10 September 2007

The Legend of Tillie the Moonshiner

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 16 May 2007]

This continues the series of historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

Tillie Wallace was no angel. She got caught—the only lady known to be prosecuted for running her own moonshine operation in Montana during Prohibition from 1919 to 1933. But Tillie was more than a moonshiner. She was also a mother, a widow, a homesteader and rancher located northwest of the bustling cow and railroad town of Square Butte in southern Chouteau County.

“Tillie” or Mathilda J. Wallace was born in Minnesota in 1879, married at age 17, and in 1910 lived in Minnesota with her husband Joseph and 8-year-old daughter Carmilla. By 1912 Tillie was a widow, and she and Carmilla headed west on the Great Northern Railroad to homestead in southern Chouteau County.

In the early years all went well for homesteader Tillie, and in 1919 she proved up her claim to receive patent to 317.45 acres. Over the years, Tillie acquired more land and her place became known as the Tillie Wallace Ranch, but then the hard times of the 1920s struck. A friend of hers that she owed money to agreed to furnish her with a still and let her pay off what she owed him by making moonshine whiskey. Tillie agreed to the deal in hopes of paying off the mortgage and saving her farm. She set up the still in a crude granite stone shack with a metal roof hidden among the large granite boulders some 75 feet above her ranch buildings. The shack’s location gave a clear view of The Sag, both east and west, with a towering cliff wall in back.

Tillie was in the moonshining business for several years before
Federal agents J. Q. Adams and Richard Ginn [what a great name for a revenuer] raided the ranch late Saturday afternoon January 2, 1932. The agents searched the ranch, seized a completely outfitted 75-gallon still operation in the stone shack, and destroyed six 50-gallon barrels and three 10-gallon kegs. She admitted to the officers that she had been in business for some time and that she had ‘run off’ the last batch about two weeks ago.

In April 1932, Mrs. Mathilda Wallace went before Judge Charles N. Pray in District Court in Great Falls on a charge of “possessing machinery to manufacture liquor.” She pleaded guilty, insisted that she has never sold any whisky except to two people, and emphasized that she did not drink herself. Her lawyer related her sad tale of financial troubles and her efforts to save the farm. The agents testified that they found cobwebs over the barrels and that the still hadn’t been used for a long time. Legendary Judge Pray fined Tillie $50 and then empathetically suspended the fine after placing her on probation for three years.

Around the time of the raid on the Tillie Wallace Ranch, the same federal agents also successfully raided the Smoke House pool hall and “soft drink” joint in the town of Square Butte. The agents arrested 81-year-old William Fitzmaurice for violating the national prohibition law by “possessing liquor and maintaining a nuisance.” They seized one-third of a gallon of moonshine whisky hidden in an ice cream container in the back room.

The same day in April 1932 that Tillie went to trial before Judge Pray so did old William Fitzmaurice. His attorney made a strong plea for leniency, and Fitzmaurice pleaded guilty. As the story unfolded, the unidentified owner of the pool hall had left town to go down to Canastota for his health, so he hired Mr. Fitzmaurice to run the place while he was gone. Fitzmaurice had lived in Cascade County for thirty years, and his lawyer told the Judge that his client didn’t know the whisky was there until the officers raided the place.

Judge Pray looked at the old man, whose eyes were clear in spite of his years. The prohibition agent confirmed the statement of Mr. Holt and said he had never heard of anything against Fitzmaurice. When they went there, they were after the proprietor, and they were still looking for him. Judge Pray fined Fitzmaurice $50 on his plea of guilty and then suspended the fine on three years’ probation.

By 1932 the great social experiment of prohibition had failed, and the country waited anxiously for repeal. The federal agents brought the moonshiners and bootleggers in, and the courts, in many cases like those of the two Square Butte operations, let them go. In Tillie Wallace’s case, she was unable to keep the ranch going without the moonshine income and in 1935 she sold out for $10.

p. s. Tillie Wallace may also have been a murderer. We are tracking down rumors and will tell you more about this later.

[Sources: Set in Stone The Square Butte Granite Quarry by Henry L. Armstrong and Marcella Knedler; GFLD 4 Jan 1932, p. 8; GFLD 27 Apr 1932, p. 8; US Census 1900-1930]


(1) Tillie Wallace Still Site [Photo by Henry L. Armstrong]

(2) Typical Still and Moonshine Equipment [Great Falls Tribune Photo]

(3) “First Woman ‘Moonshiner’ Is Arrested” [Great Falls Leader Photo]

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