Frontier Moonshiners

Illegal Entrepreneurs on the Frontier

By Steve Lent, Crook County Historian

The Prohibition Era in the United States became official in 1920 with the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment prohibited the selling, manufacturing or transporting (including importing and exporting) of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition resulted in creative entrepreneurs illegally manufacturing alcohol for eager and thirsty clientele. The backwoods areas of Central Oregon soon became prime locations for development of moonshine stills.

Moonshine is a slang term for home-distilled alcohol that is illegally manufactured. The term is derived from the fact that moonshine producers and smugglers would often work at night to avoid arrest for producing illegal liquor. The liquor produced was also often called white lightning.

Almost as soon as the Eighteenth Amendment was enacted the production of illegal alcohol began throughout the country. In Central Oregon moonshine stills were usually located near abundant springs in backwoods areas hidden away from law enforcement officials. There was a large market for the illicit product and it enticed many locals struggling to survive the economic climate of the time to enter the moonshine production market.

The ingredients for making local whiskey were kernels of rye and cane sugar. The rye would be obtained from local ranchers or farmers. The moonshiner would put about forty pounds of good clean rye in a fifty gallon wooden barrel. Then they would put forty pounds of cane sugar in a wooden tub with twenty gallons of warm water. This was stirred until the sugar was dissolved into syrup. The syrup was poured into the barrel containing the rye and filled with warm water to near the top. The mixture was stirred and a cake of yeast was added. After a few days it started to bubble and continued to do so for about a week. It would then become quiet and clear. At this stage it was ready to put into a still and be processed. A hundred pounds of sugar would average ten to eleven gallons of one hundred and five proof whiskey. Once distilled it was bottled in fruit jars or other containers and rushed off to distributors.

Local law enforcement officers frequently made raids on suspected moonshine operations. Many arrests were made and several large still operations were discovered. Usually the stills were destroyed and the manufacturers were arrested and sent to jail. It remained a lucrative way to supplement income in hard times and stills continued to operate until Prohibition was repealed in 1933. During Prohibition most isolated canyons that had a free flowing spring were the site of moonshine stills.

The legalization of manufacture and sales of alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition resulted in the rapid decline of a business of opportunity in Central Oregon. The relatively short period of Prohibition (thirteen years) had created legendary tales of moonshine activity. Even today an isolated canyon is occasionally found that contains relics of a once thriving illegal operation