The curious, North Dakota Prohibition case of the unloaded beer truck
'When prohibition took hold and became law, the Germans from Russia took it personally, and felt they didn’t need to abide by a law forced on them by the Scandinavians of the Valley.'
Did Dickinson businessman, George Berzel get away with something when charges against him were dismissed? We’ll let you be the judge.
On May 4, 1933, North Dakota was still a dry state. The end of the prohibition era was near, but the sale of beer and liquor was still illegal. North Dakota entered the union a dry state in 1889.
Two years before, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (the W.C.T.U.) and its temperance allies, including two Grand Forks newspapers, were successful in getting the territorial legislature to pass a local-option law, allowing any community to forbid the sale of liquor.
Most of the push for prohibition came from the eastern part of the state, the Red River Valley and its primarily Scandinavian population. Most people in the central and western parts of the state, the Germans from Russia in particular, opposed prohibition. They felt it was being forced down their throats by the Scandinavians.
You see in Russia, the Germans were leaders, the upper class...more successful than their native Russian neighbors. In America, they were at the other end of the social and economic scale and they felt as though they were the underdogs. So, when prohibition took hold and became law, the Germans from Russia took it personally, and felt they didn’t need to abide by a law forced on them by the Scandinavians of the Valley.
That said...back to the story of George Berzel as it appeared in the May 4, 1933 edition of the Grand Forks Herald newspaper. A Dickinson, North DAkota, businessman, and German from Russia, Berzel was a merchant and truck line operator. He had been charged with illegally transporting beer into a dry state.
Here’s what happened. At the time, Minnesota and Montana were NOT dry. Beer was legal in both states, and it was legal to transport beer from one state to another through North Dakota. Federal agents tracked two of Berzel’s beer-laden trucks from Moorhead, Minnesota, to Dickinson, where they found one of the trucks unloaded. The agents then confiscated both truckloads of beer and charged Berzel with illegally transporting the beer into a dry state.
Soon after the incident, in a hearing before U.S. Commissioner B.O. Thorkelson, the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Berzel admitted that one of the trucks had been unloaded, but not with the intention of leaving the beer in Dickinson.
He claimed the beer needed to be unloaded in order to make repairs on the truck. In his testimony, Berzel claimed that as soon the repairs could be made, the beer would be loaded back on the truck and it would continue its journey to Wibaux, Montana.
So...were both truckloads of beer really headed for Montana, or are Germans from Russia really good story tellers?
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota. It is edited for presentation on Forum Communication Co. sites by Jeremy Fugleberg, editor of The Vault. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.