Moonshining part of many local family experiences
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Punky Benusa of Bowlus has held on to the still used by a family friend who was a moonshiner during the Prohibition years of 1920 – 1933.
In 1981, shortly before he died, Benusa’s friend came to him with the still and proceeded to show him how to use it by making a batch of moonshine.
“He wanted to pass on what he knew before he died,” Benusa said. “We made 16 gallons.”
Benusa’s uncle also made bootleg whiskey. “My uncle never talked about it much,” he said. “He was like a person who had gone to war and didn’t want to talk about it.”
Joyce Mester’s father, John Radziej, had five small children and one more on the way when he set up a still in a creek three to four miles east of Royalton to support his family. He hadn’t yet sold any of the moonshine when he was caught by federal agents and sent to the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. for 11 months.
“The typical sentence was a year and a day,” Benusa said.
But Mester has a copy of the letter her mother wrote to the judge asking for leniency because of the children. “My dad was let out a bit sooner because of that,” she said. “Dad never really mentioned it except to say that he never got to sell any.”
“I wasn’t born yet, but my older siblings were told that dad had ‘gone to college,’” Mester said.
“That was code for being in prison,” said Benusa. “Since not very many people went to school past the eighth grade, people just knew what that meant.”
Andrea Lauer’s family history includes one of her grandfathers making beer in the bathtub. “Those were desperate times; people needed to feed their families,” she said. “But I got the impression from my parents that it was in the past and they just didn’t discuss it.”
Benusa’s father was caught by federal agents and handcuffed. “He was treated to a train ride to Leavenworth,” he said. Benusa’s oldest brother was born while their father was in prison.
In her 2007 book “Minnesota 13,” Elaine Davis explains that for farmers, the depression began after World War I. Farmers had so expanded their operations to help feed Europe during the War — sometimes heavily mortgaging their farms — that they were left in the lurch following the War when Europeans began growing their own food again and American land prices fell.
“Making and selling moonshine was done out of pure necessity for most farmers, to provide for families and put food on the table at times when beef, pork, grain and corn prices were below break-even levels,” Davis wrote.
“Moonshining happened because there was an economic need,” Benusa said.
“People didn’t want to break rules, but wanted to feed their families,” said Mester.
Moonshine from the area in and around Stearns County acquired a high reputation across the United States and even in Europe, according to anecdotal evidence.
“Minnesota 13 was considered the ‘Dom Perignon’ of moonshine,” according to Davis.
After Mester’s eldest brother died, family members found the old still. “We just had to make some moonshine,” she said. “Our dad had done it and we wanted to try it.”
Mester and her nine remaining siblings (except a sister who lives in Michigan) made a batch as a family. First they had to find a barrel for the mash and then a recipe; they got one from a distant relative.
“We had fun getting together while making it and talking about old times,” said Mester.
Davis’ book describes a tunnel between the Catholic church in Rockville and the rail yard, used to transport moonshine. This was not an isolated example.
“The clergy condoned it because people were poor and had to support their families,” said Mester.
But this kind of living took its toll after a while.
Davis states that “overall, many county people who cooked, bootlegged or sold moonshine referenced how stressful breaking the law was, the daily fear of raids and prison, and waking in the middle of the night, jumping out of bed from any little noise they thought was a raid. Some could not handle the tension, or their spouses could not, and dropped out. Others hung on until 1933 and then dismantled their equipment, glad the moonshining days were over.”
“When I take a look at that time period of our history, it’s simply a part of the fabric that makes us who we are,” Lauer said.
Benusa’s still will be on display at The Gathering at the American Legion in Royalton, Sunday, Aug. 5, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Many displays will feature Morrison County and Royalton area history.