|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.”