Moonshine at Steenrod's Mill
On Tuesday, May 9, 1882, Collector Charles M. Lynch arrived in Union City with an important mission in mind. His deputy had been working in Union City for some time, learning the extent of the illegal whiskey business in the area. Accompanied by borough police officer John Skivington, Collector Lynch went to the Steenrod farm, about a mile east of town where they suspected an illegal still was located.
The collector and the officer reached the farm and Ezra, the older Steenrod brother, met them at the door of the saw mill. When he found out why they had come, he said that there was no truth to the rumor that a still was located on their farm. He pointed out the respectability and comfort of the family and appealed to the common sense of the officers as to the truth of the story.
Colonel Lynch agreed that Mr. Steenrod’s story seemed plausible, but he said that he wanted to look around all the same and that a search for the still would get rid of all unjust suspicion and rumors. He asked Ezra, “Will you lead the way to the still or must we search for ourselves?”
Ezra shrugged. “Proceed with your hunt.”
“We should like the pleasure of your company if agreeable,” Officer Skivington said as Ezra moved off.
Officer Skivington and Colonel Lynch searched the grist mill from cellar to garret. They found a locked room and Ezra said that the key had been lost a long time ago. Now the law officers thought for sure that they were on to something and they worked nearly two hours to pick the lock. When they finally succeeded in getting the door open, they found nothing but an iron pipe passing up through the floor and so nearly concealed by the chimney as to make them suspicious. They examined the pipe carefully and found it to be nothing more than an innocent device connected with a patent process for running the mill. Irving and Elias Steenrod came in about this time and were very angry because the officers were searching for a still. Even though the Steenrod boys objected, the officers kept searching. They looked through the tool house, grist house, blacksmith shop and carpenter shop, but still didn’t find anything.
Next, the officers tried the barn which was located on the tail race. In the barn they found the cow quietly chewing her cud. On one side of the wall a large pile of hay was stacked up. The searchers were getting very discouraged when Officer Skivington got up onto the hay mow He thought perhaps he might find a keg or barrel of the whiskey hidden away in the hay. Both men were convinced by the smell of the atmosphere that they were getting closer to the hidden whiskey.
But even Officer Skivington wasn’t prepared for what he found. He stumbled upon a blind partition extending clear to the roof and what had appeared from below to be a large stack of hay was only about three feet thick and used only to cover up the partition. Officer Skivington put his ear against the boards and he clearly heard a gurgling sound as if a barrel were being emptied.
Officer Skivington hurried to tell Collector Lynch who informed the Steenrod’s that they would “save time by showing us straight to that still.”
The Steenrods declined to cooperate so Lynch said that he and Officer Skivington would go back to the barn and “examine the cow, I fancy.”
The officer revisited the barn and sounded the walls. Finally, Collector Lynch hit a spot that sounded hollow. “We will trouble you to help pull down that hay,” the Collector said to the Steenrods. The Steenrods protested, but their protests fell on deaf ears. The officers began to tear down the hay. They found a work shop which was divided by a partition from the part of the building used as a barn. The officers began searching. Finally, the Steenrod boys said, “Hold on, we cave.”
Ezra got up on an innocent looking block of wood and applied a peculiar shaped key made of wood to a lock which was entirely hidden from view by a very clever device. Instantly, a secret door flew open and revealed the complete outfit, consisting of a mash tub, caps, worm, tanks, barrels, still, condensers, etc. Colonel Lynch estimated that the whole outfit was worth $500. The officers found half a barrel of whiskey. The rest of the stock on hand had been emptied into the tail race, but the fumes led the officers to return and make a second examination of the barn.
Collector Lynch eventually departed and left Officer Skivington in charge. It was unclear what interests the brothers had in the farm or how the property would be disposed of. If the Steenrod brothers owned the entire farm, then it would confiscated by the law.
By Wednesday, May 10, 1882, a reporter from the Union City Times went to the Steenrod Mills and interviewed the Steenrod boys. When he arrived at the mill he found them working as usual and when he told them he had come to interview them, they received him respectfully and told him that they were willing to be interviewed.
The Steenrod boys said that they had set up the apparatus for an experiment about a year ago and since then they had fixed up and repaired the equipment in their spare time. They said that they had not been successful in manufacturing whiskey and that they had torn up the machinery to that it was in a dismantled condition when the officers found it. Irving Steenrod said that he was going to leave the farm and look for work and went to Loraine, Ohio, about three weeks later. Only Ezra and Irving knew about the equipment. Elias did not know anything about it until it was discovered by the officers.
The Steenrods seemed to feel worse for their families and their aged mother than they did for themselves. They told the Union City Times reporter that they were afraid that the shock to the old lady’s health would prove to be too much and she might die.
On the evening of May 10, 1882, the United States Commissioner Frank Grant of Erie, issued warrants for the arrest of Ezra and Irving Steenrod. On May 11, 1882, a Thursday, Officer Clark Cole came over and served warrants on the two men. He took them to Erie with him on the afternoon train. He also confiscated the equipment and loaded it on a car which was taken to Erie on the local freight that afternoon. An uncle of the Steenrods accompanied them to Erie to post their bail. J.W. Sproul Esq. was retained as an attorney for the Steenrods who claimed that they didn’t register their equipment because they had no intentions of using it.