July 20, 2021 — Five prohibition agents raided the ‘largest still west of Chicago’ on this date in 1932. It was on a farm five miles north of Jamestown. Special agents had suspected a still in the Jamestown vicinity since the first of July, when a truckload of corn sugar, the main ingredient of homemade moonshine, was tracked from Valley City to near Jamestown, where they lost the trail. Soon after, agents followed a truckload of piping from Fargo but lost the trail – again near Jamestown.

Agents scoured the area for weeks and began to suspect an unlikely farm nestled in the wooded hills between highways #20 and #281. It was in a picturesque location, and a showpiece of Stutsman County, but the location between the two heavily traveled highways was also ideal for bootlegging.

Deputy Prohibition Administrator, John Hogan, led four federal agents from the Dept. of Justice onto this farmyard at 3 a.m. on July 20th. There, they discovered a gigantic moonshine operation housed in two former hog sheds. These sheds were set back from the rest of the farm, well hidden among some trees. The twelve-foot high boilers were steaming hot when they arrived, but there was no one in sight, leading agents to believe the criminals were tipped off.

Agents found evidence that indicated six to eight men were involved in the operation, and that they lived together in the farmhouse. In one of the bedrooms they discovered a buzzer – an advance-warning system linked to the moonshine shed.

The operation turned out to be larger than anyone suspected. Capable of producing a thousand gallons of liquor a day, it was quickly coined the ‘largest still west of Chicago.’ At the entrance were two, large, copper, fractioning columns, one 18' high, and the other 21' high. The still itself could hold 3,000 gallons – and it was nearly full when discovered. Ten 6,000-gallon redwood vats were also discovered, and in a nearby cattle shed were another two vats, each able to hold 20,000 gallons.

The vats held the mash – a mixture of water, sugar, and yeast – until ready to be distilled into alcohol. The mash capacity was 100,000 gallons – which would require a lot of water – and nearby was discovered a well capable of pumping 500 gallons per minute. “An elaborate system of piping and pumping” was being used. The operation was propelled by steam, and the only manpower needed was to pour the sugar into the open vats. The boilers were fueled with coke, with the smoke going into a copula so others couldn’t see it. Altogether, the equipment was valued at between $15-25,000 – an enormous amount in 1932.

Agents estimated the still had been operating a mere eight days, but it had been efficient! In the rafters of the hog sheds, they found 2,500 gallons of moonshine that was finished and ready to go.

Oscar Seiler owned the farm, but he’d been living in Long Beach, CA, for at least four years. Upon learning of the raid, Seiler immediately came back to check on his property. He was furious and embarrassed, especially since he was a teetotaler (meaning he didn’t drink). Seiler had rented the farm to Frank Bronk, who, along with another man, was arrested and then later released.

While an investigation took place, nine men were ordered to demolish the still, a process viewed by hundreds of curious onlookers. Three large cesspools were dug and then filled with thousands and thousands of gallons the liqour and mash.

The site of the ‘largest still west of Chicago’ can no longer be seen; it’s now covered by the Jamestown Reservoir.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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