Run for the border: Beer Bootlegging during the Prohibition

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver.

“Dear Sir. This Company is not making any ‘near-beer of any kind at present and not until Mont. goes dry yours very truly Lewistown Brewing Co.”

So wrote Gus Hodel and his Lewistown Brewing Company of Montana in April 1918, a mere eight months before the statewide prohibition of alcohol was set to go into effect. But as our records here at the National Archives at Denver show, Mr. Hodel seemed to have no plans of actually stopping the brewing of full strength beer in the small, central Montana city of Lewistown.

Gustav Hodel was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1889 at the age of 14. With his family steeped in brewing, the young Hodel bounced around from brewery to brewery honing his skills, attending brewer’s school in Milwaukee, and working his way up at various companies before buying a controlling interest in the Lewistown Brewing Company in 1911 for $65,000. That investment would begin to sour when in November of 1916 Montana voters approved a referendum on the statewide prohibition of alcohol, to go into effect December 31, 1918 – a full year and change before the national Prohibition. Hodel would need to diversify, or break the law, to survive.

At the same time during World War I, the U.S. Food Administration, headed by future president Herbert Hoover, was responsible for the supply, distribution, and conservation of food in support of the war effort. Most famously noted for the conservation of the nation’s wheat supply, the agency also regulated meats, sugar, and even barley malt used in making beer. In the spring of 1918 the agency requested a list of all brewers of near-beer, defined as ½ percent or less alcohol, or “other temperance beverages” from each state and how much they produced. In Montana this request fell to Professor of Agronomy Alfred Atkinson, the Federal Food Administrator for the state. Writing to Montana breweries on April 10 Atkinson received the reply from Lewistown Brewing Company three days later in the negative. As the original letter found in our Record Group 4: Records of the U.S. Food Administration holdings show, they were still only making full strength beer.

Letter from Lewistown Brewing Co. to Alfred Atkinson, April 13, 1918
Letter from Lewistown Brewing Co. to Alfred Atkinson, April 13, 1918. “General Correspondence, 1917 – 1919” NAID 1067514, Box 26

Fast forward three years and within our Record Group 21: Records of the District Courts of the United States we find a one O.H.P Shelley in serious trouble. Shelley was the Federal Prohibition Director for the State of Montana and in September 1922 a federal grand jury indicted the official for taking bribes. Among the list of breweries accused of paying him off was Gus Hodel and the Lewistown Brewing Company, where it was alleged that on October 12, 1921 Gus Hodel paid Shelley $300 through middleman L.E. Tewksbury to look the other way in regards to the “manufacture, possession, sale and disposition, for beverage purposes, of large quantities of intoxicating liquor, to-wit, beer, and malt liquor.”

Document excerpt from complaint detailing Hodel’s involvement. "Criminal Case Files, 1889-1961" NAID 298174, Box 6763
Excerpt from complaint detailing Hodel’s involvement. “Criminal Case Files, 1889-1961” NAID 298174, Box 6763

Hodel was ordered to testify in the case but with no transcripts saved, we know nothing of his testimony. Whatever it was, however, it must have helped as the jury found Shelley not guilty.

Image of Subpoena card requiring Hodel to testify. "Criminal Case Files, 1889-1961" NAID 298174, Box 6763
Subpoena card requiring Hodel to testify. “Criminal Case Files, 1889-1961” NAID 298174, Box 6763
Image of Verdict finding Shelley not guilty. "Criminal Case Files, 1889-1961" NAID 298174, Box 6763
Verdict finding Shelley not guilty. “Criminal Case Files, 1889-1961” NAID 298174, Box 6763

The following year Hodel entered Alberta Canada, as noted on Canadian border crossing records available on Ancestry.com, in order to “improve own condition” as a brewery proprietor but as our court records show, he was back in the United States in 1928, caught in a Lewistown alley with bootleg beer. Hodel was back in town and back in trouble.

Image of Affidavit describing how agents caught Hodel with illegal beer "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
Affidavit describing how agents caught Hodel with illegal beer. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41

On June 29, 1928 Federal Prohibition Agents E.H. Donovan and Dan Corcoran had made a search of the Brewery Saloon in Lewistown for intoxicating liquors. Finding none, they went out the rear door and happened upon a Ford truck holding 36 pints of beer. Hodel, standing nearby, admitted to owning the truck and the beer was seized in order to investigate the alcohol content. The beer turned out to be full strength but while the government readied charges in what would become criminal case #1289, Hodel went and got himself caught then again. On September 16th Earle E. Koehler affirmed he smelled “a strong odor of fermenting mash” coming from the Lewistown Brewery and the U.S. Commissioner signed off on a search warrant to be executed the next day. Among the expected brewing equipment, agents found and confiscated 792 quart bottles of beer and vats with approximately 600 gallons of the same. Hodel and his employee Ole Langland were caught red handed.

Image of Affidavit to justify search warrant for Lewistown Brewing Company "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
Affidavit to justify search warrant for Lewistown Brewing Company. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41
Image of Search warrant for Lewistown Brewing Company "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
Search warrant for Lewistown Brewing Company. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41
Image of Results from search of Lewistown Brewing Company "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
Results from search of Lewistown Brewing Company. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41

On September 20th Hodel was formally charged in the District Court of the United States for the District of Montana Great Falls Division in criminal case #1289. On October 6th both Hodel and Langland were charged in criminal case #1337. Hodel’s bond was fixed at $300, which he paid, and the two men were ordered to report to court on October 13th. Langland faced the music and showed, pleading guilty and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $50 fine.

Image of Langland conviction "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
Langland conviction. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41

Hodel on the other hand, fled, forfeiting his bond and on November 1st his bench warrant was filed not found. A little over two years later, and still no sign of Hodel, an alias warrant was filed with the court. U.S. Marshal Tom Bolton again attested to not being able to find Hodel and noted “Canada.”

Can't Find Him 1928, Case 1337

U.S. Marshal Tom Bolton’s filings from 1928 and 1931, attesting he could not locate Hodel. "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
U.S. Marshal Tom Bolton’s filings from 1928 and 1931, attesting he could not locate Hodel. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41

That May the court dismissed both of Hodel’s cases, formally closing the matter with him still at large.

Hodel’s dismissal in case #1337 "Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968" NAID 568166, Box 41
Hodel’s dismissal in case #1337. “Criminal Case Files, 1924-1968” NAID 568166, Box 41

According to online biographies and historic newspapers, Hodel traveled back and forth between Montana and Canada, finally returning for good after the prohibition ended and picked up his brewing career where he left off. He eventually followed his daughters to California, where he retired in Santa Cruz and passed away in 1966.

All records discussed here are found in in the National Archives at Denver Record Group 4 and Record Group 21 holdings. Additional biographical information regarding Mr. Hodel was found via Ancestry.com and “Biography of Gustav Hodel,” accessed at: http://www.brewerygems.com/hodel.htm

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