to root out moonshine operators. It was hazardous duty and the exchange of gunfire was common, yet the G-men were committed to the task. An article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Oct. 20, 1921, revealed just how busy the agents were and how dangerous their task could be.
During a Wednesday evening raid that week, agent Joseph (Two Gun) Alberts, assisted by officers from the South St. Paul Police Department and a Dakota County deputy sheriff, exchanged gunfire with moonshiners in Inver Grove Township, about two miles southwest of South St. Paul. In a heroic act seemingly straight from a scene of a gangster flick, Alberts shot a pistol from the hand of one moonshiner and single-handedly disarmed two others. The paper reported that 15 shots were fired during the tussle. When the smoke cleared, the men were arrested, the stills were confiscated and 1,200 gallons of mash was destroyed.
A raid on two river islands the day before was even more successful. Agents were well aware that moonshining occurred there but may have been leery to investigate because the underground reportedly issued a warning that agents should “avoid the islands or they would be bumped off.” That Tuesday, two agents hopped in a motorboat and sped to Island No. 1, near present-day Pig’s Eye Island. The whine of the engine announced their arrival, which apparently gave the island’s occupants time to retreat. When the agents arrived, they looked south and saw the distant specs of two men with rifles making their way downstream in rowboats.
The agents began nosing around and soon discovered a well-trodden path leading to a camp and an underground hovel covered with thick foliage. Upon closer inspection, they found the concrete bases for three large stills, 936 gallons of mash and an artesian well that supplied the water. The stills, however, were missing. It can be assumed they were traveling away in the rowboats.
The agents motored several miles downstream to Island No. 9, where they found a similar underground shack, a 60-gallon still and nine 52-gallon barrels of corn mash. The agents confiscated the still and dumped all of the mash into the river. The combined operation was believed to be one of the largest moonshine distilleries in the Northwest, responsible for the nearly 150 gallons of moonshine flowing into the Twin Cities daily.
In case you’re wondering, it’s still illegal for citizens to produce or sell hard liquor in Minnesota. In fact, it’s a felony with a maximum penalty of $10,000 and 12 month’s jail time. One can get a license, though, to produce it in quantities large and small. The first requirement under Minnesota Statute 340A.301 is that you must be “of good moral character and repute.” The statute doesn’t make it clear how that is determined, or who is responsible for passing judgment. Furthermore, you must be at least 21 years-old and have no felony convictions or violations of federal, state or local liquor laws within five years of the license application date. Licenses are good for one year and start at $150 for brewers who manufacture fewer than 2,000 barrels of malt liquor in a year. Home brewers are allowed to make beer and wine for use by family and friends, but they may not sell it.
Prohibition lingered from January 1920 to December 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified. That illustrious era will be forever linked to Minnesota because of the work of Minnesotan Andrew John Volstead, a Republican who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1903 to 1923. He introduced the Prohibition Act in 1919 while serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The Act is commonly referred to as the Volstead Act.
Will McCoy squints into the wind and the cool spray of water that just splashed over the bow of his speeding motorboat as it crashed through a large wave. He pulls the brim of his fedora tightly over his brow to keep it from blowing into the river and glances at Bill Fronning, who is steering the boat. They’ve just taken off from a dock near downtown St. Paul and both are sharply dressed in dark three-piece suits and overcoats, not the most appropriate attire for raiding a moonshine operation on a river island but standard apparel for federal agents nonetheless.
As the boat bumps over the choppy water of the breezy mid-October afternoon, their faces show no emotion. Inside, though, each is wrestling with some degree of apprehension. Exhortations from the mission’s briefing that morning still echo in McCoy’s ears. It was not the first time he and Fronning heard of mobsters’ threats warning agents to stay away from the islands. Those who ignored that advice, rumor had it, would be “bumped off.” McCoy slowly moves his hand inside his vest and places it on his leather pistol holder. He feels the cold grip of the steel weapon then looks over his shoulder for reassurance that his and Fronning’s rifles are onboard. He returns his eyes to the river and the approaching island.
Fronning is running the engine wide open, producing a constant high-pitched whine that can be heard a mile away, and they reach the island in just minutes. He eases off the throttle and looks for a place to land. McCoy is scanning the thickly forested island and the nearest opposing riverbank for suspicious movement. He looks downriver and sees something fishy. He taps Fronning on the shoulder.
“Look at that,” he says, pointing downstream.
Fronning follows his finger and sees two dark specs moving downriver. He makes them out to be rowboats, each occupied by one man. He can see the sleek silhouettes of shotgun barrels pointing in the air. He looks at McCoy and nods his head. Both hope it’s a sign that they will find the island uninhabited.
Fronning sees a small clearing so he motors toward it, churning through lily pads and sedges until the boat scratches against some willow saplings and stops abruptly on the muddy bank. McCoy throws out an anchor, producing a large splash as it hits the shallow water. Each grabs his rifle and climbs out of the boat, their patent-leather shoes instantly sinking into the muck.
“Over here,” says Fronning.
McCoy makes his way toward him and sees he has found a well-trodden path that still holds the smeary footprints of those who last used it. They follow it through the forest a short distance to a small clearing and what appears to be a large mound of brush and debris. Holding their rifles before them, they walk cautiously toward it. McCoy notices an exhaust pipe extending upward from the mound and points it out to Fronning. Each steps away a few paces and fixes their weapon on the underground hovel. Their steady fingers find the triggers and each is prepared to fire. In a commanding tone, Fronning shouts: “Federal agents. Come out with your hands up.”
They wait breathlessly for the sound of movement but hear none. He repeats the command, this time even more forcefully. “Federal agents. Come out now or we’re coming in.”
Again, no sound, no movement. They circle the shack until they find the doorway, which is partially open. Fronning sticks his rifle barrel through it and pushes the door fully open. He pauses, listens intently, then ducks his head through the doorway, finding the place empty. He motions to McCoy to follow him in. Their heartbeats begin to return to a normal pace as they survey the large circular shack.
“Look at this,” says Fronning, pointing to a copper coil an inch and a half in diameter laying on one of three large concrete slabs.
“That’s huge,” says McCoy, examining the coil, which is three times larger than the coils of all other stills he has ever seen. “I wonder where the stills are.”
Near one wall are five 55-gallon barrels filled with sour-smelling corn mash. Each man examines the contents and smiles, knowing they’d discovered a very large moonshine operation.
“Okay, time to get to work,” says Fronning.
They bend down and, working together, lift a barrel and maneuver it out the door. As they are carrying it to the river’s edge to dump it into the water they stumble upon another dozen barrels of mash.
“Holy cow!” says McCoy. “This really is a huge operation.”
Just then, they hear the piercing crack of branches caused by something running through the forest. Each grabs his pistol and stares toward the sound. The island suddenly becomes eerily quiet.
“What do you think?” whispers McCoy.
“Better have a look,” says Fronning.
McCoy raises his pistol and walks gingerly through tangled brush to the shoreline. Once there, he sees two young men in a rowboat about 100 yards off shore, rowing away feverishly. He lowers his pistol, draws a bead on one man and follows him until they are out of sight.
Many moonshine stills were concealed in shacks such as this on islands in the Mississippi River.
Minnesota Historical Society image