Enforcing Prohibition was extremely difficult. Liquor was easy to make, transport and even easier to sell. The equipment to build a small still and make liquor cost between $6 and $7, resulting in the building of many home stills.
The term "bootlegging" originated with the practice of hiding liquor bottles in one's boots. It also referred to the illegal production and distribution of liquor. Ambitious racketeers set up large stills in out-of-the-way places, while others smuggled in whiskey from other countries to meet the public's growing demand. With millions to be made, crime became big business. Al Capone was a bootlegger who thought of himself as a businessman providing what the people needed. By 1927, he controlled a Chicago-based crime organization that made as much as $100 million in 1927 alone.
Old-time saloons went underground and became "speakeasies." Most speakeasies stayed in business by paying off the police and constructing elaborate alarm systems as a means of protection against raids by federal authorities.
There are many interesting accounts of what took place during those prohibition days. One such story comes out of Indiana where an old man hid his illegal stock by making a hole in the wall of his house and storing the goods between the studs. He then would wallpaper over the opening. Someone tipped off the sheriff that the old man might be storing booze in his house. The sheriff and his deputies searched high and low but could find nothing illegal. As the sheriff departed, he said to the old man, "We sure are glad we didn't find anything." "No happier than I am," the old man replied.
On the local level, there is no way of knowing how many Lyon County residents produced "bathtub gin" or ran their own homebrewed stills. Many of the log cabins that had once protected the settlers from the raging prairie winds now housed the home stills. Webster's dictionary describes a still as follows: an apparatus for distilling liquids, especially alcohol, consisting of a vessel in which the substance is vaporized by heat and a cooling device in which the vapor is condensed.
At the Lyon County Museum, there is a fine example of a home still that was used by a local three-generation family. This family still had been hidden for 65 years, and then in 2002 the family decided it was time for the still to tell its story. The burner must have used white gas and a hovel pump. The copper kettle was connected with copper tubing to the cooling system soldered inside a metal garbage can. The condensation was caught in a jug at the bottom of the coil. The type of "homebrew" usually had a bitter, yeasty taste.
When I last checked with the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, the Lyon County Museum is the only one in the state that exhibits a home still. Either these contraptions were destroyed by local law enforcement personnel, or are still hidden in attics or old farm buildings. The owner (or inheritor) of the still that is shown at the museum came forward with this donation only after many assurances that he would not be held responsible for acts committed by his ancestors.
The Silver Dollar Bar in Ghent was the first to open for business in Minnesota following Prohibition. Robert Engels of Brookings, Oregon, and son of A.J. "Red" Engels, still has the license issued to his father by the state.
H.L. Mencken wrote in 1932, "All that the Prohibitionists have accomplished by their holy crusade, is to augment vastly the number of boozers in the United States, and to convert the trade in alcohol, once a lawful business, into a criminal racket." Finally, what President Herbert Hoover would call "the great experiment, noble in motive," was over, and in December of 1933, Prohibition was finally repealed. Many Americans celebrated, of course, by getting falling-down drunk.
When Prohibition was repealed there was little demand for moonshining. Although moonshine continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and 1970s, today, very few illegal alcohol cases are heard in the courts.
Despite all that has changed about moonshine in the last 200 years, one thing remains the same - it was illegal. Although homebrewed beer and amateur winemaking have been legal since the 1970s - but they can only be done in small quantities.