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Notes from the Paynesville Historical Society. . .

By Connie Williams

During the years of prohibition, moonshining was prevalent in Stearns County. Making moonshine took certain skill. Those who had this skill often-times hired themselves out.

It was common to have a 350-gallon still going day and night in a thickly wooded area. The rye and sugar required for the whiskey was delivered by the ton in trucks. The driver would then pick up the finished product and haul it to designated points in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

One person would cook the moonshine during the night and another person cooked it during the daytime. They each received $5 per day or night and had a contract with the owner of the still that protected them against getting caught by the "Feds." The contract stated that if either one of them got caught by the "Feds," and had to serve time in prison, he would continue to be paid his salary of $5 per day or night during the time he was in prison. It was a type of insurance policy for both the employer and employee.

If a person had 100 oak barrels of mash fermenting at all times, he would put a half bushel of rye, some yeast, and 50 pounds of sugar into each barrel. Then he let this mixture ferment for four days, sometimes five depending on the weather. Then he poured it into the still to be cooked. This mixture had to be strained through a cheesecloth to remove the flour from the rye, as this by-product could cause the still to explode if not removed. It was fed to the pigs, who sometimes became drunk on it.

The moonshine still
The still had to be made completely of copper and had to be airtight. The moonshine cooked out of the top through copper coils, which were cooled in a creek in stone jars and rocks.

The first whiskey to come out of a fresh mixture was over 200 proof alcohol and had to be cooked down again until it was about 80 proof.

A fellow named Henry S. rented a saloon where he could sell soda pop and malt over the bar. If a customer asked for beer, Henry would take a shot of moonshine, pour it into the malt, hit the bottle with a rubber mallet and the moonshine and malt would mix to make beer.

This bottle of moonshine was kept on a trap door behind the bar. A string was attached to the door which could be pulled from any place behind the bar. If any federals, or suspicious looking persons came in, Henry could pull the string, the trap door would open, the bottle would fall down onto a pile of rocks in the cellar and the evidence was gone.

A shot of moonshine sold for 15 cents and a quart bottle sold for $2. In the early 1920s, a gallon of good homemade moonshine sold for about $40 to $50 per gallon. Much moonshine was sold to the Indians of Mahnomen, Minn.

Then came the Great Depression. Farmers suffered more than anyone else. There was very little money with which to buy feed for the cattle and there was very little feed available even if there had been money.

In 1933 and 1934, the parched ground told of the awful drought. But as the night fell and the moon shone brightly down on the tamarack pines, the activity that received its name "moonshine" from just this sort of night, would spring into life as most people slept. A whole subculture, an intricate network of people, worked through the night. Some did it for a rush, a thrill, some just to make a living.

As time went on and the chances of getting caught became greater, many moonshiners still made their own product but on a more irregular basis.

Be sure to watch this space for details about our upcoming 30th anniversary celebration on Aug. 8.