It can be difficult to enforce a law that a good portion of the populace wishes to violate. So it was when the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, importation, transportation and sale of liquor. Caledonia journalist and commentator Perk Steffen noted that the eastern part of Houston County “did not turn its back upon prohibition… It faced up to the bar much in the same manner as had been the convenient custom since the coming of the white man disrupted the carefree life of Winnebago tribesmen.”
In contrast, “the western part of Houston County “went underground, believing discretion to be the better part of valor. It fatalistically accepted the consumption of hard liquors in dimly-lighted subterranean darkness.”
Prohibition lasted 13 controversial years, from 1920 until 1933 when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. Before national prohibition, 26 states had adopted total or partial prohibition. From early human history, men made laws to restrict liquor sale and consumption. More than 4,000 years ago, Babylonians tried to limit tavern keepers. But experience has generally resulted in liquor being controlled rather than prohibited.
During Prohibition, consumption was permitted in most states as was production of fruit wine and cider for one’s own consumption. Where there is demand, there will be supply. Many did make their own “bathtub gin,” but many others became illegal distillers (moonshiners), bootleggers or smugglers.
A force of 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents were tasked with enforcement. Local enforcement depended on the widely varying enthusiasm of local authorities. Steffen noted, without being specific, “law enforcement had a touch of softness about it…sheriff never attempting a raid upon a definitely located still until he had loitered at a street corner to reveal, in conversation with fellow citizens, he was required by duty to investigate the vague rumor that an old and true friend was peddling the stuff. Being a most efficient officer, he would specify the hour the raiding party would appear upon the scene.”
In his 1976 review of 1920s Prohibition, Steffen also described an unidentified jury, which “to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” sampled and emptied the flask of state’s evidence before deciding on a not-guilty verdict – for lack of evidence.
Steffen also acknowledged that federal agents successfully prosecuted violators, but “failed to create to a greater degree of dry-law acceptance by people with an acquired taste.”
A Houston newspaper specifically reported successful moonshine suppression by both county law officers and federal agents. A February 18, 1926, article stated, “prohibition agents are working the La Crosse territory hard the past ten days and have arrested a number of persons engaged in the liquor traffic.” It went on to identify one transgressor as the former operator of the Gem Theatre and Union Hall at Caledonia.
The newspaper reported two federal prohibition agents, working out of Madison, Wis., had raided two separately operated stills in two separate shacks on an island south of La Crescent. Approximately 30 gallons of moon liquor were found in each hut besides several tanks of mash. The agents smashed the stills, burned down the huts and transported two men to Winona for a hearing before a federal commissioner. They were said to have been supplying the La Crosse market with moonshine.
In a May 12, 1927, edition of the same newspaper, justice of the peace C. S. Trask had already sentenced a father to 80 days in the Houston County jail as his two sons were appearing in court on the same charge of maintaining a nuisance. Sheriff Arthur Brown and deputies Thomas Gallagher, James McGinnes and Helmer Rask had raided what was thought to be the “biggest moonshining plant” ever found in Houston County. Twenty-five barrels of mash, 25 gallons on moonshining liquor and 150 sacks of sugar were confiscated and destroyed at the father’s home in Pfeffer Valley, 2 1/2 miles northeast of Hokah.
The still was large enough to produce between 15 and 20 gallons of moonshine a day. Finding several empty 25-gallon vats, the raiders believed a large load of liquor had been removed shortly before their arrival. It was said the quality of the illegal liquid was comparable to “good Ole Kentucky whiskey.”