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Ray and Audrey Brake share love of family -- and Wilmont -- history

Ray and Audrey Brake are shown in their rural Wilmont home with some of their historical scrapbooks spread out on the dining room table. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 5
Audrey Brake arranges collectibles on a shelf in her rural Wilmont home. Audrey is also Wilmont's unofficial community archivist. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 5
Audrey Brake learned to play the instrument at a store in Worthington as a young girl. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)3 / 5
Collectibles on a shelf in her rural Wilmont home. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)4 / 5
Collectibles on a shelf in her rural Wilmont home. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)5 / 5

WILMONT -- Just about half a mile up the road from Ray and Audrey Brake's rural Wilmont home is the site where an infamous bit of Brake family history played out.

Ray's dad, Joe, and three of his brothers ran a large bootlegging operation during the 1920s Prohibition era. They made moonshine, firewater, hooch, mountain dew, rotgut, white lightning -- whatever name they gave it, it was illegal -- and distributed it as far away as Chicago and Kansas City.

The recipe, or a facsimile there of, is still around someplace. The Brake brothers bootleggers utilized 4,000 pounds of sugar a day, which was simmered along with the other ingredients in seven 1,700-gallon vats located in the top of a large barn on the Brake property. A buzzer system warned when someone approached the site of the distillery, and a tunnel had been dug to allow anyone on the premises to escape should the revenuers come calling.

"I wish they had kept a journal," lamented Audrey about her in-laws and their illegal escapades.

Eventually, the operation did get busted. A 1929 article in the Minneapolis Tribune, saved in the annals of Brake history, details the raid and refers to the operation as the "largest still ever found in this section of Minnesota."

Although his dad wasn't very forthcoming about details of the operations, Ray does know that father Joe did much of the hauling of the Brake product, and on the day of the raid, on his way home from making a delivery, happened to stop in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and call home.

"They said they should stay there, don't come home, because they got raided," Ray detailed. "So they got rid of the trucks and traded them for cars. They bought four cars and brought them home.

"He and my mother got married six months later," Ray added as a side note. "They had been going out for three years, and she didn't know anything about it."

When federal agents raided the still, they meticulously dismantled all the equipment, and the Brakes got out of the rum-running business. Ray unwittingly uncovered a long-forgotten remnant of the operation, however, many years later.

"I had the horses out in the yard in the late 1940s, and one of the horses fell in to something," Ray related. "I figured it was a well. I waited for my dad to get out of the field and told him. He said, 'It must be a barrel we forgot about. We thought we'd dug them all up.'"

With such a colorful tale in their own family, it's no wonder that Ray and Audrey both have a passion for things historical. Ray loves to read about history, and Audrey has spearheaded several local historical projects, including the archives at the Wilmont Community Center and a planned memorial for the victims of a the largest tragedy in Nobles County history -- a head-on crash that killed nine people on a curve northwest of Reading.

Their own chapter

Married 40 years last September, Audrey and Ray's own story began at the Hollyhock Ballroom in Hatfield--a renowned social hangout of the time. Audrey recalls that young people from various communities staked out their own section of the facility.

"The Worthington kids were over there, the Wilmont kids here, the Adrian kids there," she described.

Audrey lived in Wilmont and Ray on the farm not too far away, but their paths had never previously crossed until that evening in Hatfield.

"I knew his younger brother, but I didn't know him," she recalled. "I was with a girlfriend. She was after a friend of his."

"They ended up getting married, too," Ray noted.

"Two weeks after us," added Audrey.

Although there were other school districts that were closer, including a high school right in Wilmont at the time, Ray had chosen to commute to Worthington High School -- a 21-mile trip -- because it offered industrial arts and other expanded programs that the smaller districts couldn't sustain. Despite an accident at age 16 that put him in the hospital for two and a half months and almost cost him a leg, he became an amateur baseball player, a pastime he continued until age 39. He also served in the National Guard.

Audrey attended college in Mankato, planning to become a teacher.

"I wish I had gone back" to school, she lamented in retrospect. "My major was business education. I would have gone back for English."

