Documentary whets interest in Prohibition
FARGO -- The Rev. Frank Lincoln Watkins acquired an unusual nickname for a preacher: "Shoot to Kill Watkins." He got that moniker from the bootleggers he pursued through North Dakota with dogged determination -- and a rifle or machine gun -- duri...
FARGO -- The Rev. Frank Lincoln Watkins acquired an unusual nickname for a preacher: "Shoot to Kill Watkins."
He got that moniker from the bootleggers he pursued through North Dakota with dogged determination -- and a rifle or machine gun -- during Prohibition, when alcohol was outlawed in the United States.
Watkins combined religious zeal with a sharpshooter's eye as he helped lawmen enforce the liquor ban around places like Minot, a hotbed of liquor smuggling, as head of the North Dakota Law Enforcement League.
"He was a gun toter," said Jim Davis, head of reference for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. "He was a little bit too carried away."
Members of the law enforcement league worked to turn up evidence to shut down moonshiners and illicit saloons, nicknamed "blind pigs."
Federal prohibition agents considered Watkins, whose nickname might have come from a shootout with a rum runner killed near Valley City, overenthusiastic.
Interest in Prohibition has been whetted by the recent airing of a PBS documentary on the era, which began in 1920 when the 18th Amendment took effect and ended in 1933 when the repealing 21st Amendment was ratified.
Federal officials doled out seven Thompson submachine guns in North Dakota to help local law enforcement officers, who often found themselves outgunned by criminal smugglers or distillers.
The machine guns were distributed along smuggling routes from Canada, where alcohol was legal, to the thirsty Twin Cities black market.
Along that route, Minot emerged as a major whiskey smuggling center because of its remoteness, rugged terrain and proximity to Canada.
In fact, shootouts associated with illegal alcohol became common enough in Minot that the Magic City earned a less flattering nickname, "Little Chicago."
Actually, the ban on drinking alcohol was nothing new for North Dakota, which entered statehood as a "dry" state in 1889.
Despite almost 43 years of enforced sobriety, many North Dakota residents chafed at the prohibition of beer, wine and distilled spirits. That resistance could prove frustrating to police and prosecutors.
"There was a very sympathetic North Dakota population in favor of the moonshiners," Davis said. "North Dakota was not an easy place to get a conviction."
For some, he added, "Moonshiners were heroes."
Attitudes about the tolerance for liquor often had a religious or ethnic influence. Drinking beer was part of the culture for Germans and Czechs, but Scandinavians were a more abstemious bunch.
Minnesota allowed alcohol consumption until national Prohibition - a status that allowed taverns in border cities like Moorhead to flourish during North Dakota's forced sobriety.
"Jag wagons" carried patrons from Fargo across the Red River to Moorhead, which had the reputation of a "sin city" because it allowed saloons and illicit vices such as gambling and prostitution, often associated with imbibing.
During Prohibition, crime in Moorhead and Clay County spiked, as it did in many areas when drinking or selling alcohol became a crime.
"There isn't a week that goes by that you don't see somebody busted for a confiscated still or something like that," said Mark Piehl of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. "It was quite common."
Minnesota had its puritanical pockets, however. Some communities banned alcohol even before Prohibition.
In Otter Tail County, for instance, Scandinavian Fergus Falls and Pelican Rapids were dry, while Perham, which had a heavier German influence and a beer brewery, was wet before Prohibition.
Otter Tail County's Prohibition era sheriff, Jack Billings, earned the reputation of a law-and-order enforcer by cracking down on alcohol.
"They would bust up stills," said Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society. "It probably wasn't as wild as places like Minot, but there was definitely bootlegging going on."
One high-profile bust came when a speakeasy in the basement of the Kaddatz Hotel in downtown Fergus Falls was raided in the 1930s.
As in North Dakota, disagreements over prohibition in Minnesota communities sometimes caused friction between wet and dry factions.
After Prohibition, Fergus Falls elected once again to ban alcohol, a decision voters reversed in 1946 when they approved a municipal liquor store.
Even in the 1960s, Schuelke said, some people in the town didn't want to be seen drinking or buying alcohol. One couple he knows made their own wine to conceal their appreciation for fermented grapes.
In North Dakota, Davis is unaware of lingering effects from Prohibition. But he sees a contemporary analog to the ban on alcohol in the increasing popularity of smoking bans.
Instead of moral crusaders like the Women's Christian Temperance Union's battle against the bottle, the anti-tobacco push comes from public health advocates.
Mandan boasts the largest still ever seized in North Dakota, a 14-foot long, steam-operated apparatus taken out of service in 1928. Five years later, with the repeal of Prohibition, residents of Mandan could sip their first legal beer.
That was a day that the Rev. Watkins lived to see, and he must have found it a bitter change to swallow. He died seven years later, in 1940, in Mandan, where he had settled, having retired his gun and returned to the pulpit.
Patrick Springer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.