107-year-old northern Minn. woman leaves behind stories of moonshine, priests

Elsye McGuire enjoyed raising goats on her family's homestead.
Elsye McGuire enjoyed raising goats on her family's homestead. These two goats didn't make it much longer after the photo was taken -- they ate the leather seats out of the family car, and were swiftly dealt with.
Courtesy Mollie Crooker

Elsye McGuire's memories of her early life read like "Little House on the Prairie" — if it were written for adults, and Pa ran an illegal moonshine still in the swamp behind his house.

For the last few decades of her life, she spent a lot of time writing.

Elyse died in January at 107, but her daughter Mollie Crooker recently sorted through her writing and compiled 250 pages into a book to pass on to the next generation.

Elsye was born in a logging camp north of Cass Lake. Her father ran the camp, and her mother cooked for nine children and most of the loggers. When the camp moved on, the family stayed behind at a homestead on Swenson Lake.

Elsye McGuire passed away in January at 107.
Elsye McGuire passed away in January at 107. Her daughter Mollie Crooker, right, says she was remarkably healthy until the end.
Courtesy Mollie Crooker

She was 12 at the start of Prohibition, when her father taught her to pour cool swamp water over the distilling coils, and how to hide their operation from the feds.

"On the eastern shore of Swenson Lake there is a heavily wooded swamp. This swamp is where many gallons of swamp whiskey was distilled. When the mash was ready to brew, we carried it into the swamp to cook. After distilling the stuff, we buried the kegs in the ground until it was ready to sell. It wasn't an easy way to make a few forbidden dollars. But it was a good living for us for many years."

Portrait of Elsye McGuire taken during a short stint at business school.
Portrait of Elsye McGuire taken during a short stint at a local business school.
Courtesy Mollie Crooker

Elsye wrote more about raising goats, and putting up hay for the winter, and hail storms that tore right through the roof of their house.

She also told a story about Toivo, the little Finnish neighbor boy, who was killed by his friend Paul over a marble game.

"After the shooting, he hid the body in the woods. A big hunt was on to find the body, because Paul said Toivo was dead, and was hiding in the woods. Pa made a casket of pine boards, and Ma lined it with cotton batting and one of her white sheets."

When Elsye grew up, she worked as a fishing guide. She met her husband Cal at a local dance. They had children. They ran a candy shop in Cass Lake for half a century. And they went to Saint Charles Catholic church, a lot.

A big chunk of Elsye's writing is devoted to priests. Her favorite was Father Paul.

"Father Paul was like a son to her," Mollie said. "She loved Father Paul. Sometimes I thought she liked Father Paul more than me."

Elsye McGuire worked as a fishing guide as a teen, here with 37-lb. muskie.
Elsye McGuire worked as a fishing guide when she was a teenager. Here she's caught a 37-pound muskie.
Courtesy Mollie Crooker

Father Paul came to the church in the early 1980s just after Elsye's husband Cal passed away. He kept her company, and even took her to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on her 80th birthday.

Mollie said her mother was remarkably healthy and content. But Elsye lived for more than a century. Not all her stories could be about haystacks, or moonshine or even priests.

Mostly she maintained a sense of humor, but near the end, her writings have darker moments.

"Never alone, I wonder. Sure God is always with you, but not as a person. He isn't reading out loud to you, or playing scrabble or cribbage, or sitting in the vacant chair or keeping you warm in bed. I know, because I've lived through 14 years of being alone."

When Elsye's health began to fail, Mollie started to collect her writings. She wanted Elsye's great grandchildren to know the stories.

Now that the book is done, Mollie said it wasn't the stories she admired about her mother. It was her ability to speak her mind.

"She was comfortable with what she was," Mollie said. "I know she probably hurt people's feelings. But then she had it out. Then I don't think she ever thought about it again. She never really dwelled on things."

It was not dwelling, not worrying what people thought, Mollie said, that gave Elsye such a long and interesting life.

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