Prohibition-era bootleggers made southeast Minnesota a booze smuggling hotspot

Prohibition-era runners brought thousands of gallons of booze into the area, and despite law enforcements raids and arrests, there was plenty of demand for 'the devil's water.'

Rochester bootlegger.jpg
Clippings from The Winona Republican-Herald
Post Bulletin Photo Illustration Traci Westcott

ROCHESTER — "Raid Opens Rochester Mayor's War on Rum" screams an April 1925 headline from The Winona Republican-Herald's evening edition.

The raid, over five years after the prohibition against alcohol went into effect, signaled Mayor John T. Lemmon's dedication to ending the flow of illegal libations into his city. Southeast Minnesota was a hotbed for bootleggers during the Prohibition era and newly elected Lemmon instigated the raid on a Rochester cafe where a small amount of alcohol was found. He planned on making it hard on the nefarious criminals bringing the devil's water into his city.

But like many stories of this era, the actual truth on the ground was much different.
Less than a year later, Lemmon would be wrapped up in accusations he had purchased alcohol from a Rochester man. Whether Lemmon himself faced any consequences for this is unknown, but in 1927 he ran for, and won, an alderman position and later lost a mayoral election in 1931.

Demand for booze reached further than government agents could handle, oftentimes because powerful people like Lemmon would also partake in a drink or 10 — despite public posturing declaring otherwise.

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Alcohol would often come into Southeast Minnesota through Wisconsin, either by Winona or La Crescent. In Rochester, it was sort of a family business.


Multiple members of the Burke and O'Keefe family in Rochester would be charged in federal court on liquor charges, including Vernon Burke, a 23-year-old booze runner who was arrested in September 1932 trying to cross the La Crosse, Wisconsin, bridge in Minnesota with alcohol.

Burke and his partner, Harry Dixon, would tell law enforcement that they had been making weekly runs into La Crosse and Rochester to deliver alcohol from an outfit in Milwaukee. About 1,000 gallons a week would go to La Crosse and 300 gallons a week would go to Rochester.

Burke denied to police that he was running booze to Winona but said, "There's plenty coming through there."

The pair had been arrested after they stole a car and apparently spilled the beans on their illicit business. The armed duo said they had been hijacked in Rochester earlier that week and couldn't afford to fix their car. After hitchhiking to Winona, they stole a car and headed towards La Crosse on their way to Milwaukee to pick up more booze for Rochester.

The car the pair was driving was owned by Burke’s mother and he was cousins with Clifford McGrand, known as Rochester's "bootlegger king."

McGrand was sentenced to 18 months in Leavenworth prison for driving through a blockade of federal agents with a truck full of alcohol in January 1932.

Law enforcement would arrest dozens of people in southeast Minnesota during the era, many serving sentences less than a year, though some would get away.

One youth, thought to be around 18 years old, took flight following a Rochester sting in March 1932.


The unknown teenager was traveling with Lawrence W. Good, then 24, who met with a federal agent at the Rochester circus lot to sell five gallons of booze.

Following Good’s arrest, the teenager fled across the snow-covered circus grounds. One federal agent fired six shots into the air in the hopes of scaring the man into surrendering but it only sent him running faster.
Law enforcement was unable to nab their suspect, despite the teenager falling down at least twice during his run from police.

Firing at running suspects was not a one-off experience in southeast Minnesota.

J. S. Kapazinski, a federal agent stationed in Winona, was suspended after he fired shots at a suspected bootlegger in Dover.

Robert Ford, the northwest prohibition administrator at the time, told the Associated Press that Kapazinski had not been dismissed for the incident and had been working with the department since the incident occurred.

Any final disciplinary actions would need to come from Washington, D.C., according to Ford.

“Nevertheless, he will be suspended – probably for a few days – for disobeying the rules of the department,” Ford told the AP.

Prohibition would end Dec. 5, 1933, finally allowing people to legally do what they had been illegally doing the entire time.


Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at
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