Sauk County had its moonshiners

This undated photo of a still was displayed in the law library at the Sauk County Courthouse. It may ultimately have been donated to the World War II scrap metal drive, as attempts to locate it have failed.

The National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was passed by Congress in 1919, to carry out the intent of the 18th amendment, thereby establishing the prohibition of the sale of liquor in the United States. It forbade the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors. But that did not stop enterprising bootleggers from making the stuff anyway, nor did it prevent taverns from selling it undercover.

Victor Rehr shared his recollection of those days, in a 1995 interview, “This is the area [Sauk County] most rich in the history of prohibition of anywhere around because it was one of the biggest suppliers of Chicago. There were two large operations, which I was told by my dad who has been gone since 1935, of Al Capone’s operation, which had a two-thousand-gallon [liquor] capacity per day. They rated a still by how much they could evaporate in 24 hours.”

Rehr recalled that one of the operations was located on a farm south of the Reedsburg golf course on Highway 33. Since the moonshiners needed to have a front to prevent detection these men told people they were running a dog farm and raising police dogs. He said that one night about 50 of the dogs got out and raided his father’s pig farm, killing all the hogs. He reported the incident to the sheriff and told him who he suspected. The sheriff told him “You can’t go over there or there’s going to be shooting. So, you have to figure out just how much they were worth. Tell them what you told me, that it had to be their dogs.” The sheriff told him where to drive in and not to try to pull anything on them and that he thought he’d get his money.

Victor continued. “So, my dad drove down in there with his old open touring car and he got down in there back across the 40 where the road turned to the south, and there sat a man with a heavy old mackinaw coat and a deer rifle across his lap. He was sitting on a nail keg. [The man] stopped him, and wanted to know what he wanted. My dad explained it to him. [The man asked] ‘Well are you sure it was our dogs?’ It was quite obvious they were. ‘Well how much were the pigs worth?’

The man said very little, but he got out a big roll of currency from his shirt pocket. He wet his thumb and counted it off just what they were worth. Then he stopped, ‘is that right?’ he asked. I think my dad said that he gave him three extra 20 dollar bills. Then he took his rifle and motioned he should turn around and get the heck out of there.”

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Rehr said that the liquor was shipped to Chicago in 10-gallon milk cans. There was a false bottom in the cans which held nine gallons of hooch and a gallon of milk on top.

The operation was terminated a year later when they were raided.

Moonshiners had some cute tricks too, said Rehr. “One guy worked the Sauk County Fair and that was about the only time he made a haul. He’d hang around the barns and he had a bottle of the stuff. He would get somebody off by himself, people like that could smell each other out, I guess, anyway they’d say, ‘I’d like a drink of cold tea.’ He’d give them a sample drink of his booze. ‘Can I get some of it from you?’ ‘Yeah, you come back and leave your dollar under a brick in the straw, and there’ll be quart of it there. But don’t dig in there if there’s anybody around. Also, don’t drink it until you get home.’ This guy sold a lot of it. Imagine the surprise of the buyer, when, on the way home he’d hoist the bottle for a swig, and what he tasted was really cold tea!”

Prohibition finally ended, after 13 years, when Congress repealed the Volstead Act in December, 1933.

Bill Schuette has served on the board of directors at the Sauk County Historical Society since 1993. He lives in rural Loganville.

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