Audrey graduated from college in August, and they were married in September. Her teaching plans were put on the back burner.

The Brakes had three children -- Dan, Scott and Stacy -- and Audrey was a fulltime mom and farm wife -- a role that took some getting used to, as she had always lived in town. They settled on "the home place," where Ray had grown up, eventually building a new house in 1986.

"The only original thing left is Grandma Brake's old summer kitchen -- I moved it and use it for storage,, and that basswood tree is an original tree," Ray said, pointing out at a large tree that provides shade for the house. "We thought we might lose it when we built the house -- had to take out some of its roots -- but it's still there."

When her kids were old enough, Audrey went back to teaching and is in her 17th year of subbing for the Adrian school district, currently in the midst of a full-time subbing stint.

"I like being around the kids," she said, adding that substituting suits her fine. "I like being able to say no if I don't want to. But just Adrian keeps me busy; it's almost every day."

Like his father before him, Ray went into farming, raising both crops and livestock -- hogs and stock cows for the most part.

"I thought at one time in high school that I'd like to go into veterinary medicine," Ray said. "But my two oldest brothers were in the service when I got out of school, and I'd always liked farming. I still like to dig around a bit."

Ray retired 10 years ago. None of his children had an interest in farming, but his nephews are continuing the Brake agriculture legacy and have a large cattle operation nearby.

"I can go up to the nephews' (Brake Feed Lot), and they put me to work a bit," he said.

Recent history

When he's not lending a hand to his relatives, Ray putters around his own place when the weather is nice. During the winter, he can most often be found with his nose in a book.

"I like history, read a lot of history books," he said. "And I'm coming up to K in the encyclopedia. It's really interesting what you can learn."

Audrey has a penchant for books, too -- scrapbooks. Whenever she has spare time -- which isn't often -- she compiles scrapbooks for her own family and the Wilmont community. She became the unofficial Wilmont archivist when the community celebrated its centennial in 1999.

"When we built the community center, there was a centennial quilt, and we decided to have a room where that quilt could go in and have showcases with heritage items in there," Audrey said. "Right now, we've got nine years of former Wilmont newspapers, and we're getting some more."

Connected with the city offices, the community center's archives are open for perusing during business hours, and Audrey opens the doors during community functions and at special requests.

So far, Audrey has compiled nine scrapbooks of community information and is currently working on a photo album featuring the generations of families that have lived in the Wilmont area.

"Down in the basement, she's got 82 scrapbooks including ones from her mother and my mother," noted Ray about her personal collection of memorabilia.

On Monday nights, Audrey can be found at the Wilmont bowling lanes.

"I have bowled in Wilmont for over 40 years almost every Monday night," she said. "If I would ever fall into a big windfall of money, I would put in new alleys with automatic scoring."

For the last couple months, both Audrey and Ray have been involved with the annual production of The Misfits, the local theater troupe that puts on a play at St. Joseph's Hall in nearby St. Kilian, this year its 22nd. Leading up to the production dates, rehearsals were three nights a week and every Sunday.

She doesn't like the title of director, but Audrey supervises the play practices, and Ray is also involved behind the scenes.

"I do all the stage stuff," he said. "I'm her go-fer guy."

Audrey prefers to leave the acting to other members of The Misfits, but once in a while she can be coaxed to perform for family and friends -- on one of her two accordions. She learned to play the instrument at a store in Worthington as a young girl.

"I took lessons for two and a half years. The hardest part to first learn is to open and close the bellows to get the sound out," she explained. "I'm not a great player, but it's fun."

Between full-time substitute teaching, play practice, bowling and all her other unofficial jobs, Audrey's life has been a bit hectic in recent months. When it's not so harried, she and Ray travel to see their children and grandchildren -- two granddaughters with one on the way. And when the weather gets warm enough, there will be a large garden to plant and maintain.

From time to time, the idea of moving into town has come up, but Ray and Audrey enjoy their life in rural Wilmont. It's where they have roots -- and a rich history that runs as deep as the long-forgotten barrels of hooch that may still be buried in their backyard.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  

(507) 376-7327
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