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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Prohibition and Moonshining in Sherburne County

Campaign button for Edwin W. Chaffin, Prohibition
Party  Presidential candidate in 1908 and 1912.
From the collections at SHC: 2000.025.061
Prohibition, wet versus dry, has long been an issue in Sherburne County.  In 1895, temperance advocates met in the Elk River Methodist Church to urge prohibition in the county.  Wet advocates countered with assertions regarding the economic benefits of alcohol.  Their position insisted saloons would increase trade and business in local economies.  The Sherburne County Times went so far as to predict annual income from alcohol licensing exceeding $2000 for the county.  As early as 1899 the Times newspaper, reported the organization of a local chapter to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU.  For two decades before national Prohibition took effect, Sherburne County voters regularly debated and voted on the issue.  Passions ran deep with each election held.   

National Prohibition (from 1920 to 1933) did not end the debate, it simply sent the operation of boot legging underground.  Reports in county newspapers, police records, and oral histories all indicate an active boot legging practice in Sherburne County.  Regarded as more prevalent in counties north and west of Sherburne, boot legging seemed popular in the local areas.  Court records noted a number of illegal distilleries in Palmer, Livonia, and Elk River townships.   In 1928, the Sherburne County Star News reported the “biggest still ever found in Sherburne County was confiscated.” 

Oral histories reinforce the popularity of boot legging.  The memories of Betty Belanger seem typical of the times, “There was a still buried on our homestead, my parents’ place.  [It was] buried in the back yard because the guy that owned it heard the feds were coming again and he had already done time in prison for moonshining.  So, he brought the still over to my dad’s farm because he knew the feds weren’t going to be checking on my dad.  They buried it in the farmyard in the sand, in the back yard where the milk truck went around in a circle.  So it was covered.  There wouldn’t be any sign that they had buried something in the yard.  [I think] it’s still there.” 

Income for the distilleries provided significant wealth and encouraged many boot leg operations.  In 1920, the County Sherriff reported purchasing “one quart of whiskey, charging and receiving therefor the sum of six (6) dollars.”  An inflation calculator suggests the price of “one quart of whiskey” in 2016 would be $81.   

The manufacture and distribution of distilled alcohol significantly impacted the local economy.  The debate remained passionate.  As the temperance advocates suggested, “the unrestricted liquor traffic is today the most evil influence upon the moral and social health of the community.”  

Friday, December 30, 2016

Becker, Minn: Strawberry Capital

Becker, Minnesota once claimed the title of “Strawberry Capital” of the Midwest.  All thanks to the work of Becker farmer Carroll “Strawberry” Johnson. 

Born in December 1918, Carroll Johnson’s work in agriculture led to significant developments in farming, particularly for strawberry farms.  His work in marketing and promotion helped make Becker famous for its strawberries.

Starting in 1936, the summer after his High School graduation Carroll Johnson planted a few strawberry plants and sold the produce door-to-door.  In the fall he attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in horticulture.  Each summer he would return to his family farm and increase acreage devoted to strawberry plants.   

Overtime, Johnson continued selling to the local markets, eventually expanding as far as Fargo, North Dakota.  He also increased the size of his farm.  At its peak in the 1970s, the Johnson Berry Farm extended to over 150 acres.  Agriculturalists described the farm as the largest strawberry farm in the Midwest.  Johnson also adopted a “pick your own” strategy for marketing.   Allowing individuals access to parts of his farm to allow them to pick their own berries.  News reports suggested families would travel from throughout the state to visit the Johnson Berry Farm.  A report from WCCO radio claimed two women hired a taxi to bring them from the Twin Cities to the Johnson farm.  The cab driver then had to wait while the ladies picked berries.  
Above:1966 pin promoting first Becker Strawberry Festival.
below: 1971 pin from the final year of the brief Becker
Strawberry Festival
Artifacts from the collections of
Sherburne History Center 

Throughout his career, Johnson continued to experiment with plant varieties and planting methods.  Johnson and Marion Hagerstrom hold the patent on the “Crimson King” strawberry.  Johnson was quoted as describing the berry as, “a bigger, brighter berry that holds up.”   Johnson also helped develop the “Luscious Red” and the “Red Rich” varieties of strawberries. 

His planting experiments included alternate plantings of four rows of berries to two rows of corn.  At the end of the season, the corn stalks remained in place to catch and hold the snow as an insulator to protect the strawberry plants.  “It also stops the wind,” he explained. 

Johnson also played a key role in promoting Becker as a destination point for strawberry lovers.  In the mid-1960s, The Becker Strawberry Festival played a significant role for promotion and entertainment in each growing season.   

Johnson worked and developed strawberry farming for more than 50 years.  His efforts made Becker, Minnesota the “Strawberry Capital” of the Midwest.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Greetings

Christmas greetings from another time convey a different message than greetings from today.  In the past, a wish for peace and serenity seemed more prevalent.  A comfortable chair near a soothing fire, or a calming scent of pine from a bouquet of evergreens, presented wishes of peace and joy.  The absence of Santa Claus jumps outs as an interesting feature of early Christmas postcards.  The message is similar, yet the images and symbols changed dramatically.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Fruit Cakes Are Forever

A brief report in the Sherburne County Star News illustrates the durability of fruit cake through the ages.  “Mrs. Elizabeth Dyson who died 17 years ago, for several years before her death suspended a fruit cake upon the Christmas tree for Rev. And Mrs. Shepardson, and though dead, the Christmas cake continues to appear annually.  Her works do follow her.” 


