Prohibition in Duluth (1916–1933)

Sal DeSanto (right) and an unknown man photographed inside Sal’s confectionery on South Lake Avenue. He was arrested at least once for running a blind pig and again —along with a nineteen-year-old girl—for running an “immoral house.” (Image: John DeSanto)

Too Much Light Makes the Pig Go Blind

By Christmastime of 1919, burglaries on the East End were reportedly at epidemic levels, with thieves not only making off with expensive oriental carpets but also the liquor hoards everyone knew was there. One unnamed man, a “prominent attorney, a top-notcher” left his home unattended for Thanksgiving dinner. According to the Duluth News Tribune, “Mr. W.” thought his basement, with only a coal chute access, was as secure as a bank vault, only to find that when he returned “25 cases of priceless liquor had been taken…the value [equivalent] to a year’s salary of the chief of police.” Another wealthy citizen’s washerwoman made off with his secret stash, and was fired. Her boss decided she would have to “be washing for him until the year 2000…to make good the loss.”

Other wealthy men hired bootleggers to distill liquor for them, but sometimes found themselves the indignant victims of fraudsters, with no recourse to the law. At Duluth’s Kitchi Gammi Club, small personal lockers were installed behind the bar itself. Here members could store their personal stash of liquor and have a drink at the club without the club technically being in possession of illegal hooch. Current members have often told the tale of another Prohibition-era secret: when construction began on the I-35 expansion through Duluth in the 1980s, some say workers uncovered a tunnel that ran from the lake shore to the basement of the Kitchi Gammi Club and worked as a conduit for bootlegging booze.

Prohibition also created a scandal that led to the resignation of its chief of police, John Murphy. Murphy, his chauffeur Earl Eckhard, former deputy U.S. marshal Frank Bradley, and eight others were indicted in a whiskey smuggling conspiracy. Charged with transporting whiskey from Canada to the U.S. by way of the Pigeon River, the defendants argued that they only transported home-made beer, not whiskey. The entire group was found not guilty.

Meanwhile, businesses that once relied on alcohol sales scrambled to survive. Like many breweries around the country, Fitger’s stayed alive by manufacturing other products such as candy bars and soda pop. The bottling house also cranked out cases of a non-alcoholic mixer called “Pickwick,” which became so popular at Joseph Wisocki’s Brewery Saloon he changed the business’s name to the Pickwick.

By then John Beerhalter was Fitger’s brewmaster. His biggest Prohibition success was Silver Spray, a non-alcoholic drink “with the taste and sparkle of champagne” that was advertised as “the best mixer in the crowd.” Indeed, Silver Spray mixed so well with bootleg liquor and homemade hooch it was soon selling in 31 states across the nation. The brewery even opened the “Silver Spray Boxing Gym” inside its complex. Despite these efforts, the brewery lost money every year in the 1920s.

In the West End, Duluth Brewing & Malting Co changed its name to the Sobriety Company and sold soft drinks. It wasn’t enough, and after the stock market crashed in 1929, the business was shuttered until Prohibition was repealed. People’s Brewery in West Duluth also turned to soft drinks and was the region’s producer of 7-Up.

Saloons converted to soft drink parlors, and the concept of the soda fountain was invented. Soda fountains were notorious right from the start for something called the “Pitcher Pig.” Back in a dark corner could be found a person tending an unbreakable granite or metal pitcher of booze, and an initiated customer could pay to spike his drink. If the police came through, the pitcher was tipped onto its side, and the necessary evidence was spilled. Reportedly, even before national Prohibition took effect, Duluth police chief Bob McKercher had a row of seven of these pitchers sitting behind his desk as trophies.

Some loopholes existed in the Volstead Act. For one, private clubs could keep any alcohol they’d bought before the law took effect, which meant that wealthy people with a year to plan had plenty of time to compile stockpiles, which they did. Also, “medicinal” alcohol was still allowed, which meant that doctors and druggists frequently met their top quotas for prescriptions and fake scrips were rampant.

Sacramental wine, too, was allowed, resulting in a laughable uptick in new storefront churches. Until 1931, heads of households were permitted to make 200 gallons of wine or cider for household consumption. As you might imagine, grape concentrates and the apple harvest were very popular. By 1922, The Duluth News Tribune reported that carloads of grapes were being sold in Duluth and the Range.

The workingman who could not stockpile was at a distinct disadvantage, and Rip-Saw publisher John Morrison filled pages with rants about the hypocrisy that soon became apparent. If you were rich and a member of the Kitch, you had your own bottle in a locked cabinet in the pub tucked away in the club’s basement. If you were poor, your chances of getting busted were very high. Liquor possession could net you 60 days in the work house. Even so, arrests went up so sharply that in the winter of 1919, it was considered newsworthy that no bootleggers had been busted on the Range for two solid weeks, because snow on the roads had brought transport to a halt.

Morrison went into overdrive, reporting anyone or place he suspected of being a blind pig, down to detailing suspicious comings and goings for months—even publishing license plate and apartment numbers. He was quick to take credit when someone was busted, and increasingly nasty when they were not. He repeatedly accused the police chief of discrimination against African-American blind pig operators while protecting his favorite “redlight ladies.”

By 1920, the newspapers reported that the “most experienced bootleggers” had entered the employ of Duluth and Twin Cities businessmen, and used whatever clever method imaginable to transport their goods across the border from Canada. Toboggans were slid across frozen rivers with ropes on either side. Every possible container was improvised, and hidey-holes dug out in fast cars called “whisky sixes,” which raced at top speed through the night, its passengers armed with shotguns. Unlit boats ran up and down the North Shore, some delivering in dark cellars built under fish-houses, others landing at warehouses right on the bay. Stills popped up in all manner of wooded lots in rural Duluth and further out.

In December 1920, the “biggest still yet uncovered” was found in an “imposing residence” at 4331 London Road in Lakeside, which held 300 gallons of mash and 27 gallons of moonshine. Homeowner Harry Papove, who was held without bail along with his wife, declared it was all for personal use. Newspapers frequently reported the busts of “housewives” who operated blind pigs in the kitchens of neighborhoods from Woodland to Gary. One former member of the Duluth police force, William H. Pike, was taken into custody in his home right downtown, with 13 gallons of moonshine in his possession. The custodian of the Armory was arrested when agents raided his rooms there and found a small quantity of moonshine, molasses and hops. Even he was charged with operating a blind pig and faced federal charges.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.