Prohibition started early in the cities and towns of East Otter Tail County because they were located near what was then called the Indian Territories.
It was decided by the forces in Washington, D.C., that any area within a certain number of miles of the territories (supposedly the distance a real alcoholic would go to get a drink) would be declared dry. In the early part of the century, agents visited one town after another until the whole county went ‘dry.’ A perusal of newspapers from the early days can trace the progress of the agents as saloons in one town after another were shut down.
There was a saloon in Luce, just up the road from Perham, called “The First and Last Chance Saloon.” It received its name from the people coming from the west, as it was their first chance to buy liquor since Frazee was part of an Indian reservation. For those that came from the east, it was their last chance to buy liquor, as they would soon enter the reservation. By the time prohibition took place throughout the nation, one local journalist wrote that it was about time, as by then they were “plumb lonely for company.”
The popular notion of prohibition as depicted by the entertainment industry is of a rollicking era filled with notorious gangsters. That may have been true in Chicago but in rural Minnesota, prohibition had a quieter side. First of all, prohibition was a law that was almost universally disliked and the good German and Scandinavian farmers weren’t about to change their way of life because of what they thought was a stupid law.
There was protection from above; a complex network of informants kept sellers of the forbidden product aware of the progress of the revenue agents as they moved through the territory. Perfectly ordinary people of the area simply ignored it.
There was one resort, just north of Perham, that was known to be a popular ‘watering place.’ It’s said that on Sunday mornings, a local judge was the first person in the place.
Prohibition had its darker side, as well, as told in this story of “Prohibition Days” from “East Otter Tail County History I, 1977”:
“In the prohibition days, Martin Huneby of Section 2 of Butler Township had a ‘Moonshine Still’ and used to carry some of the moonshine with him in his Model A Ford.
“One Sunday morning, about 2 a.m. July 30, 1933, Martin Huneby and Ole Salmela had a collision with their cars.
“Men by the name of Waino Kangas, Eno Kangas and Weirela were coming home from a dance in Wolf Lake in their Model A coupe with a rumble seat where two of the men rode. They came to the collision and stopped to see if they could be of assistance, but Huneby and Salmela were arguing as to who was to blame for the accident.
“The four men then drove off and Huneby said ‘those guys might be looking for my whiskey.’ He got his gun out of his car and fired twice, killing the two Kangas men. The driver, fearing for their lives, drove to Hillview and there called the authorities.
“One Waino Kangas was the son of Matt Kangas of Paddock Township and the other the son of Henry Kangas of Red Eye Township, Wadena.
“Huneby was hunted by the law, but was not found. Then, rather than give himself over to the law, Huneby committed suicide with a 44 revolver a few months later. His body was found in Sect. 2 of Butler Township by Albert DeClerk on Sept. 10, 1933, who was looking for a freshened cow.
“During the time that Huneby hid in the woods he was given food by someone, as there were newspapers found with food scraps on them. The name had been torn off the paper so as not to identify who brought him food.”
From information in the Perham Bulletin, and the “East Otter Tail County History Volume I, 1977.”
Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.