State Ban On Oleo Margarine Led To Smuggling


June 24, 2015

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Imagine this, it is 1950, Spooner a Friday evening, darkness is descending. My mother and a few of her friends are sitting around THE kitchen table talking quietly

One woman says, “Who will drive?”

Another says. “Not me, I drove last week.”

A third chimes in, “I’ll go this time”. “But I want gas money before I leave.”

Someone asks, “When will you be back?”

Answer. “By midnight . . . if all goes well.”

We children would be playing around the house but when we entered the kitchen the conversation would stop or change to a different subject.

We could tell something special was happening. A new baby maybe?

Only later did we learn that they weren’t talking about rum running or dope peddling.  Rather they were working out the details of the weekly run across the border to Pine City, Minnesota, to avoid the state tax and purchase uncolored oleo margarine. That we lived across the street from a state senator made the planning more exciting.

For many years Wisconsin taxed uncolored oleo and that law was not changed until 1967.  I guess the Legislators thought people would confuse colored oleo with butter. One State law required restaurants and Hotels serving oleo to post signs to that effect.

But, in 1950, uncolored oleo was available, and at a good price, in Minnesota. So, to avoid the added tax, people from a number of Wisconsin communities made “runs” to Minnesota to purchase cases of the illegal spread.

These oleo runs were against the law and the runner might be caught by the police. No one ever said “how” the police might know if someone had uncolored oleo in their car but just knowing their actions were illegal was cause for caution.

But, the runner went, often alone and on back roads, as the other women played cards, chatted, and waited for her return.

The driver’s return, with a trunk full of uncolored oleo, always took place after we were in bed. But we knew the “run” had been successful because of the activity the next morning. There was no overt discussion of the smuggling, but there was always a rush to “move the product” so, often, we kids became part of the process. Uncolored oleo was packaged in a clear plastic bag that contained a small bubble which, when broken, allowed a dye into the package. We would massage the package to make the oleo a pinkish color. Now, having some color, and if seen by someone it would not stand out as the uncolored, untaxed version.   Still cautious, my mother would then say, “Take this bag over to Mrs. X house. And do not go past the Senator’s house.”  Or “Put these boxes in the basement until Mr. Y stops by to get them.” This was rather exciting. What would happen if the Senator did see us, maybe just to say ‘Hello” and “How are your parents”.  What would we do?

Still, we kids could tell that even after the distribution phase these “law breakers” did not feel safe. There were comments, softly spoken between my parents about Mrs. So and Sos trip to Minnesota. Or about whether they should do it again.

To this day, not being fully aware of the statute of limitations on such nefarious criminal acts in this state, I suspect you will find few who will admit their involvement. What I do know is that even after 64 years anyone in the my family who was there – brother, sister, cousin –  still smiles and laughs about our part in the Wisconsin Oleo Caper.

 

 

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