April 4: REO Speedwagon Truck Incident
In the times of national Prohibition, considerable quantities of bootleg alcohol flowed around North Dakota despite the illegality of selling, consuming and transporting liquor.
On this date in 1930, a newspaper story about a “mystery truck,” caused quite a stir in Fargo. The article told of an incident on Sunday morning March 30th, in Fargo’s warehouse district, just west of downtown.
A group of young men, including Arthur Olson, saw an REO Speedwagon parked near the Fargo Storage and Warehouse building, its truck-bed covered, suspiciously, with blankets.
Rumors had been floating around that a whole fleet of REO trucks was transporting illegal alcohol. So, Arthur Olson climbed up and peeked under the blankets. The truck was indeed loaded with dozens of “five-gallon kegs of moonshine whiskey,” along with 20 one-gallon cans.
Olson grabbed a gallon for himself, but when crowd of children gathered around, he slipped away to a nearby gas station, hoping to return later to snag more hooch.
The attention attracted passersby, who wondered about the mysterious truck. Suddenly, a Buick sedan drove up with two men – one got out and drove off to the west in the REO Speedwagon; the other man followed in the Buick.
Someone called the Fargo police, and two officers arrived within minutes. Officer Walter Olson and Chief-of-Police Ed Madison chased the truck and soon caught up to the Speedwagon, stopping it at gunpoint, just west of the city. The truckdriver, who said he was just a “farmer from near Buffalo,” had no choice but to allow inspection.
Chief Madison climbed up, and pushed back the blankets. All he supposedly saw was “two empty cans . . . with wheat underneath.” Through either incompetence or corruption, he permitted the REO Speedwagon to leave town.
This cursory inspection got Chief Madison into deep trouble. Fargo police staked out the warehouse that same week and uncovered 582 gallons of illegal moonshine. Police also tracked the REO Speedwagon “mystery truck,” its driver, and 279 gallons of liquor to a Casselton hideout.
Local States Attorney John Pollack prosecuted the well-publicized case. The truck-driver got a prison term; as did a warehouse man. Police Chief Madison lost his job, but a jury later found him “not guilty.”
Fargo’s police-force shut down a boozorium-style warehouse and destroyed 861 gallons of bootleg alcohol – stemming from the notorious case.
Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Professor
- “Barenson Is Thought Owner of Huge Rum Cache Found,” Fargo Forum, April 4, 1930, p. 1; “Fargo Man Facing New Liquor Charge,” Bismarck Tribune, April 4, 1930, p. 1.
- “Two Fargo Men Are Taken,” Fargo Forum, April 3, 1930, evening edition, p. 1, 6; “Rum Arrests May Result in Official Probe of Police Here,” Fargo Forum, April 3, 1930, morning edition, p. 1, 10.
- “Open Hearing Monday May Result In Rum Probe Action,” Fargo Forum, April 6, 1930, p. 1.
- “Truck Episode Told to Court,” Fargo Forum, April 9, 1930, p. 1
- “Former Fargo Police Chief Under Indictment,” Bismarck Tribune, September 13, 1930, p. 1.
- “Sentence of N.D. Man is Affirmed,” Bismarck Tribune, April 17, 1931, p. 1.
- “Barenson to Serve Term,” Fargo Forum, April 22, 1930, p. 5.
- “Dillage, Madison Are Held Not Guilty,” Bismarck Tribune, December 16, 1931, p. 1.
- “Eight Held on Liquor Charges,” Bismarck Tribune, September 10, 1930, p. 1.
- “Fargo Scandal to Be Aired in Court,” Bismarck Tribune, November 30, 1931, p. 1.