Most Prohibition stories usually revolve around mobs and speakeasies. The tale of Minnesota 13, the moonshine produced by the farmers in Stearns County, Minn., some 90 minutes northwest of downtown Minneapolis, is not one of these stories. It’s better than that.

A bold statement? Probably. At the very least, it’s one of the wildest rides in Prohibition lore. The Minnesota 13 story is an account of survival and resilience, but it’s also a tale involving bootlegging priests hiding illicit whiskey behind altars and a moonshining Benedictine monk named Brother Justus. It almost seems too fantastical to be true, but it makes a surprising amount of sense when you dig in.

When Life Gives You Corn, Make Moonshine

In 1893, the University of Minnesota developed a hearty hybridized corn seed that could produce a sugar-rich grain with a quicker yield, making it ideal for the state’s shorter growing season. It classified the corn seed Minnesota 13, and during World War I, the farmers in Stearns County towns like Holdingford, Avon, and Melrose grew the hybridized grain in abundance to fill a global market gap — a strategy somewhat initiated by a nationwide request by President Woodrow Wilson to help American allies.

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“A lot of the troops from Western Europe were also these young, able-bodied men that could do farm work and grow grain,” explains Phil Steger, founder and CEO of Brother Justus Whiskey Company in Minneapolis. “The farmers grew the heck out of the Minnesota 13 corn to make up for the lack of European production.”

When World War I ended and the Western Europeans went back to their fields, demand for U.S. grain dropped dramatically, and Stearns County farmers found themselves with a surplus of corn they suddenly couldn’t sell. Farmland prices also declined sharply after the war, and this stifled their ability to sell off land to help pay their mortgages and the debts they incurred by purchasing equipment to ramp up production during the war effort. This one-two punch created a crisis big enough to be a precursor to the Great Depression, and it put farmers in survival mode.

Prohibition’s passage in 1920 suddenly provided farmers with a unique way to profit from their corn surplus — and a much more efficient way to provide for their families and avoid losing their farms. They dove into distilling moonshine, and they named their juice Minnesota 13 after the corn that got them there.

There was a big problem, though: They had no idea what they were doing. This inexperience led to horrific events like the occasional house getting burned down, and it made for some dangerous hooch. The fledgling moonshiners fashioned stills of galvanized tin taken from their roofing and soldered them with lead, and high concentrations of that lead and zinc from the tin would leech into the liquid. They also added lye to the formula to replicate whiskey’s signature burn. These toxic elements could cause serious harm to imbibers’ brains and bodies.

“I knew a man that drank that old moonshine once,” says Marvin Trettel, Brother Justus’ grandnephew. “He told me that after he drank it, he couldn’t see for a few days.”

The new moonshiners’ hearts were in the right place, but their skills were not. They needed help, and they would soon receive it from an unlikely denouncer of the 18th Amendment.

Holy Intervention

Stearns County’s farmers hated Prohibition, and unlike the puritanical Protestants pushing the national Temperance movement, so did the local Catholic church.

For the farmers, their disdain was a cultural thing. Most of them were German, Polish, or Slovenian immigrants, and drinking beer in moderation was part of their identity. The county church saw Prohibition as an affront to its longstanding tradition of brewing and distilling practices — a sentiment particularly harbored by the Benedictine monks residing in St. John’s Abbey in nearby Collegeville Township, who were known keepers of said tradition. Most of the county’s farmers were also practicing Catholics who enjoyed a tipple on Sundays.

“Brother Justus felt that if the law prevents you from making a living, you have to break the law. But you have to be held to a higher standard. Your success cannot come at the expense of your neighbor’s health.”

“Every town had a church and a bar before Prohibition, usually across the street from each other,” says David Trettel, Marvin’s brother. “Everyone supported everyone else. The churches supported the bars. It built community.”

When Prohibition hit and farmers began to struggle, the local clergy noticed and got involved. While they acknowledged moonshining was an illegal practice, it was not an immoral one due to surrounding circumstances. Priests bootlegged jugs of hooch, bailed moonshining offenders from the local jail, and even hid product behind the church’s altars because they knew federal agents wouldn’t look there. When someone would admit to moonshining during confession, the priests would wave it off as no big deal.

But for a young monk named Brother Justus, Minnesota 13’s lack of quality was a huge deal.

A Monk With a Mission

Born William Trettel, Brother Justus joined St. John’s Abbey in 1907 when he was 17. During his tenure there, he built a sterling reputation for being a blacksmith and a distiller. He recognized that illicit distilling was a chaotic-good practice that provided an opportunity to help farmers make money and pull them out of poverty. But the local moonshine’s poor quality did not sit well with his religious conviction.

“When farmers or families got caught repeatedly, they often lost their farm. Those that didn’t get caught would buy up these farms. This caused bad blood that still exists to this day. There are some families that look at other families around here and say, ‘Those are the sons-of-bitches that bought our farm when Pa was in Leavenworth.’”

“Brother Justus felt that if the law prevents you from making a living, you have to break the law,” Steger says. “But you have to be held to a higher standard. Your success cannot come at the expense of your neighbor’s health.”

This personal dogma turned the monk into an educator. He leaned on his blacksmithing skill set and connections within the church to secure copper and build stills for the farmers. He traveled to towns around the county and taught them proper distilling techniques like stripping out methanol, cutting the heads and tails, and barrel aging. He also asked the farmers he aided to spread the distilling gospel by instructing others as he instructed them. The only thing he asked in return for this benevolent work was a whiskey tithe: a small jar of the farmers’ finished product.

