2009 Essays: 1st Place (Junior High) — Dubois County Mountain Dew by Madeleine Pelzel

“Al Capone always said that Dubois County Dew was his best! And he took a lot out of Dubois County. A lot got shipped to Chicago.” (Kluemper)

Dubois County moonshine, also known as Dubois County Mountain Dew or Dubois County Dew, became very famous as high quality homemade whiskey during Prohibition. Interviews with Irv and Mary Verkamp, Roger Quante, and Kathy Tretter, all of Ferdinand, and Dave Kluemper, of Jasper, unearthed some very interesting stories about Dubois County Dew from the Prohibition era. Mr. Kluemper also explained the information contained in the “Stills of Dubois County” exhibit at the Dubois County Museum. Other stories about making and bootlegging moonshine in Dubois County are found in an Evansville Courier Press article written by Greg Eckerle of Jasper who interviewed many Dubois county residents. Our local moonshine was a pivotal part of the Dubois County economy during the Depression, even though it was illegal during Prohibition. Prohibition was a period in time when the selling or transporting of liquor was forbidden. Prohibition lasted from when the 18th amendment was signed on January 6, 1919, to February 21, 1933 when the 21st amendment once again made liquor legal (“Prohibition”). Temperance movements, which were organized to convince people to abstain--partially or completely--from alcoholic beverages, helped bring Prohibition into effect. There were temperance movements all across America, Great Britain, and Northern Europe. One American temperence movement, founded in 1874, was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU). The WCTU, along with the Anti-Saloon League, influenced many liquor laws to be passed and eventually achieved federal prohibition (“Temperance Movements”).

During the Depression, there was severe financial distress in Dubois County as well as throughout the rest of the country. Many people had no way to support their families and were in great danger of losing their houses and land and were even going hungry. There was a long tradition of making good quality homemade whiskey, or moonshine, in Dubois County. When store bought whiskey became illegal due to Prohibition, the underground making of moonshine became a profitable way (although illegal) for people of our county to make a living and save their farms, families, and businesses. The money gained through trading in “Dubois County Dew” pretty well kept the local economy afloat during the bad economic times of the Depression (Eckerle, Tretter, Verkamp, and Kluemper). “Bootlegging” refers to the illegal distribution or production of liquor. During Prohibition, the number of these operations increased and became much more organized and efficient. Gangsters Al Capone (Chicago) and Legs Diamond (New York City) were involved with bootlegging (“Bootlegging”). Al Capone, born in 1899, was involved with organized crime and murder during his upbringing in New York City. In 1920 he moved to Chicago and became a lieutenant to John Torrio, a gang leader. Capone took control of the gang from Torrio, after eliminating his fellow gang members who could be seen as opponents (“Al Capone”). Al got some of his moonshine from Dubois County because he knew it would be good quality whiskey (Kluemper, Tretter, Quante, and Eckert).

Ferdinand native Irv Verkamp (93) was around people making moonshine during Prohibition, but he never made any himself. Irv worked for a farmer whose neighbor made whiskey to save their farm. That neighbor’s husband died when the oldest child was a boy in eighth grade. The mother didn’t know how they were going to be able to keep the farm, so that boy had the idea that they would make whiskey to survive financially. He found out the local recipe and where to get the equipment from his cousin, and they started making whiskey. Irv could tell when they were cooking a batch, because of the smoke coming from their chimney while they were cooking the woodchips they used for flavoring and color. They didn’t have electricity like many of the Ferdinand farmers at that time. Irv used to play cards at that house and would see the woman cooking and stirring the woodchips around in the oven while they played (Verkamp).

Irv described some of how the local whiskey was made. Corn, rye, sugar, and water were put in a metal still (with yeast). It would be distilled into a wood barrel. They had to stir it every night while the mash was cooking. Copper pipes would go from the still to the barrel. It was almost pure alcohol when it went through the pipes. They cut some wood chips out of the oak trees, put them in the oven until they were brown, and then put them in the wood barrels with the alcohol and let it cook in the mash to add flavor and color while they would let it ferment. They put horse manure around the still and the barrel to keep it warm. They packaged it in gallon jugs (Verkamp).

Irv’s neighbor, Mr. Matlin (sp?), who was a tinner, made stills for the farmers, but Irv didn’t know about it until Mr. Matlin’s son, Eugene, came to visit Irv one day. He asked if Irv knew what went on when he was asleep. He told Irv that when he was asleep the night before, around midnight, they packed up stills they had made into pickup trucks and transported the stills to local farmers. The Matlin’s place was where the current Old National Bank is. People would hide the stills in the woods pretty far out, and transfer the moonshine into jugs. The jugs filled with whiskey would be hidden around the farm until they could sell it (Verkamp).

Ferdinand moonshine was famous for being of high quality. When Irv was in the Army, he was getting into trouble once for not paying attention to a Colonel who happened to be from Evansville. He asked Irv where he was from, and Irv replied, “Ferdinand, Indiana.” The Colonel replied, “Oh Ferdinand? That’s where they make that good old-time homemade whiskey.” From that time on, some of the guys nicknamed Irv, “Bootlegger” (Verkamp).

Irv remembers hearing about how a Verkamp in Schnellville hid jugs of whiskey in a false floor under their bed. The family got away with it when the revenuers came to look for illegal alcohol because the mother happened to be giving birth to one of their children (at home on that bed) when the revenuers came. Given the circumstance, they didn’t look under that bed. People hid jugs of whiskey in the bottom of a chicken coop under the floor where the chickens laid their eggs. Irv’s brother- in-law got put in jail for making whiskey during Prohibition (Verkamp). In Ferdinand, many businesses secretly sold whiskey for the farmers. It was well-known that Heidet’s would take moonshine as payments on farm equipment and other tools and for repairs. Then Heidet would sell the whiskey to people who would come from all over to buy it, especially Louisville and Evansville. It usually sold for about $2 per gallon. Irv recalls a man named Bud Young coming from Louisville to buy eggs from farmers, and he would also buy whiskey and hide it in the egg truck (Verkamp).

