1920's Moonshine days

It was the early spring of 1920, World War I was over and the 18th Amendment (prohibition of the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol) was effective as of January 10th. Joe A. Studer (dad) and his wife Margaret (Dowling) Studer moved to a farm 2 1/2 miles south of the Mayhew Lake church and store. The farm was owned by the Sartell Brothers of Sartell, MN. Before Joe A. and family moved onto the farm, it had been used by the Sartell Brothers to keep the horses used for the operation of their logging and saw mill business. The farm consisted of 280 acres with a large white two story house, large red barn, about 100 acres of tillable land, huge pasture and meadow with the Mayhew Creek running through it. According to both Robert and Joseph M. the land was infested with quack grass. To get the land back in shape for planting, the Sartell brothers agreed to give dad a Fordson tractor and Kovar springtooth harrow. Robert said that "dad had agreed that this was a fair deal for both he and the Sartell brothers." 

Both Robert and Joseph noted that it was a very wet spring and summer, with the result being crop failure. Joe and Margaret had eight children at this time, James, Robert, Charles, Genevieve, Joseph, Vincent, Lawrence and baby Mary Ellen. Robert recalled, "With this large family dad had to do something to keep the wolf away from the door." Amandus Immerfall a cousin of dads from Avon, MN had relatives and friends making very high quality Moonshine which was selling for $25.00 a gallon, (bring your own little brown jug.) Moonshine was the best cash crop any farmer ever had. 

Dad went to Avon to view the operation (still, etc.) When he returned he had the instructions and recipe for making moonshine. Dad got all the needed materials to start cooking. The copper still was made by dad's brother in-law Andy Engle (who worked at Ladners Hardware Store which was located on the corner of 6th Avenue South and St. Germain Street in St. Cloud.) Dad needed help in the operation, his oldest son James indicated that he would not like to take part in the endeavor. Robert who was 15-16 years old at the time told his dad that he was game to help and said "let's get started." Over time, Robert ended up as the chief distiller or as he said "chief brewmiester" (brewmaster) and most of the time ran the complete operation. 

the stillThe moonshine recipe was said to have been formerly used by a defunct, large distiller. The recipe consisted of whole rye, corn, prunes, raisins, apricots, sugar and yeast. These were put into a clean oak 50-gallon vinegar barrel, warm water was added until the barrel was 2/3 full and then kept at a temperature of 75-80 degrees for fermentation. In about five to seven days the juice from the mash was strained into the cooking still, which was a pure copper wash boiler with a copper dome soldered on. A copper goose neck attached copper tubing that was coiled into a oak 50-gallon barrel, (the tubing protruded out near the bottom) and the barrel was kept full of cold water. The boiler sat on a two burner kerosene-type stove and heated the contents to the evaporating point (not boiling.) The result was clear (about 100 proof) whiskey foaming out the end of the copper tube into a jug. The process could be repeated three times by adding sugar, yeast and water to the rye, prunes etc. left in the barrel. Each process produced 2 1/3 to 3 gallons of clear alcohol. The flavoring and coloring was made from orange and lemon juice which was simmered down to a light syrup. Ten drops of this added to a gallon made a great bourbon or somewhat brandy taste and color. 

Dad and Robert set up in the pasture in brush, near the Mayhew Creek. The creek was used as a water source for the cooling process. Robert said the operation went very well (things were going pretty fast). Distribution was good, and the speakeasies sold our whiskey "by the drink." It was known as "Studers," it was preferred because of its very high quality. From time to time, it was necessary to move the operation, always along the creek. Moves were made in the night with a team of horses and a wagon. A wagon and team were need as the mash barrels were full of mash and fermenting, they were very heavy. To keep the wagon quiet they put fiber washers on the wheels. To stop the wheel noise they wrapped the wheels with burlap sacks, and tied up the but chains with bailing wire so they would not rattle. Robert wrote "and did the mosquitoes chew on us". In the winter time, operations were in the basement of the house and as Joseph said "No need to worry about the feds raiding, as there were no snow plows in those days, people owning a car put the car up on blocks in a shed." Horse and sled where the transportation in the winter. 