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Electricity Comes To Elk River

Exactly 100 years ago, electricity was a novelty in Elk River.  In the year 1916, a new company, Elk River Electric built a power plant and installed lighting throughout the village. Until the work of F. D. Waterman in 1915, the only buildings to have electricity were the Blanchett Hotel and the Opera House.  These were powered by gas fueled generators.  Elk River developed very quickly into “a most modern” community. 

Beginning in 1912, Fred Waterman opened negotiations with the village to build a dam and power plant for the city.  The city itself agreed to maintain power lines and serve as the go between for customers and Waterman’s Elk River Electric Company.  After three years of struggle to find financial backing, the plant was built and power sent through the city in January of 1916.  Immediately, the streets of Elk River lit up.  The Sherburne County Star News explained, “for lighting the streets 40 sixty candle power and 10 one hundred candle power lamps are being used.”   

Advertising electrical appliances for Christmas
 in the Sherburne County Star News
With construction complete, the company advertising campaign moved forward.  Newspaper advertising announced, “We have spared no pains or money to have Elk River retain its present envious reputation of being the best town of it size in the state by giving it the best lighting system.”   

With Christmas 1916 approaching, the company took a new direction in advertising.  “Electrical gifts have charm, beauty, and utility,” the company urged customers to buy the latest in new electrical appliances.   

Although it would take another 40 years before electricity would reach every corner of the county, Elk River took a big step forward in lighting the city in 1916.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Charles Babcock: Father of Minnesota's Highways

Mercantile of W. L Babcock and Sons, circa 1900. 
SHC photo collection 1995.017.004
Highways, roads, streets and avenues play pivotal roles in daily life.  Smooth, comfortable transportation proved important to development of business and commerce in the state.  For Sherburne County, one individual stands out as vital to the growth and development of the county and the highway system running through the state: Charles Babcock.   

Born in Orrock in 1871 to Willard and Serepeta Babcock, Charles Babcock grew up on a farm, later worked in his father’s mercantile store and still later became President on the Bank of Elk River.  In his early life no hint was made of his eventual success, or his importance, as Highway Commissioner of Minnesota.   

After childhood years in public education, Charlie Babcock attended the University of Minnesota.  The economic crisis of 1893 caused him to drop out and return to work in the father’s store in Elk River.  According to his biography, while at the store he realized the way to improve business and build relationships with county farmers was to provide easy transportation and access to the market.  With this in mind, he began a political career, running for county Commissioner in 1908.  After two years of service he realized the state government and the state highway commission would better serve his mission.   

Babcock was appointed to the Minnesota State Highway Commission in 1910.  He served until 1917 when the commission was abolished and replaced by a Department of transportation under the governor’s direction.  Charles Babcock was appointed the first of the Minnesota State Highway Commissioners.   

Charles Babcock as State Highway
Commissioner.  SHC photo
collection 1995.017.008
In the 16 years he served as the Commissioner, his primary achievements included an amendment to the State Constitution that called for the use of tax dollars to fund the building and maintenance of the state roads.  Known as the Babcock Amendment, taxes were levied first on automobile registration and later as a gasoline tax to fund roads.   

Locally, Babcock was influential in directing the Jefferson Highway through Sherburne County to St cloud.  Still later, with his influence, the road was paved from the Anoka County line north through Elk River and eventually through the entire county. 

After his death in 1936, the highways in Sherburne County were expanded and improved.  By the 1950s, the Jefferson Highway had been rerouted and renamed Highway 10.  It became a major state road and expanded to a four-lane highway.  The impact of Charles Babcock with his understanding of the importance of good roads cannot be understated.  It seems appropriate that Charles Babcock be known as the Father of the Minnesota Highway System.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Armistice Day Blizzard Revisited

In an earlier time Veteran’s Day was known as Armistice Day.  And on November 11, each year the holiday commemorated the service from veterans and peace marking the end of World War One.  For a generation of Minnesotans, the day also sparks memories of one of the worst snowstorms to ever hit Minnesota: The Armistice Day Blizzard.
Snow began to fall on November 11, and continues into the next day.  In total, 27 inches fell.  Winds blew up to 80 miles per hour.  In some areas of the state 20 foot snow drifts were records.   The snow impeded transportation and threatened lives.  In one report, two locomotives collided in the blowing and blinding snow.  In total, throughout the upper Midwest, 145 people died in the snowstorm. 

Locally, in Sherburne County, the memories are fresh.  In the memoirs of Virginia Johnson, she recalls the challenges of getting home from school during the storm.  She wrote, “Two fathers brought me home.  The road to our home was blocked.  That one fourth mile was hard going following in the far apart tracks of the men.”  

Although not from the Armistice Day Blizzard,
this 1965 photo gives an indication of the
snow buildup in Sherburne County.
From SHC photograph collections 2007.040.058
To further challenge transportation, temperatures dropped fifty degrees in that 24 hour period.  An oral history from Jesse Hibbard recalls, “I was home alone that day. My wife was down to her folks and one daughter was going to school in Minneapolis and the other daughter was up town and the boy, he used to catch a ride to go to high school. I think he just started high school, and he stayed with the girls then two-three days. One daughter and another girl had a little apartment in St. Cloud and he stayed with them until Wednesday and then he came walking up. That was the problem that time - it got cold. Wednesday morning it was 8 below, the storm was Monday, Wednesday morning was 8 below and that kid came walking home, wading through the snow.”   

The snow challenged everyone throughout the state.  It threatened lives and isolated the country.  And the Armistice Day Blizzard was a significant memory to a generation of Sherburne County residents.