Anoka County went dry in 1916, four years before national Prohibition, but illicit north metro bootlegging operations lubricated Minneapolis and St. Paul speak-easies. It was rural enough to hide large moonshine operations but close to a large, thirsty clientele.
Sheriff’s deputies raided the Peterson farm on Columbus Township in September 1927 and discovered 11 large vats full of booze in two barns.
“We might have been dry before the rest of the country but we have the claim to fame of the largest still ever busted in the state of Minnesota,” said historian Vickie Wendel.
Wendel has poured details about the sheriff’s efforts to combat bootleggers, rumrunners and “blind pig” establishments where booze flowed in a new book: “Keepers of the County: Crime and the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office.” The 368-page coffee table-style publication details the history of the county’s “top cop,” from the first sheriff — James Frost, appointed in 1857 — through the 16th — Bruce Andersohn, who retired in 2011. The current sheriff, James Stuart, wrote the epilogue.
Stuart, three retired sheriffs and Wendel will all be at a book signing and discussion starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Anoka County History Center, 2135 3rd Av. N. Books will be available; they retail for $33.16, including tax, but a discount will be offered at the event.
The nonprofit Anoka County Historical Society spent $10,000 to publish 1,500 copies. The society also used a $24,000 state grant from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to help pay for the project.
Retired sheriff Andersohn contracted Wendel to write the history around 2008, when Anoka County celebrated its 150th anniversary. Wendel spent two years sifting through old newspaper articles and County Board minutes to piece together the sheriff’s office history. She also interviewed former sheriffs and employees.
“I used anything I could find to fill out the story,” Wendel said.
The research project evolved into a book.
The strong temperance movement in Anoka County, coupled with the booming bootleg industry, played heavily into the sheriff’s department history, she said.
“The whole story of Prohibition in Anoka history and in Minnesota history caught me off guard. Every newspaper you picked up would have reports of people caught drinking,” Wendel said. Sheriff’s deputies “did what they could. There was no extra money allotted to actually fight the crime that came along with illegal booze.”
The comprehensive history describes the cat-and-mouse chases between sheriff’s deputies and bootleggers and rumrunners. It details the bloodshed in the county’s most grizzly and sensational crimes, but it also highlights the day-to-day calls that deputies handled, including the theft of cattle, dogfighting rings and neighbor disputes.
In more recent history, the book describes innovation and efficiencies in the Sheriff’s Office that are still in place today. The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office investigates all death and sex crimes in the county and helps with other major investigations as needed.
“Individual police departments didn’t have to deal with all that expense. They worked together,” Wendel said of the sheriff’s major crimes unit.
Other highlights from the book:
• Sheriff Thomas Henderson investigated the county’s first recorded homicide in January 1860. After several shots of whiskey, two hunters accused a tavern owner of stealing a mink pelt. The assailants stomped the victim, then used a butcher knife, jack knife, wood ax and a rifle to finish the job.
• A notorious cow thief escaped Stillwater prison in 1871 and hid out in Anoka County. The sheriff organized a search party in the dark of night to find the daring criminal and bring him to justice.
• Anoka marshal and former sheriff’s deputy P.E. Russell arrested 25 women active in the temperance movement for gathering for devotion and prayers in front of an Anoka saloon in 1874. Jurors deliberating the case demanded to see where the women were arrested. Eight of the 12 jurors stopped into the saloon for a drink before returning to the courtroom. The case ended in a hung jury, and a judge found just one of the women guilty, who had been identified by a witness.
• During World War I, Sheriff U.S. Red Pratt organized the “Safe Guard of Anoka County” to stamp out meetings of “seditious or disloyal elements” and the armed civilian “automobile posse” to chase down the criminal element entering the county from Minneapolis. More than 100 automobile owners joined the posse.