The moonshine operation went on like this for a long time until someone, tramping on along the creek, discovered the setup. Dad decided another move had to be made. Dad's brother George Studer lived on a farm on Pleasant Lake, he had a large machine shed attached to a hog house. George agreed to let us set up there, it gave the operation cover. Robert said he "practically lived in that place as I was running eight barrels of mash steady." The used mash was put into a water tank wagon and when full, a team of horses was hitched to it and the tank wagon backed into the lake to drain. 

Dan Krieg was the Benton County sheriff and a friend of dad's. Dan knew when Emery Swenson (the County Attorney of Benton County) was going to prepare a search warrant and allow the feds to raid our place. Dan Krieg would then tip off dad to move fast, and cover up the operation. Dad was raided a few times by the feds, but they never found the still or other moonshine-making equipment. One time they did discover possession of more moonshine than needed for personal use and dad paid a fine of a couple hundred dollars. Robert told of one raid when the feds spent most of the day looking for the still and moonshine and they were getting frustrated. It was getting dark and our dog was barking and growling at them, they threatened to shoot our dog. Robert recalls " us kids called them some choice names, and then we ran with some of the feds after us, so we ran for an iron pile behind a shed and did we laugh when they ran into it and boy did they swear, they were very mad and then left the farm. Robert said "They seemed to be a bunch of thugs." 

Joseph told of another raid when the feds were searching the house. Genevieve who was about 12 years old, knew there were quart bottles of whiskey in the bottom of the piano, so she sat down and played the piano all the time they were in the house and out foxed them. 

Both Robert and Joseph told of the unique hiding places they had for storing and aging their whiskey. Aging whiskey took one year, in a 20-gallon charred oak keg, in a warm place. They both spoke of building a room in the hay barn that could only be reached by ladder from an outside door. The barn was full of hay and the heat from the cattle made a good aging place. Then dad found a way to age the whiskey faster, he took some full kegs and wrapped them in burlap sacks and covered these with canvas and covered them with horse manure. After 30 days the kegs were dug out, they were very hot and we had to pour cold water on them until they were cool. This whiskey was as good (or some said better) than one-year-old aged whiskey. Some other unique ways dad and Robert used to store aged whiskey was in a hole in the ground under a wagon box (the size was 4' x 8' x 3') and putting them in the ground in the corn field, putting in the jugs in covered with planks and about six inches of dirt on top. They drew a map so they could find the jugs again. 

During these times many area farmers started making moonshine. They had a good recipe, but didn't keep their equipment clean, etc. So much of what was produced was a poor quality product, it was called "rat gut." Dad always made a good quality moonshine and therefore had repeat customers. 

BeersBoth Robert and Joseph told of the hundreds of people who purchased and drank Studers' moonshine. They were Benton County Commissioner Galenault, the County Sheriff Dan Krieg, St. Cloud Chief of Police Ed Brick, Father Alois Kampman of Sauk Rapids, Bishop Bush of St. Cloud, Chas Bellmont, Bill Hohn, Policeman "Spuds," all of Sauk Rapids, as well as many store keepers and bootleggers from the Twin Cities. Mom's brother in-law Bert Boynton, (a barber in Brainerd) would come down with his Hupmobile auto and take back (up to) 35 gallons for distribution to customers there, which included an Elks Lodge annual convention. 

A good thing came to a sudden halt when Aunt Mayme became nervous about our operation. Because of Aunt Mayme, dad made the decision to stop the manufacture of moonshine and switched to buying from a farmer near Pierz, MN who made quality liquor. We bought at whole sale, and sold it (ahem, retail) for a long time. By 1927, the price of moonshine had dropped from $25.00 a gallon to $12.00 a gallon. 

Dad was very relieved when the 18th Amendment was overturned. He said it was too big a risk to himself and the family. It wasn't worth being caught and paying a large fine, or worse yet, doing time in Leavenworth Prison, which several farmers from this area did do. Dad paid a fine or two but never went to prison. 

The old Studer still was given by Joseph M. Studer to the Benton County Historical Society April 29, 1988, who have preserved it over the years. The Benton County Historical Society address is: 218 1 Street North, Box 245, Sauk Rapids, MN 56379.

Story written about Joseph A. Studer, by his sons Robert J. and Joseph M. These family stories were combined. Then rewritten by Richard E. Studer. Edited by Gina Studer-Hunt.