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The Bastille at Far-go

Come all you jolly fellows and listen to my tale
And I’ll tell you about the trouble which landed me in jail

So begins a remarkable and rare ballad of the northern plains—the confessional composition of one Archie L. Baker, a bootlegger languishing in jail in Fargo in 1929. His life and crimes, however, were situated in Steele County, not far from Luverne. His story, too, is a fascinating narrative of the dynamics of prohibition in the prairie countryside.

To begin, then—prohibition in North Dakota was a long dry spell, stretching back from 1933, when the state fell in line with national repeal, to 1889, when the emerging state put a ban on alcoholic beverages into its constitution. Before that, however, judging by ambiguous but indicative newspaper reports, our Archie Baker’s father, of the same name, was locally renowned for lavish entertainments.

In November 1885 the Hope Pioneer noticed that “quite a number of the Hope boys” had been out to the senior Mr. Baker’s farm over near Luverne and enjoyed “not only a good time but also a nice supper” [wink, nudge]. Then on Christmas Eve there was “quite a large social gathering” at the Baker place, which the editor kindly noted was in S15, T143, R55. The following year saw dances that lasted all night.

At which point the Baker clan disappears from the historical record until 1914 when the Pioneer notes the marriage of the younger Baker, “a prosperous young farmer living north of town,” to a local girl named Winnie Baker, who may have been a relative by marriage. The wedding took place in Moorhead, Minnesota—a notorious resort for North Dakotans fleeing their own state’s prohibition laws. Baker subsequently registered for the draft, but as a married farmer, his deferment was solid.

We next hear of Baker via his jailhouse ballad, penned from Fargo and published in the Pioneer on 14 February 1929. It seems Baker was on the road with a delivery of goods, stopped for gas in Luverne, and was taken into custody there.

It was on December twenty-first into Madsens garage we drove
The sheriff of Steele County was standing by the stove
At first I did not mind it, but it sure gave me a jar
When he started walking toward us, then began to search the car

The sheriff, whom I believe was Dave Wennerstrom, finding a load of booze in the vehicle of Baker, gently escorted him to Finley, the county seat, for charging. Baker got ten months for transporting with intent to sell, the time to be served in the Cass County lockup, which Baker referred to in verse as “the Bastille at Far-go”—a hyphen indicating the city name was to be sung mournfully.

Baker’s jailhouse ballad is narrative and good-natured, not complaining about the jail or even his plight in general—seeming to regard it as part of the business. He dispenses mock-advice to other “jolly fellows” to go straight and avoid the same fate. There was a more sinister undercurrent in Steele County, however.

In June 1930 Christ Madsen, the garage man in Luverne, was driving home from Valley City with his family when they were forced off the road by four men in a Buick. They dragged Madsen out of his car, threatened to kill him, and pushed his car off the road. His salvation came in the form of two stout neighbors who came along and overcame the offenders. One of the bad men was charged, but nothing came of it. A few months later thieves broke into Madsen’s garage and took the cash from the till, along with some merchandise. The circumstances, and the wry narrative of the ballad, make it plain that it was dangerous to run afoul of a bootlegging ring in the North Dakota countryside.

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