By Lily Kongslien
It is with much thought and contemplation that I write this chapter of my early life, but I have decided to go ahead, keeping it very objective and not betraying confidences.
We all know about the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 – being amended in 1931 and repealed in 1932. I am sure that remnants of homemade stills (distilleries) can still be found in many areas of our country, as they were very commonly heard about during the era of Prohibition (but seldom seen). I would think that during that time the “stills” were no more important to the majority of people than today’s controversies about the age at which young people are allowed to drink liquor. If the discussion of stills and moonshine is considered a taboo subject of the past, it should not be so as it is definitely a part of the history of our country.
I did not know much about the product itself, called “moonshine,” as my father did not drink liquor, except in his youth in Denmark where the Danish “ale” was served to the whole family at mealtime, young and old alike. Maybe he had a bad experience as a youngster; however, he did not drink and did not want his family to be around liquor. I like to think that it was because he wanted to be a good example to his children, for which I gave him much credit. However, he knew where several stills were located in the surrounding areas, as he was an avid hunter and trapper. In our early years he did explain to us the dangers of liquor and emphasized that he had respect of his fellow man, even though he lived a different life. He was a loyal friend to one and all, no matter what their occupation or avocation.
Most of the stills, made of sheets of tin, were located in wooded areas where they could not be easily located or detected. No roads or paths were used, and I am told that coke was used for heating fuel since it did not emit smoke into the air and give away the location. I never did see the inside of a still, but I am told that there were large copper vats and lots of copper tubing, and heat was needed to produce the desired liquid. Webster stated that distillation is “a process that drives gas or vapor from liquids or solids by heating and condensing to liquid products and it is used especially for purification, fractionation or the formation of new substances.” As far as I can find, from discussions with others, the ingredients were sugar and water and rye, wheat or barley, depending on the desired end-product. I have no idea of the time involved in the process, but since these stills housed an on-going activity, I would presume that quite a bit of the time was involved, and most of the activity was at night. The end-product was powerful. I recall one time when the revenue agents found and demolished a still, smashing all the working parts of the operation and the product itself, in whatever stage of production it was at that time. Some farmers’ cows were roaming the woods at that time and got into the demolished mess, and they had to be killed by the veterinarian. I have several pieces of copper which we found in later years (after the era of the still) as we were berry-picking way back in the woods. My father fashioned plate-shaped artifacts out of the malleable copper. If this copper could talk, what a story it would tell!
Why the finished product was called “moonshine” I am not entirely certain; however, I have heard several explanations. One is that the color of the finished product (an orange-brown) was the color of the moon. The other is that most of the stills were tended at night to prevent detection; hence, “moonshine.” Bootlegging is the name give to the practice of making the liquor and peddling it to those willing to pay a good price. Someone told me quite a few years ago that flasks of this liquor were safely hidden in the men’s boots. Another version is that one of the sharpest and wealthiest “dealers” had a wooden leg, and this was perfect to use for hiding the bottles and evading the revenue agents. Prohibition in the dictionary is defined as “the forbidding by law of the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic liquors, except for medicinal and sacramental purposes.”
As I mentioned before, my father was very close-mouthed to us kids about the moonshine industry. He must have known that we probably would talk, and he was very loyal to his friends and neighbors, even though he did not agree with their method of making “fast” money. Now I admire him more than ever for this quality of being loyal as he showed us by example that he had respect for others and their way of life.
This was a small lesson in history, and whenever I think back to those days when bootlegging was common practice and stills could be found hidden in the woods of northern Wisconsin, I am reminded of the lesson my father taught us by his interactions with his friends and neighbors. The days of prohibition are gone, but these important lessons live on.