On this day 100 years ago, the nation officially went dry.
Washington state voters had already banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol in 1914. But today marks a century since the country followed with a ban on all sales, manufacture and import of all types of alcohol following the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Prohibition Era lasted until December 1933.
Today, craft breweries are booming in Spokane. Washington recently licensed its 1,000th winery and small-batch producers, like locally-owned Dry Fly Distilling, find their products stocked by restaurants and bars. Statistics indicate Americans are drinking more alcohol per capita than they were before the ban on alcohol sales began on Jan. 17, 1920.
“The landscape is 180 degrees different from Prohibition, when there were zero breweries,” said Bill Powers, the marketing director for Spokane-based No-Li Brewhouse. “Now, there are like 7,000 in the United States. There are tons of them.”
In many ways, the politics that led to Prohibition have reversed.
But a century ago, the move to ban drinking came at a time of deep racial divisions and efforts to win voting rights for women. That treatment propelled many of those marginalized Americans into the Democratic Party, which engineered Prohibition’s repeal, said Lisa McGirr, a Harvard history professor whose 2015 book “The War on Alcohol” examined the social repercussions of the movement.
“Prohibition had a lot of unintended consequences that backfired on the people who worked so hard to establish the law,” McGirr said. “It helped activate and enfranchise men and women who had not been part of the political process earlier. That was not the intention of Prohibition supporters.”
Statistically, Prohibition was not an utter failure. Deaths from alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver declined, as did arrests for public drunkenness.
What the statistics don’t measure is how extensively Prohibition was flouted. Bootleggers established vast distribution networks. Makers of moonshine and “bathtub gin” proliferated, sometimes producing fatally tainted liquor. Determined drinkers concealed their contraband in hip flasks or hollowed-out canes. Maryland refused to pass a law enforcing the Volstead Act, enacted to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment.
The underworld created to quench the nation’s thirst for spirits earned a scathing assessment from journalist H.L. Mencken in 1925.
Five years of Prohibition “completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists,” he wrote. “There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”
Locally, Prohibition Era culture and the legacy it created lives on.
Mica Moon Zip Tours took its name from bootleggers who established stills in the hills above Spokane Valley, said its owner, Rik Stewart.
“There were several moonshining families that lived up on Mica Peak,” Stewart said. “We still have remnants of the cabins when they had stills up there. The trails that we use as our UTV trails were part of the trails the moonshiners used to get to their stills.
“They called their moonshine Mica Moon. It was supposedly pretty good stuff,” he continued. “One of my guests yelled out, ‘If it doesn’t make you blind or kill you, then it’s good stuff!’ ”
State’s war on drinks
Washington’s campaign to rid the state of alcohol started when it was only a territory, according to the historical book “The Dry Years,” published in 1965 by author Norman H. Clark.
As soon as Congress organized the Washington Territory in 1853, a familiar name began pushing the first efforts to prohibit liquor: the Rev. George F. Whitworth, who would later found what is now Whitworth University in Spokane.
“Whitworth drew up a petition for the first territorial legislature … (which) proposed a territorial referendum on a prohibitory law” against alcohol, Clark wrote. That measure was tabled in 1854 but it was put to a vote in 1855. It was narrowly defeated.
“Not until after 1863, when Congress organized the Idaho Territory, did farmers, merchants, and lumbermen of Washington Territory feel enough social and political security to bring the temperance issue again before a legislative forum,” Clark wrote.
Whitworth later formed the Washington Territorial Temperance Alliance in 1874 and served as the organization’s president. Efforts eventually led to the Alcohol Education Act in 1886 that required schools to teach the negative effects of alcohol and narcotics to students, or risk losing state funding.
“The results are difficult to estimate, but when the people of Washington voted for antidrink measures in 1914, 1916 and 1918, they had been exposed to over three decades of formalized, official antidrink instruction,” Clark wrote.
Battle of big breweries
Three technological changes – the train, the refrigerated train car and the bottle cap – also contributed to turning public sentiment against alcohol, Clark wrote.
Prior to the early 1900s, the saloon was a cherished aspect of any community, Clark wrote. Most saloons brewed their own beer, designed not to keep very long.
“The saloon was a place where a man informed himself about the social and political matters of the day. In Spokane in the 1890s, the saloons kept the newspaperman close to the miners from the Coeur d’Alene, the wheat growers from the Palouse, the ‘apple knockers’ from the big orchards, and the mayor and councilmen from city hall,” Clark wrote.
During the depression of 1894, saloons of Spokane helped lodge and feed “at least 650 unemployed men from the mines, ranches and logging camps,” Clark wrote. “The saloons of Washington, at their most gracious, may actually have been a contribution to basic human dignity.”
But then the Great Northern Railway brought a population boom. It also brought refrigerated rail cars, which along with the invention of the crown bottle cap, meant that massive breweries in St. Louis and Milwaukee could send their products to compete for markets in the Pacific Northwest, Clark wrote.
“And the brewery barons were harsh taskmasters,” Clark wrote. “When almost anyone could become a saloonkeeper, almost anyone who did, was in debt to a brewery. As always in the state’s history, unrestrained business competition was the excuse for ruthless and stupid exploitation – of furs, of fish, of timber, of human flesh.”
Even after the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing Prohibition in 1933, the memory of the brewery battles remained, Clark wrote.
“Following the repeal of prohibition, the State Advisory Committee on Liquor Legislation gravely warned the voters against the active promotion of liquor sales,” Clark wrote. “The committee remembered such sales as the most objectionable feature of the open saloon.”
One hundred years later, microbreweries are competing against those same massive breweries for business. But this time, they appear to be winning, Powers said.
“We started in 2012 and, ever since then, we have been growing,” he said. “There has been a groundswell for craft beers. It’s a fun environment to be in.”
Customers don’t want the same beer that anyone can purchase at a grocery story, Powers said. Technology is also making it easier for craft breweries to thrive.
“People crave new and unique brews. They want stuff that is small-batch, that you can only get in your local towns,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to be creating beers in the Northwest.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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