Archival Research Catalog of the United States National Archives and Records Administration
Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the Prohibition era.
Archival Research Catalog of the United States National Archives and Records Administration

Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the Prohibition era.

Seniors don’t expect younger generations to think that some of their ancestors were lawbreakers, but when we read or hear stories about the old “Moonshine Days” we need to pay attention. The tales are interesting, some even hilarious. I have no evidence to support any notion of being suspicious, but it is possible some of my antecedents could have been involved in the illegal trade of moonshining. It was a way of life in the prohibition era.

Folks don’t see movies or read the colorful stories of the previous moonshining episodes like we once did, but I developed an interest in some of the local adventures that took place in Menominee and Marinette counties decades ago while searching for other pieces of history. Moonshining was very active in the two counties and the local sheriffs had their hands full. Keep in mind the sheriff of a county lacked the number of support personnel like the modern-day officers of the law, and didn’t have state police and state patrol officers near-by for assistance. It wasn’t exactly like the Wild West, but lumberjacks and sawmill workers could turn our towns upside down when they went on their drinking binges.

Bootlegging was a major industry in the United States when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted, thus throwing the country into national prohibition. The amendment was effective between 1920 and 1933 which provided business and wealth for scores of bootleggers.

We frequently read newspaper accounts how the Coast Guard, and agents from Homeland Security; Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other federal agencies are constantly on the lookout for smugglers who are bringing in illegal drugs from Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, the latter trade mostly from South America.

Let’s go back 80-plus years to the 1920s when offenders in a different period in time were energetic smugglers. Bootleggers exploited the nation’s sprawling coastline to unload liquor from Europe. They did their best to outsmart the Coast Guard with its cutters by using sponge boats, garbage scows and submarines. Landlubbers also worked the Mexican and Canadian borders to sneak in illegal booze. 

Many lawbreakers forged the names of physicians to write prescriptions for whiskey which was often used as medicine.

It may not have tasted like the smooth whiskey imported from Ireland and Scotland before prohibition, but moonshine had a tremendous kick to it. Called “white lightning” by some, bootleggers manufactured their products in distills hidden in mountains, hills and thick forests. Sentries stood watch for fellow crooks trying to overtake their operation, or by lawmen eager to put them out of business.

Some moonshine manufacturers used denatured alcohol after cooking off poisonous chemicals, then adding flavor and color and labeled it as gin, scotch or bourbon. Corn sugar, yeast and malt syrup were other important ingredients of their trade. Those foolish enough to abuse moonshine by overindulging had serious consequences, like blindness, paralysis, perhaps even death.

Big time bootlegging was so lucrative that it corrupted government workers at local, state and federal levels, and led to infamous rings headed by people like Al Capone and the criminality of the Detroit Purple Gang.

A 42-year-old northern Menominee County man, the father of seven children, was shot to death in 1922 after consuming moonshine with another man, his two sons, ages 21 and 19, and several other revelers. A fight broke out during the party and the 19-year-old was knocked unconscious by one of the imbibers who used a club as a weapon. The father of the two boys fled the scene and went to a neighboring farm house and borrowed a rifle. When the 13-year-old daughter of the victim opened the door where the party was taking place, the man with the rifle opened fire. Sheriff Jule Duquaine was summoned to the murder scene at midnight to investigate.

In a 1925 incident, a moonshiner in Marinette County was fined $200 ($2905 in 2018), or ordered to spend four months in the county jail doing hard labor for the possession, manufacturing and sale of moonshine. When Police Judge Budlong asked the defendant why he committed the crime, the accused said he needed the money, and seeing to it that others got away with it, he could, too. The judge didn’t buy his reasoning for making moonshine and off to jail he went.

In the fall of 1929, 32 people, including seven women, were arrested at a farm home in the Perronville area (northern Menominee County), for making moonshine. Michigan State Police raided the outpost for the second time in a month.

One of the largest raids was at a farm home in adjacent Delta County where 1,000 gallons of mash for making moonshine, along with two large stills and 100 gallons of moonshine were confiscated. Forty gallons of the illegal firewater was destroyed, the other 60 gallons retained for evidence. The owner of the operation claimed he needed the extra money to make mortgage payments on the farm he had purchased three years earlier. The operator said he invested $500 to start his operation, and was producing 60 gallons of moonshine per day, selling it wholesale at $3.50 per gallon, noting it cost him $1.50 per gallon to make the spirits.

Local newspapers reported numerous raids, arrests and takeovers of moonshine operations in Marinette and Menominee counties during the roaring 1920s and early ‘30s before the 21st Amendment repealed the law in 1933. The moonshine run, and the many tales connected with it, remains an interesting part of the area’s colorful past.