LOOKBACK: Moonshine center of legal battle over Ramsey dance hall
100 years ago, cottage owners along Cedar River fought off controversial lease agreement at Paddy’s Point above dam
Paddy was poisoned by “moonshine whiskey.”
At least that was the legal excuse Patrick “Paddy” Walsh gave 100 years ago as to why he signed a lease allowing two men to build a dance pavilion in the woods of his farm along the Cedar River near Ramsey Dam.
The wooded area was known as Paddy’s Point or Ramsey Point — it’s east/upstream from today’s Old Mill Restaurant at the dam.
Walsh — whose land (east of today’s Old Mill Restaurant) was known as Paddy’s Point and Ramsey Point — wanted to annul the lease signed on June 3, 1921, with the dance hall’s developers. This came after drawing the ire of Austin residents — city leaders and businessmen — who had summer cottages at Paddy’s Point on land they leased from Walsh.
In court filings, Walsh claimed that Henry Carlitz — who sought to build the dance pavilion with Edwin Struck — offered Walsh moonshine whiskey, a slang term for strong and illegally made alcohol.
Walsh “took a drink, he became poisoned, sick and dizzy so that he thereby became bereft of all his mental faculties to such an extent that he was not able to comprehend and did not, by reason thereof, comprehend the nature and character of said agreement,” according to his court filing.
At the same time, eight owners of summer cottages at Paddy’s Point filed a court injunction halting the dance pavilion’s construction.
Court commissioner Carl Baudler issued the injunction restraining Struck and Carlitz from building a “bowery” dance hall, which was an open, often temporary, structure with a roof for larger gatherings.
This injunction was made on the grounds that the pavilion would become a “congregating place for undesirable persons as the place is three miles from Austin and without police protection or supervision,” the Mower County News wrote on June 16, 1921. The headline read:
Cottage owners claimed that the “lawless, leud and immoral element will flock to and congregate at the public bowery dance hall and that it will constitute a menace to the morals of all the young girls of the city of Austin and vicinity.”
Those Austin residents who filed the injunction included:
· George Hirsh, owner of Hirsh’s clothing and Austin mayor from 1918–1920 and 1922–1924
· Charley Fox Jr., owner of Fox Hotel
· Clarence Dalager, grocery store owner
· Max Erdman, owner of several businesses, including a saloon and auto shop
· Sam Young, owner of a transportation and ice supply business
· A.B. Overland, city engineer
· Nicholas Wagner, owner of Wagner Construction Co.
· Spence Barr, an Austin-based train engineer
Overall, the cottage owners, who had built “pretty summer cottages along the bank of the Cedar River for the use of their families,” had raised nearly $1,600 to oppose the dance hall, according to the Albert Lea Evening Tribune on June 16, 1921 (headline: “Doped with Mooneshine to Secure Lease”).
They viewed the project as a future “nuisance” and referred “at great length to the ‘immorality’ of the dance pavilion” being outside the city limits in a “heavily wooded area without proper supervision or law enforcement,” the Austin Daily Herald wrote in a recollection article April 17, 1956, for Austin’s centennial.
Carrying 45 signatures, the petition claimed the dance hall would “cause incalculable injury to them personally and to their property.” They also filed the petition with Lansing Township.
‘Up north’ wasn’t far from Austin
Escaping from the city in the early 1900s for most meant not heading far from Austin for a weekend or summer vacation along the water and surrounded by nature. Numerous families were drawn to the Ramsey Mill Pond area about three miles from downtown Austin.
Those without a cabin or cottage could set up camp across the river from Paddy’s Point on another farm that became Ramsey Recreation Park before being developed into the old Ramsey Golf Course. These camps often involved multiple families and, at times, lasted a few weeks before “breaking camp” to head back to Austin.
Some of those camping families included one of the cottage petitioners, Spence Barr, whose family was noted for camping at Ramsey around 1911 before getting a cottage across the river. Nicholas Wagner, another Paddy’s Point cottage owner, had lived in a tent along the Cedar River there in 1911 (his first summer in Austin) while working at the Ramsey Mill before starting his construction business in 1912, according to the Nov. 9, 1974, Austin Daily Herald.
“With a little judicious boosting, Ramsey Lake could be made quite an attractive summer resort,” said a Ramsey camper in an Aug. 10, 1911, article in the Herald.
“Its natural beauty is more than ordinary and railroad facilities perfect,” the newspaper wrote. “We become so used to our beautiful surroundings of woods and water that we are apt to think lightly of them, when we might go far to find their equal.”
That natural escape is what led Austinites like George Hirsh, a successful clothing retailer and city leader, to keep a cottage at Ramsey. During the dance pavilion legal battle, Hirsh, who built the landmark building at North Main and Fourth Avenue (today’s Brick Furniture) was in between terms as Austin’s mayor.
Battle of legal filings
Hirsh and other cottage owners claimed that Walsh told them he wouldn’t allow a dance pavilion to be built on his land “but later did make such a lease,” the Mower County News reported June 16, 1921.
Walsh claimed that Struck and Carlitz on June 3 “falsely represented” to him and his wife that they wanted to lease part of Paddy’s Point to run a soft drink stand (16 feet by 20 feet in size), the Herald wrote in 1956. Carlitz then allegedly provided the moonshine and said “he would always keep a bottle on hand at the stand for (Paddy).”
Struck and Carlitz actually planned to build a 100-square-foot building for a dance hall, the Herald wrote.
Legal action by the cottage owners came after some of them found Struck and Carlitz laying “the stringers for the dance platform,” according to the Albert Lea Evening Tribune on June 16, 1921. They offered to reimburse Struck and Carlitz for any costs if they would “surrender their lease and not build.”
Struck and Carlitz refused the offer, prompting the cottage owners to hire the Sasse & French law firm to get a court injunction to halt construction.
“Not only are the cottage owners after the dance promoters but the residents of that section are petitioning the Lansing Township officers and the county board to put a stop to the proceedings,” reported the News.
Struck and Carlitz filed a counter lawsuit for slander or damage to their reputation by the cottage owners. They hired an Albert Lea attorney and made an “absolute denial” of the allegation that they used moonshine whiskey or “any other kind of liquor to induce Paddy Walsh to sign the lease,” the Evening Tribune wrote on June 18, 1921.
Attorney R.C. Alderson, who created the dance pavilion’s lease and went with Struck and Carlitz to the Walsh home for signing, was going to be the defendants’ “star witness.” Alderson said he did not see moonshine whiskey when Walsh signed the lease.
A court hearing set for July 2, 1921, did not happen. The cottage owners withdrew their petition July 11 and settled the case out of court, agreeing to reimburse Struck and Carlitz for their expenses toward the project in exchange for their “giving up the lease.”
“Were it not for the quick action of these men, the development of Ramsey along the Cedar River might have been considerably different — all because of ‘moonshine whiskey,” the Herald wrote in 1956.
“And so ended another chapter,” the Herald added, “in the right to keep the Ramsey property a peaceful residential and cabin area.”