There was a leap of faith required when doing things the Brother Justus way, particularly when it came to barrel aging. While some of the farmers would age the whiskey for just a few days, most would typically sit on their juice for a month, and a handful would wait a year before sending it out. This aging time is lightning quick compared to today’s standards, of course, but it was enough time to theoretically increase the risk of farmers getting busted by the feds — and it would be the feds, as local law enforcement rarely got involved and were even customers. This compelled farmers into developing creative ways to convert their faith into action, including methods discovered decades after the fact.

“We have a family farm owned by my great grandparents up in Holdingford, and they were moonshiners,” says Gina Holman, founding partner and distiller of J. Carver Distillery in Waconia, Minn., about 88 miles from the heart of Stearns County. “My aunt and uncle were doing a bedroom remodel a while back. During the remodel, they found this secret door, and there were keg lines behind it. They knew it was where they were stashing their shine. It not only kept the shine hidden, but it also kept it warm so it could age better.”

How a Monk Helped Make Minnesota Moonshine During Prohibition
Credit: @justuswhiskey on Instagram

Even if farmers came up with clever hiding spots — piles of horse manure was a popular choice — they knew getting caught lead to dire consequences. The first offense would result in local jail time, and repeat offenders were sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. While there were a few legal loopholes in place that made it easier to truncate prison sentences, a trip to the big house potentially brought financial ruin and, in some cases, long-lasting enmity among the farming community.

“For the families that distilled, [distilling during Prohibition] was a moment of pride and a moment of shame.”

“When farmers or families got caught repeatedly, they often lost their farm,” explains Chris Schellinger, founder and executive director of the Avon Hills Folk School in Avon, Minn., an institution devoted to preserving traditional skills and craftsmanship in the face of technology. “Those that didn’t get caught would buy up these farms. This caused bad blood that still exists to this day. There are some families that look at other families around here and say, ‘Those are the sons-of-bitches that bought our farm when Pa was in Leavenworth.’”

The Future, Distilled Down

Brother Justus’s work left an indelible impact. Minnesota 13’s reputation as quality hooch skyrocketed, eventually spreading out well beyond the region. In her book “Minnesota 13: Stearns County’s ‘Wet’ Wild Prohibition Days,” late author Elaine Davis noted that many of the farmers distributed to crime syndicates in St. Paul and Chicago, and the juice eventually popped up in speakeasies in New York and San Francisco. And while the mob acquired a taste for Minnesota 13, they never really infiltrated Stearns County, largely because of the community’s structure.

“Stearns County was a very insular, German-Catholic community,” Schellinger says. “Everyone’s first language was German, and it remained that way for some families until the 1960s and 1970s. This made it difficult for outsiders to penetrate.”

Brother Justus transferred to a different abbey in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1924. David and Marvin Trettel say he left because he felt the area around St. John’s Abbey was getting too built up to be a viable agricultural area, while some outside the family circle believe the abbey moved him because the feds caught on and were closing in on him.

According to Davis’s book, it’s estimated that some 1,200 Stearns County farmers made Minnesota 13 during Prohibition. Once the 21st Amendment repealed the Volstead Act, production mostly stopped save for a scant few rebels. Post-Prohibition regulations and economics made it too difficult for farmers to develop the infrastructure needed for legitimate distilling, but there may have also been something more personal in play.

“Germans drank beer. Hard liquor wasn’t their tradition,” Schellinger notes. “They were also devout, God-fearing Catholics. They probably felt bad or guilty about moonshining, and once it was no longer necessary for them to distill, they were done.”

“For the families that distilled, [distilling during Prohibition] was a moment of pride and a moment of shame,” Holman adds.

Minnesota wouldn’t see its first legitimate distillery until 2012, when Panther Distillery opened its doors in Osakis just northwest Stearns County. There are nearly 40 legit distilleries throughout the state today. And while Minnesota 13 probably wasn’t great by modern standards, the state’s award-winning spirits scene suggests that the farmers had solid agricultural elements at their disposal once Brother Justus taught them what to do.

“Minnesota 13’s story shows that American whiskey can be so much more than Kentucky and Tennessee,” Steger states. “Minnesota has the grain. We have peat. We have limestone water from the Mississippi. We make barrels for a lot of other distilleries. It’s fine if American whiskey is largely defined by Kentucky and Tennessee, but Minnesota is elite whiskey country, too.”

Brother Justus’s Legacy

David and Marvin recall Brother Justus dropping down from Saskatchewan to visit their family when they were kids growing up in Stearns County. Their uncle would talk about his faith and current community-building efforts, but his Prohibition-era distilling days never came up. “He treated distilling as a thing he did in the past,” Marvin says.

Brother Justus’s reluctance to bring his side project wasn’t necessarily a shared sentiment within the Trettel family. David remembers his father having a jar of Minnesota 13 tucked away in a cabinet, ready to be pulled out and shown off when people came over. The family also gave Steger their blessing to name his distillery after Brother Justus when he launched the distillery in 2014, and they acknowledge that such branding (including cross-emblazoned bottles) keeps his legacy alive. Steger pushes the legacy forward through unique products such as the clear Irish poitin-like silver whiskey and innovations such as its “cold-peated” whiskey, in which they use Minnesota peat to finish the juice instead of smoking malted barley.

As the people who were around to see Brother Justus’s distilling handiwork are gone for the most part, the accounts of exactly how he helped Minnesota 13 rise to prominence during Prohibition are increasingly anecdotal. Yet one core element remains constant: the power of community during rough times. It may not be as flashy of a Prohibition story as the tales involving mob bosses and speakeasies, but it’s one that feels much more relatable.