RANIER, Minn. – When America outlawed alcohol, folks up here along the Canadian border partied on.
The North Woods had always been a wide-open territory, with thousands of loggers ready to raise hell on their trips to town.
Booze, gambling and prostitution were facts of life. Even before Prohibition took effect, Koochiching County had earned a shady reputation. In 1917, Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist suspended the sheriff from office, along with the mayors of Ranier and International Falls, for failure to enforce drinking and gambling laws.
And after the nationwide liquor ban took effect on Jan. 17, 1920, one of the nation’s major bootlegging circuits was centered on Ranier. With an international railroad running through its center, Rainy Lake at its doorstep and deep woods all around, the town was ideally situated for smuggling hooch.
Liquid shipments rolled across the border, often disguised as fish or freight, headed for Minneapolis and Chicago.
“In those days, everybody was in on it,” said Edgar Oerichbauer, director of the Koochiching Museums. “They would bring it in boats. They would ski it across the lake — any way they could get it in. Anybody who needed to make a buck was running booze, and nobody looked down on you for it.”
Playing off Ranier’s colorful past, a group of entrepreneurs with local ties will open a distillery and boutique hotel this summer in this town of 570 residents some 3 miles east of International Falls.
The Cantilever takes its name from the landmark cantilever bridge that provides the rail link between the United States and Canada across the Rainy River. The project, under construction and tentatively set to open in late July, is the latest example of the region’s shift away from timber and toward tourism.
The Packaging Corporation of America paper mill in International Falls, which once employed about 1,200 workers, now employs half that number, and local officials have been focused on diversifying the economy.
“It’s all going to be about attracting millennials and young people,” said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching County Economic Development Authority. “Try to get those people back who know this area and who want all the rural lifestyle represents — you can have a comfortable living and raise your family.”
The Cantilever idea “started during the time the mill was making layoffs,” said Pat Bracken, a retired Cargill executive and one of the investors. “We wanted to do something for the community.
“We’re basically a one-economy town with the mill,” he said. “But we have this wonderful lake and Voyageurs National Park. We wanted to do something to attract people to the area.
“We started with a distillery, decided people needed somewhere to stay, so we added the boutique hotel.”
Workers at the Cantilever site have been busy throughout the winter months pouring the foundation and erecting the building’s girdered skeleton. The distillery will offer a variety of its own signature spirits made from Minnesota ingredients, and the hotel promises a luxury experience.
Perhaps that will attract some of the well-to-do folks who pass through the International Falls area but don’t stick around. Falls International Airport is often used by celebrities returning from Europe as a stop where they can refuel, clear customs and proceed to their U.S. destination without having to dodge paparazzi.
Local lore has it that Hollywood couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie split up a few years ago shortly after an argument at the Falls airport.
In the old days, the area attracted a different kind of celebrity: gangsters who came to hunt and fish with their bootlegging pals. Chicago mobster George “Bugs” Moran, chief rival of Al Capone, was a regular visitor back in the day, Oerichbauer said. The town was also the site of the Great Whiskey Raid of 1932, when officials intercepted a freight car full of Canadian whiskey and smashed the barrels on Main Street.
The Cantilever is simply hoping to snag some of the many regular visitors to the area each year, said Danielle Schermerhorn, the project’s controller.
“We’re not catering to a market that doesn’t exist,” she said. “Voyageurs National Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, and Rainy Lake is not your ordinary Minnesota lake.”