Another Ferdinand native, Roger Quante, also had stories and information about moonshine and bootlegging in the Ferdinand area. Roger is 72 and was born where the Hilgeman auction business is today. Then it was the Star Theater. Roger told about the activities of Bob Leinenbach, who owned the Hoosier Garage. It was located next to the (current) Post Office where the machine shop is today. He did work on vehicles and also sold them. He also owned the gas station that was where the Circle S is now. At the Hoosier Garage, he would sell or trade cars, trucks and tractors for moonshine. Then, he’d take the moonshine to Chicago because he had connections there with Al Capone (Quante). According to Irv, they would also package the whiskey in boxes to make it look like it was oil that was being sold.

According to Roger, Bob Leinenbach told about what happened to him one time when he was delivering whiskey to Al Capone’s places in Chicago. He was carrying two gallons of whisky through an alley going to one of the speakeasys in Chicago when a black man jumped out at him with a knife wanting his money. He looked at the robber and said, “Al’ll get you” (meaning Al Capone), and just kept walking. The robber not only left him alone, but he took off and ran the other way. Roger heard that Al Capone came down here sometimes to get the whiskey himself (Quante). Bob Leinenbach had a boy named Bobby. He was going to school in Ferdinand, when most of the teachers were Benedictine Sisters. His teacher, a Sister, asked him, “Who makes the sun shine?” And he said “I don’t know who makes the sun shine, but my Uncle Joe makes the moonshine!” (Quante).

I also spoke with local journalist, Kathy Tretter, who has interviewed countless individuals and studied Ferdinand’s past for many years. Although much of what she recounted confirmed what Irv and Roger said about Al Capone and the economic importance of moonshining in Dubois County, she added several further interesting stories.

One of the people who made stills in Ferdinand was Bernie Helming of the Helming Brothers. His son currently makes some beautiful stuff that sells at the Copper Box over at Jasper. Bernie was a war hero in World War II and a really nice guy. One day he was out making a still on the sidewalk! A State Policeman saw him, stopped at the Ferdinand News office, and got Roy Haake. He asked Roy, “What’s he (Bernie) doing there?” Well, Roy was really good friends with Bernie and knew him and what he had been through in the war, so he made up some sort of excuse for what was being made. The policeman said, “Well, it looked like a still, but I just didn’t think that anyone would be making a still on the sidewalk!” (Tretter).

Roy Haake actually saw Al Capone coming to get moonshine in Ferdinand when he was a child. He was playing a slot machine at a speakeasy in Ferdinand when the owner told him to leave, go straight home, and don’t look back. He left, but looked back when he was a ways off and saw Capone with some of his gang in a fancy car go into the place. (Tretter, Eckerle).

So what did Dubois county bootleggers do with their money? Lots of them bought stock in these companies here. That’s how this county grew into the industrial county it is with all the woodworking and everything. Some new business would start up and people would buy stock to help grow the business. They thought that would be a safe place for their money. “People who just worked in factories all their life would die and have all this stock that would be worth millions! But that’s what a lot of people did with moonshine money -- they’d buy stock.” (Tretter). The reason they called it Dubois County Dew, and the reason it was so popular and trusted so much -- is because it was known that people here were honest and wouldn’t cheat you by putting lye in the moonshine. There is a kick to moonshine if you’ve aged it properly. And sometimes to expedite it, shady characters would add lye and that would give it a kick, but it could kill you! (Tretter, Eckerle, and Kluemper). “In one city, some was delivered to a high-ranking member of the clergy with the code phrase, ‘The hymnals have arrived.’ ”(Eckerle). Having very popular moonshine sometimes made you a target of more than just the revenuers. Both Tretter and Eckerle told a story about a scary event that happened to a Ferdinand moonshining family. Some Chicago mob members came to steal their moonshine at gunpoint. The family defended themselves and ended up in a gunfight with the Chicago gang. The Niehaus home on the way to the Ferdinand State Forest still bears the bullet holes from that fight.

Dave Kluemper is the exhibit coordinator and a full time volunteer at the Dubois County Museum. He knew some interesting facts about the process of making moonshine. He said that they took some denim and flour and made a paste out of it and used it to seal the connections between the two parts of the still. They would put the still near a stream and use the water to cool the steam back into liquid -- to condense it -- and then it was 180 proof whiskey when it came out (Kluemper).

Dave also recollected about Heidet’s Shop in Ferdinand, saying that Heidet‘s would take all sorts of things to trade for goods and repairs, etc, especially during the Depression. The old wooden building Heidet used to store the moonshine in is still standing behind the current Post Office. Supposedly, the moonshine was hidden under the floor there -- and the revenuers would come into the building and look around there but couldn’t find the trap door because there was junk stacked over it. Frank Heidet would trade anything in for other goods. That’s the way things were during the Depression.

To sum everything up in Dave’s words, If it wouldn’t have been for the moonshine, Dubois County would not be Dubois County as it is today, because that was the bread and butter. Nobody had money. And sure there were revenuers around. They tore up everything, but that was all in the business. And I’ve heard a lot of stories about the revenuers driving in the driveway, and they park their vehicle and look around and try to find a still and moonshine and they didn’t even know that they were parked right on top of the moonshine. It was hidden under the driveways! This was common practice. Of course there were a lot of people got caught up in it. They lost it (when they got caught), but that didn’t stop them. And I think that that was part of the German heritage: That you don’t quit -- you keep going. (Kluemper)