BLOOMING PRAIRIE — When a number of Blooming Prairie residents were interviewed about Prohibition in the early ‘90s, the memories were varied.
Some recalled silk shirts, pinstripes, wide-brimmed hats and diamond rings on every finger of the town’s most prominent bootleggers. Others remembered their families being asked to store liquor, farmers being confronted with difficult financial decisions during the Great Depression and a tough out-of-town crowd known as The Wisconsin Syndicate.
Why the sleepy Steele County hamlet got a reputation for illicit sales, and how it eventually drew the attention of a regional smuggling ring, is hard to pin down. However, local historian Nancy Vaillancourt pointed out that the roots of Blooming Prairie’s liquor-related legal troubles started before Prohibition went into effect, which happened exactly 100 years ago Friday.
“Before Prohibition, the cities and counties could vote and decide what they wanted to do. Owatonna decided to be dry. Most of Steele County was dry. Mower County was dry, too, so people came to Blooming Prairie because they hadn’t voted to do that,” she explained.
When Professor Dean Ulland with Riverland Community College visited the Blooming Prairie Chamber of Commerce in 2014, he pointed out that the founding of the Minnesota Commission for Public Safety in 1917 brought the town under increased scrutiny. The agency sought to limit when local bars could operate and, when business owners ignored these new rules, the Minnesota Home Guard came into town in July 1918 to watch over the saloons.
One resident, interviewed at a local nursing home as part of the 1993 oral history project, recalled a bar owner saying “he did more business when the Feds were closing the saloons than he did at any other time …. He and his bartenders would give the agents plenty of alcohol.”
The town was deemed dry later that year and, six months after the guard arrived, the Volstead Act was ratified — banning the production and sale of alcohol nationwide. One year later, on Jan. 17, 1920, enforcement went into full effect and Blooming Prairie’s bootlegging industry was off and running.
Inside “the barn”
Looking west from today’s City Hall parking lot, it’s easy to spy what’s commonly referred to as “the barn.”
“People would come to Blooming Prairie on the train, stop at the depot and then walk down this alleyway right here, beside the library,” explained Vaillancourt. “This building wasn’t there, but there was a hotel.”
Vaillancourt said that the story of this set-up has been passed down from generation to generation, adding that those with cars could pull right into the barn, get loaded up and head back out on the road. People coming in on the train are said to have filled up suitcases before hopping back on the rails.
“The Milwaukee Road ran three trains a day to Blooming Prairie and buyers got off every one of them,” wrote Larry Batson, a Minneapolis Tribune columnist who penned an article on the town’s history in 1976 with help from a friend and resident. “Two or three men made a nice thing of selling suitcases at the station to people who stocked up on bootleg merchandise.”
According to Blooming Prairie artist Willy Olson, who is working on a series of watercolors depicting Prohibition era in town, the barn itself was built in 1902 by Patrick F. Coggins, who was also one of the saloon owners that had clashed with the guard in 1918.
According to Becky Noble, executive director of the Blooming Prairie Chamber of Commerce, Coggins’ bar was located in the westernmost part of what is now B to Z Hardware, just before Bunkies Grille and Lanes, which is attached to the barn.
Coggins was eventually caught for bootlegging on Dec. 30, 1929, in a town-wide raid by 18 federal prohibition officers. He was one of eight picked up at the time, with the arrests having been made on warrants issued in October and all signed by “Miller,” who a 1930 report from the Owatonna Journal-Chronicle alleges was an undercover federal agent working in the area that fall.
Syndicate moves in
According to Vaillancourt, the Prohibition era in Blooming Prairie can be broken down into roughly two parts. Until 1929, the trade was conducted mostly by local men and women. Then, the Wisconsin Syndicate is said to have arrived after a series of raids in the second half of 1929 busted three large stills to the west of town, along with a handful of smaller operations.
According to oral history reports compiled at the Blooming Prairie Branch Library, the Baraboo-based group had begun to establish connections in the area the year prior. When it came time to set up a still of their own, they chose the site of one of these recently-raided operations just off Highway 30, next to the Bohemian National Cemetery. Resident accounts say the still was built at night and stayed active primarily under cover of darkness.
One man interviewed as part of the 1993 oral history project lived right along Highway 30, about a mile west of Highway 218 — where he said the majority of still traffic took place. He recalled that vehicles would start coming by around 2 a.m. almost every night, and remembers watching the cars go by with his brother.
Getting cars ready for the haul
The same resident also recalled that in those days, cars had to be broken in before getting up to high speeds. In order to ensure quick getaways, he said bootleggers would keep their vehicles up on blocks with the motors running.
