'Minnesota 13' in Stearns County

'Minnesota 13' in Stearns County
A moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau (Wikimedia Commons)

For generations, Minnesota farmers have planted corn on their land - with varying levels of success. The state's earliest planted seeds, which originated from the south, did not fare well in its shorter, colder growing season, negatively impacting its output. It was decided the state's climate was too cold to grow corn. Farmers in central Minnesota disagreed, hoping to pivot away from an over-reliance on wheat. They began looking for a way to plant a corn crop suitable for the region.

In the early 1890s, the Agronomy Department of the University of Minnesota developed a seed variety high in sugar and starch. It matured upwards of forty percent faster than previous crops and gave farmers a high yield. The seed lot became known as 'Minnesota 13.'

Local farmers used the seed, and the state's corn crop flourished. Minnesota grew 800 thousand acres of corn in 1890. That number more than doubled to 2.2 million acres by 1911. Growth and prosperity continued through World War I.

Unfortunately, an abrupt change in market conditions after the war changed everything.

After the country left the wartime financial boom, but years before the Great Depression, rural America fell into an Agricultural Recession. The price of commodities began to bottom out. In 1919, the price per bushel for corn was $1.30. It dropped 67% by 1920. The commodity price for corn was soon so low that farmers were not even making up for the cost of the seed.

They became desperate. Farmers had an overabundance of crops, but no one was willing — or able — to pay them for them. Land values dropped precipitously, to the point many farmers held mortgages beyond the value of their farms. They were financially underwater. They needed to feed their families, so they took their corn crop in another direction.

Farmers turned it into moonshine.

National Prohibition had made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport liquor. But, Minnesota farmers, primarily those in Stearns County, faced an unfathomable choice. Either risk the foreclosure of their farms and see their families go hungry or break the law. Many chose the latter. They believed that while transporting bootleg alcohol was illegal; it was not immoral.

It just so happened that good water, and good corn, made good whiskey. Farmers of the area had access to good water and, thanks to the efforts of the U of M many years prior, had good corn — 'Minnesota 13' — in abundance.

Farmers of Stearns County created a high quality, powerful but smooth, aged moonshine with a national reputation. The 'Minnesota 13' strain made a superlative 100-proof bootleg white whiskey sought by speakeasies and blind pig saloons from coast to coast.

There was no specific recipe. While the core product used 'Minnesota 13' corn and produced an aged white whiskey, there were variations. Distillers from different Stearns County cities branded their moonshine with the name of their hometown. There was an Avon 'Minnesota 13,' Melrose 'Minnesota 13,' Holdingford 'Minnesota 13,' etc. The county became the hub of the bootlegging trade, and the city of Holdingford was known as the unofficial moonshine capital of the state.

It was dangerous work. Federal Prohibition officers frequented the area looking for illegal stills. Those caught risked being imprisoned in places like Leavenworth Prison, often serving three months to three years for their crime. Worse yet, they left their family without the financial means to support themselves.

Local officials were less concerned. Yes — people making moonshine were breaking the law, but they were doing it to survive. Those that ran afoul of the law were not hardened criminals; they were trying to save their farms. They were men (and women) that they went to church with, people they smiled and waved at when they saw them at the store.

Everybody did it — if a person didn't manufacture or sell 'Minnesota 13,' they probably drank it.

'Running moon' was a lucrative business. Farmers could get upwards of $3 a gallon for moonshine whiskey. This amount was significantly more money than they had earned for their crops — even in the best of conditions. In little time, moonshine stills were hidden on and around farms throughout Stearns County.

It was a constant game of 'hide-and-seek' between moonshiners and Federal agents.

During Prohibition, Federal Agents discovered upwards of twenty illegal stills in the county each month. The practice of making illicit moonshine continued after the repeal of the 19th Amendment, although to a much smaller degree. In 1933 — mere months before the end of Prohibition — crop prices recovered, tripling between March and July of that year, and farm income doubled.

Farmers no longer needed to consider running afoul of the law to keep their farms, and many went back to selling their crops the traditional (and legal) way. Not everyone, though. Some viewed the potential financial reward of selling 'Minnesota 13' as greater than the risks involved. When Prohibition ended, it became about skirting tax laws.

Enforcement agents continued to find whiskey stills in the county, although not nearly as many. One of the state's last official raids of an illegal moonshine distillery occurred in Stearns County in 1964.

Today, while the illegal distilleries of Stearns County are likely a thing of the past, the name 'Minnesota 13' lives on. It is (legally) distilled in the former Hamm's Brewery by Eleven Wells Spirits.


Bibliography

  • Davis, Elaine. Minnesota Thirteen: "Wet" Wild Prohibition Days. MN: Sweet Grass Publishing, 2007.
  • Fitzmaurice, Larry. "Recall 'Minnesota 13'? Alcohol Unit Corked It." The Minneapolis Star, March 14, 1960, 19.
  • McCoy, Sheila. "Well-known Bank Robbers and Bootleggers Used to Roam Morrison County." Last modified February 25, 2018. https://www.hometownsource.com/morrison_county_record/well-known-bank-robbers-and-bootleggers-used-to-roam-morrison-county/article_5db61a88-1b08-11e8-a034-537e645a8919.html.
  • The Minneapolis Star. "Moonshine Distilling Lost Art in State." February 23, 1962, 16.
  • The Minneapolis Star. "52 Jailed in Minnesota 13 District Raid." October 4, 1930, 1.
  • "Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass." Minnesota Experience. Directed by Kelly Nathe, and Norah Shapiro. MN: PBS, April 2016.
  • Smith, Tyler. "As Farmers Go, So Goes the Nation." American Economic Association. Last modified March 25, 1919. https://www.aeaweb.org/research/farmer-recovery-great-depression.
  • Star Tribune. "'Minnesota 13' Wasn't from Sky-Blue Waters." April 13, 1964, 6.
  • Troyer, A. F., and Lois G. Hendrickson. "Background and Importance of ‘Minnesota 13’ Corn." Crop Science 47, no. 3 (2007), 905-914. doi:10.2135/cropsci2006.10.0651.