Rural economics have fluctuated with grain alcohol uses from bootlegging to ethanol plants

Ethanol production is by many measurements the best economic development tool in rural America outside of farming, Mychal Wilmes says. But he also revisits the impact Prohibition had on rural areas.

Ethanol has been a boon to farmers, Mychal Wilmes says.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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Harvest, aided by little or no rain, is wrapping up quickly in southern Minnesota. The soil is bone dry, and rain is needed. Conditions have been ideal for rolling cornstalk bales and fall anhydrous nitrogen applications where it is allowed.

A steady stream of trucks deliver corn to the nearby ethanol plant, which started out as a farmer-owned cooperative. Member farmers committed to delivering corn to the plant in hopes of extra profit.

Minnesota has 18 such plants, with most started as cooperatives. Five ethanol plants operate in North Dakota, 15 in South Dakota, and 40 in Iowa. Ethanol production is by many measurements the best economic development tool in rural America outside of farming.

A cleaner environment and greater energy independence has been an easy sell, although resisters remain. Critics argue that the environmental benefits of ethanol are way oversold and government incentives that include mandated use are wrong.

There was a time when corn and other grain was raw material for an illegal purpose. President Woodrow Wilson established a temporary prohibition on the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol in 1917 to conserve grain supply in war time. Many women who only recently had gained the right to vote and male activists cheered the move and sought to make prohibition permanent.


Their reasoning — domestic abuse would decline along with juvenile delinquency along with crime, and husbands would bring more money home — seemed sound. Industrialists such as Henry Ford said without booze, worker productivity would increase. Milk sales, the thinking went, would soar as former drinkers turned to healthier drink.

Prohibition began with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 and would be the law until 1933. It was during this time that Dad saw fancy cars and trucks travel on narrow pasture lanes as darkness fell.

There was little violence, though Dad was convinced the men were Chicago gangsters armed with Tommy guns. Respectable citizens also engaged in bootlegging, though not all were in it for financial gain.

Mother was not opposed to alcohol consumption in moderation but lectured against its overuse. Dad said that a beer or two at a wedding dance loosened his muscles so he could smoothly move across the dance floor when a polka band played.

When Dad started to slow down, he and Mother seldom failed to watch the Lawrence Welk show, which aired from 1951 until 1982 and continues to be broadcast in rerun form on some public TV channels.

Welk, as most of you know, was born in a sod house in Strasburg, North Dakota, to Russian immigrants in 1893. The home and small acreage has been added to the federal registry of Historic Places.

In any case, Welk’s “champagne music’’ and Champagne Lady Norma Zimmer seemed out of touch to a teenager who only recently discovered rock. Decades later, the show has grown in appeal for me.

Dad had (outside of baseball, which he followed religiously) only one other show that he refused to miss. It was the heroes and villains of pro wrestling, which aired on Sunday mornings just after church and chores. He swung a fist when another wrestler broke the rules and shouted at blind referees that ignored the cheating.


Good guy Verne Gagne was his hero and champion who defended his championship against all competitors. Mother did not share his interest in wrestling and retreated to the living room to read a book or work on a blanket.

The wood frame that held the blanket in progress took up most of the living room. The final product — a beautiful blanket that in most cases would be given as a wedding or Christmas gift — was near as perfect as possible. Mother never admitted to perfection, choosing instead to point out the smallest flaw to her guests.

Modesty forbade her to do anything else but that.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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