Noble noted that there used to be a garage where bootleggers could bring their cars in to get modified on the site of today’s TT Motorcycles.
“When they were redoing that building and had it all torn apart you could see how it used to be a garage,” she said.
Vaillancourt added that runners needed to make a range of adjustments in order to keep up appearances while smuggling booze.
“Some people, as they were doing deliveries, would have these cars with extra strong springs so they could carry heavier loads without looking really loaded down,” she explained. “Then, they would have people who needed a ride somewhere, like mothers and children. They would go for rides with them to another town and that was a good cover, too.”
One woman interviewed in 1993 told the story of how her mother was visiting from out of town, and was able to get a ride in with bootleggers. With the special springs inserted to mask heavy cargo, her mom was bouncing up and down the whole way from Wisconsin to Blooming Prairie.
She apparently told her daughter that she was never getting another ride from a bootlegger, “even if it means I’ll never see you again.”
This woman reported that her mother had initially taken the ride because she was unable to pay for the train, and many interviewees link Prohibition heavily with the Great Depression — a period of severe economic turmoil following the 1929 stock market crash.
“When we lived near Newry, a poor family half a mile from us used to store [liquor] in their basement,” reads another interview. “Once we got a letter, an unsigned, [scrawled] thing which said ‘If you say anything…’”
This woman also recalled her husband saying to the neighbor, “You better get that out of there, you’re scaring your kids to death.”
A handful of other nursing home residents recalled their families or friends being asked to store liquor for the bootleggers — some agreed, some then reneged because of the stress, some flat-out refused when offered a one-time payout of more than their annual salary.
The big bust … ?
The Syndicate’s operation, often called the “big still,” was finally raided in 1932. According to a contemporary report, it had a daily capacity of 1,800 gallons of alcohol and employed 12 men during a 24-hour operation.
Although officials destroyed whatever supplies remained, the report says word got out of the upcoming raid and the farm was deserted when agents arrived. This finding — coupled with a series of indictments the previous summer across the Wisconsin syndicate’s territory — has led some residents to believe there was a fair amount of money changing hands in order to keep the still going.
“It was an open secret,” said Vaillancourt, of the town’s bootlegging. “Nobody was really going to go after them. Sometimes there were federal people who came in, and some people think there was a lot of money under the table so that they didn’t come in and do too good of an investigation.”
In a column that Vaillancourt wrote for the Steele County Historical Society, she goes on to say that illegal alcohol smuggling across the region didn’t truly come to an end until two years later — during the course of a high-profile kidnapping investigation in 1934.
Edward Bremer, a St. Paul banker and descendant of the Schmidt Brewing Company founders, was kidnapped in the capitol and held for ransom in January of that year. The next month, police raided an Owatonna apartment at the northwest corner of Main and Elm streets following reports of suspicious activity from a concerned neighbor.
Those who ended up being arrested ultimately had nothing to do with Bremer’s disappearance, but had been heavily involved in bootlegging around the Midwest. In 1936 — three years after Prohibition had been repealed — a number of those connected to this ring were found guilty of transporting alcohol across state lines without the required labels.
“The raid that had begun as a search for the Bremer kidnappers ended with the shutting down of the illegal liquor trade in southern Minnesota,” wrote Vaillancourt. Or so she thought, until a number of speakeasies popped up on the streets of Blooming Prairie over 80 years later.
Living with the legacy
These “illicit” watering holes were located above J & H Liquor, the Cue Company, and Bunkies Grille and Lanes for one night only in March 2017, as a fundraiser for the town’s 150th anniversary celebration.
According to a contemporary report from the People’s Press, each set-up had a different password to get in and activities such as blackjack, dice and trivia using fake money. Noble added that the chamber also put on a walking tour to celebrate the town’s 150 years — complete with men dressed as members of the Minnesota Home Guard and stationed outside the town’s “saloons.”
“It’s an interesting part of this community. It’s who we were back then, how we got started. We were founded in the 1800s, but in the 1900s when Prohibition started — that’s who we were. That’s how we survived through the Depression. People profited off of it,” said Noble, adding that local laborers made money by selling grain and doing repairs for the bootleggers, among other things.
Still, she added that it must have been a scary time. Vaillancourt also noted that many of the residents who had firsthand memories of Prohibition were unwilling to talk due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
“There were some people who were caught and sent to prison and others who were not,” she explained. “There were a lot of hard feelings if someone took the blame for things and ended up in prison with a black mark, and others went on as if their lives hadn’t changed.”
What history has been documented, through newspaper clippings and community interviews, has been compiled at the Blooming Prairie Branch Library by Vaillancourt and others for residents to come in and peruse — just one of the many ways people have found to keep that part of the town’s history alive.