Got a call today from a journalist friend who’s working on a story about locally produced distilled liquor. Seems the latest trend, following the microbrewery trend of a short time ago, is developing microdistilleries.
As far as I know, we never had a legal distillery in Kendall County, although breweries did indeed do business here in the 19th Century. One was developed near Oswego’s downtown back in the mid-19th Century. On June 7, 1870, Lorenzo Rank, writing in the Kendall County Record noted that:
The old brewery where was made the first beer in Oswego, but which has been used lately by Charles Danforth as a stable, the owner of it has pulled it down.
Warner & Steiner built a new brewery in Oswego along what is now Ill. Route 25 in 1870 and it did business for a few years, eventually closing. It was later turned into the Fox River Butter Factory.
So brewing we had; distilling not so much. Legally, that is. It took the institution of Prohibition to open the distilling floodgates, and when they opened the amount of alcohol that gushed out of little Kendall County was quite amazing. One of the first of the big operations to be caught was operated by John Schickler at his farm along Ill. Route 31 just north of the Oswego Bridge. Here’s how the Kendall County Record reported the story in March 1923:
The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whiskey. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product.
Schickler may have been the first, but he was hardly the last caught bootlegging. The last big raid on a still was made in 1936, years after Prohibition had ended. By then, bootleggers were trying to evade alcohol taxes, although they may have been making the stuff out of habit after all the years of Prohibition. It’s hard to say. But the Record reported in late April 1936:
Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…
According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the “Feds” on Thursday, April 9.
The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed “the finest plant of its type in this territory.” The plan was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.
The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this.
Ah, those were the days. Although we see a lot about bootlegging and moonshining on TV and in the movies, we usually don’t stop to think that a remarkable amount of that fun went on right in our own backyards. The prevalence of illicit alcohol-production facilities throughout small-town America illustrated the foolishness of Prohibition. Astonishingly, our grandparents had the sense to repeal it and collect the tax revenues legal alcohol produced. Now if only we had the sense to repeal our similarly destructive “War on Drugs,” we might be able to cut crime and gain a bunch of tax money all at the same time. After all, it’s been done before