Dakota Datebook

Still

Thursday, November 6, 2008

 

Innovation has always been important in the success of any business, but this was particularly true in the moonshine business of the 1920′s in
North Dakota. Federal and State Prohibition officers scoured the countryside looking for any sign of stills and even sniffed the air for
the telltale smell of fermenting mash.

On this date in 1923, officers raided the Nels A. Hanson farm near Hankinson but failed to find a still. It was known to them that Mr.
Hanson was considered one of the leading bootleggers of his community and that his product was considered to be above reproach but they could
never locate the still that he used to brew his mash. After some discussion Mr. Hanson was convinced to take them to it, so he led the
way to his pig sty. He moved the pigs from one pen to another and then he began scraping away the pig litter in the first pen. Using a hammer,
he proceeded to open a trapdoor where a small ladder extended to the basement under the sty. The basement was lined in tar-paper protecting
six barrels of mash and a 15 gallon still. The barrels were covered in old blankets to keep out the seepage from above. It was believed that he
used the still at night to prevent detection of the smoke and the pig sty masked the smell of the mash. The close proximity of the pigs also
opted for a quick turnaround time for disposing of the cooked mash.

Most stills in North Dakota were mom and pop operations, or at least mom knew that pop had one. For some people, making moonshine was the only
way of saving the farm due to the depressed farm economy. They were not major operations run by a crime syndicate. In fact, those who operated
the stills were often considered local folk heroes. Homebrew was everywhere, but nonetheless it was illegal and violators were prosecuted
with varied results. It is interesting to note that public sentiment so much favored homebrew that by 1932 the Ward County States Attorney was
convinced that he could no longer get a conviction where homebrew was involved so he refused to prosecute any additional violations. Rum
runners were generally dealt a different hand in the eyes of the court since they were not local folks and were often connected to organized
crime.

As for Nels Hanson, he received 90 days in jail and a $200.00 fine but received high praise from the Federal prohibition agents for masking
both the sight and the smell of his still in such an innovative way, in a sense a real North Dakota entrepreneur.

Sources:
The Wyndmere Herald- November 15, 1923.
The Bismarck Tribune December 19, 1932
Richland County Farmer- January 10, 1924

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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