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Finding Minnesota: The Pottery Museum of Red Wing

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Exactly 100 years ago Prohibition was ratified in the United States.

Minnesota's own congressman Andrew Volstead helped create the Volstead Act which defined what an alcoholic beverage was and the penalties for being caught with one.

The entire era had a strange impact on one town in particular.

Before prohibition, stoneware businesses in Red Wing were making liquor jugs by the thousands.

In this week's Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen shows us the role the city's pottery played in the liquor business and later the bootlegging business.

There was a time when teetotalers and bootleggers butted heads, and places like speakeasies and "juice joints" were desired destinations for people who desired adult libations.

"If you walked in and said I want a jug of such and such, my favorite, they'd go to the backroom and fill it," said Steve Ketcham.

At the Pottery Museum of Red Wing, Ketcham is part of an exhibit that's on the eve of prohibition. He's a bartender at the Red Wing Saloon and everything around him is authentic: from the cash register to the bottles, and of course, the jugs that were once filled with bourbon, moonshine and whiskey.

"These jugs, of course, are stamped with a liquor dealers name. In this case the Sandell Brothers," said Ketcham.

At one time there were three stoneware businesses in Red Wing making jugs of all shapes and sizes. A liquor company could order up to a thousand jugs a month. The pottery was lucrative but when Prohibition hit business, quite literally, dried up.

"It happened after World War I, Germans were suspect. The brewers Pabst, Schlitz, Schmidt and Anheuser Bush, they're all Germans and it was seen as disloyal to be drinking German beer," said Char Henn, museum director.

While anti-alcohol advocates called it a win, bootleggers took their jugs and ran for the woods. They were defiant and creative.

"People would go and they would buy denatured alcohol and mix something at home out of that," said Henn, "You would put in your mash, cook it and put it in your jugs."

"Did this stuff taste good?" asked John Lauritsen.  "I don't think it mattered to some people," Henn answered.

The feds went after the bootleggers, but local law enforcement often looked the other way -- afraid to arrest their friends and neighbors.

"Some of the most successful moonshining was done in Stearns County where they produced a product called Minnesota 13," said Ketcham. "The distillers out in the woods loved these jugs."

When Prohibition ended in 1933 the jugs became harder to find.

Today, some of the rarest ones are worth up to $50,000 or more.

It's cheers to an era that was, and "bottoms up" to pottery filled to the brim with history.

"That's one of the things Roosevelt campaigned on, happy days are here again and we're going to be drinking. We are going to enjoy ourselves," said Henn

For more information on how to visit the Pottery Museum of Red Wing click here.

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