The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 25, 2012

Blue Earth County Historical Society: 'Stills, Speakeasies and Shady Ladies'

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

MANKATO — Most folks like to think of Blue Earth County residents as pleasant, law-abiding types who rarely overstep the law.

And, for the most part, those folks are right.

But accounts of the Prohibition era in Blue Earth County tell a slightly different tale, one of clandestine bootlegging, river valley moonshining and even secret dance halls on the moonlit waters of Madison Lake.

All these tales and more will be told during the Blue Earth County Historical Society’s upcoming Ghosts of the Past Installment -- titled “Stills, Speakeasies and Shady Ladies” -- to be held Friday and Saturday.

“People will learn about things that happened in their own backyard that they never dreamed of,” said Susan Hynes, a BECHS board member who is serving as the director of the two-day slate of tours and historical reenactments. “There are some amazing stories.”

For instance, more than 300 people were cited in Blue Earth County alone for bootlegging crimes. Some were making alcohol by hiding their stills deep in the ravines and pockets of timber that dot Blue Earth County. Others were distributing it in their soft drink parlors, hiding bottles of booze under the counter.

And, of course, there were plenty of people consuming it. Until the sheriff was forced to close it down due to complaints, a few Madison Lake residents even operated a floating dance hall and speakeasy on Madison Lake.

Many of the stories were uncovered by BECHS volunteer Betty Cords, who spent several years poring over newspaper archives and conducting interviews before compiling her material for this weekend’s event.

During one interview, a St. Clair man told her about his grandfather, who delivered gasoline to farmsteads around the country. He built a partition in his tank that allowed him to also deliver moonshine.

“There was stuff going on all over the county,” Cords said.

Cords found one particularly interesting story about local fishermen who complained to a county judge of being bitten by aggressive carp while fishing in a local river. The judge used that information to catch a few carp himself. Upon inspecting their stomachs, he found corn mash and raisins -- traditional alcohol-making ingredients -- and was able to track down an illegal still not far away.

“Apparently,” Hynes said, “carp are not very pleasant drunks.”

Cords said she first became interested in Mankato’s Prohibition-era proclivities because of her South Bend upbringing.

As a young girl, she lived not far from Belle Born, the girlfriend of a man who was sentenced to lengthy prison time for his involvement in the kidnapping of Edward Bremer, which was orchestrated by members of the notorious Ma Barker gang. Born’s name appears throughout the FBI’s files on the case, including one memo from 1935 in which three agents were assigned to Mankato in order to in-stall a wiretap and conduct 24-hour surveillance on Born.

Even so, Hynes said BECHS decided to leave out the darker details of the county’s Prohibition-era activities.

The tours will begin with an introduction to some local leaders of the temperance movement. Then, visitors will see a still, hear some historical accounts and finish the tour in a speakeasy for cookies and beverages (no actual alcohol served).

Tours last 45-60 minutes and are not intended for young audiences.

“It’s going to be a very interesting tour,” Hynes said.