falling axes

WINTER IS COMING: THE YEAR BEFORE PROHIBITION

Prohibition is starting soon, or maybe not. When it begins (if it does) enforcement will be really strict, or the law will be mostly ignored. No alcohol will be allowed anywhere, or there will be exemptions for wine and light beer.

The year was 1919 and anyone who claimed to know what was going to happen was a fool or a liar. Both probably.

This is the story of how Prohibition came to be the law of the land. Before continuing, Gentle Reader should not expect the sort of tale usually found here. Santa Rosa or even Sonoma county are not center stage; this time our ancestors are in the audience, where they would have been watching with rapt attention and gripping their seats tightly – because the ending of this drama just might end up causing financial catastrophe for many dependent upon the wine industry.

In 1918-1919 most Americans likely thought there were long odds that a completely “bone-dry” version of Prohibition would be enacted. Several times during the lead-up it seemed there were going to be exemptions for beer and wine, or the law would be toothless because it wouldn’t be enforced, or the amendment would be tossed out as unconstitutional. All of this kept the nation (and particularly, wine-making Sonoma and Napa counties) on edge.

What happened nationally in those months before Prohibition is a story well worth telling – and that’s even without mixing in the dramatic detail that crucial decisions were supposedly being made by a President of the United States who was only dimly aware of current events, having just suffered a massive stroke. But strangely, I can’t find a single book (much less an internet resource) that gives this tale its due. Prohibition authors waste little ink on everything between Congress proposing the Eighteenth Amendment and the dawn of the bootleggers; Woodrow Wilson biographers focus on the stroke and his obsession with having the U.S. join the League of Nations.

Read the old newspapers, however, and find this stumbling march towards Prohibition was told in screaming headlines, making it one of the top news stories in the year following Germany’s surrender.

Only Russia's execution of Czar Nicholas was important enough to squeeze prohibition news out of the headlines. Press Democrat, June 28, 1918
Only Russia’s execution of Czar Nicholas was important enough to squeeze prohibition news out of the headlines. Press Democrat, June 28, 1918

 

Another excuse for writers avoiding these doings is because there are so many entangled parts that it can leave you cross-eyed trying to sort out what’s what. To assist Gentle Reader (and myself) a timeline is provided below which tracks the key moments in the story. Surely it will be a valuable aid to plagiarizing students for years to come.

And finally (before rejoining our show already in progress), this article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today. While this chapter covers the launch of Prohibition, the bigger theme is how our nation became so completely polarized over this single issue.

Just as WWI was ending, Californians voted on whether they wanted to go to war with their neighbors.

Voters were surely giddy when they went to the polls on November 5, 1918; every day brought more good news from the war front. German soldiers were surrendering en masse and their sailors were mutinying on the battleships. Terms for an armistice were finished and waiting for Berlin to sign. In a mere eight days The Great War was about to become history.

On the Californian ballot, however, were two propositions which supporters promised would “shorten the war and save untold blood and treasure.” Neither actually had anything to do with the war effort and only showed how those yearning for Prohibition had become jihadists for the cause.

Prop. 22 banned all manufacture, import or sale of intoxicating liquor, thus creating “bone-dry” Prohibition. But that wasn’t all; it imposed draconian punishments on anyone who broke the law – $25 and 25 days in jail for first time offenders, cranked up to $100/100 days for third and subsequent offenses.

1918propvotingProp. 1 closed all the saloons – so you’d think all the teetotalers who had long called themselves anti-saloon crusaders would heartily vote in favor. Wrong! To the bone-dry moralists it was a stalking horse because it allowed alcohol to stay legal. Sans saloons, drinks could still be served in restaurants, cafes, hotels and other places where it “affects the women and boys and girls as well” [emphasis theirs]. The expensive quarter-page ad seen at right appeared in the Press Democrat and many other newspapers statewide.

Both failed to pass, although Prop. 1 came closest. In Sonoma and Napa counties Prop. 22 lost by about 16 points and nearly twice that in San Francisco. Yet in Los Angeles county and all the other counties nearby, harsh Prop. 22 won – sometimes by almost 3 to 1 margins – and they also generally voted with the dead-enders who wanted to wipe out all alcohol everywhere by voting against Prop. 1, which didn’t grant the purists everything they wanted.

There’s your snapshot of California prior to national Prohibition’s final sprint to the finish line. The state was culturally divided between the north and south, with Los Angeles and San Francisco being the two poles. In the 1920s LA was “the promised city for white Protestant America,” as historian Kevin Starr put it, “prudish, smug and chemically pure.”1 Overwhelmingly Anglo-American, no other ethnic group even topped five percent, including Hispanics. By contrast, one in five San Franciscans was foreign-born, mostly German, Italian and Irish – cultures which certainly did not shun drinking – and the greater Bay Area similarly reflected a diversity which looked a lot more like Europe than the WASP-y Southland.

California was unusual in having such a strong geographic split over prohibition; in the rest of the country it was mainly a city/country divide. Dry advocates were mostly rural, anti-immigrant and conservative, while the Wet faction was clustered in liberal multi-ethnic towns and cities with factories and working class jobs. Both sides shared the hyper-patriotism surrounding WWI during 1917-1918 – which the bone-dry crusaders tried to exploit by casting anything to do with alcohol as being harmful to the war effort and un-American (see the previous article, “THE MADNESS OF 1918“).

Getting those propositions on the statewide ballot was a major accomplishment of the prohibition movement. A decade or so earlier, it only consisted of scattered righteous bullies trying to intimidate local governments into restricting saloons – how that played out in Santa Rosa was discussed in an earlier article. By 1918 they had become a force to recken with, thanks to the money and political heft of the Anti-Saloon League as well as their lineup of celebrity speakers – among them preacher Billy Sunday and conservative Democrat William Jennings Bryan). They were still righteous bullies, but now they had clout nationwide and were prepped to purge America clean.

TIMELINE TO PROHIBITION

1917

Dec 17   Congress sends Eighteenth Amendment to states for ratification

1918

Nov 11   End of WWI; Wilson delivers Armistice address to Congress
Nov 21   Wartime Prohibition Act signed by Wilson
Dec 01   Breweries closed

1919

Jan 16   Eighteenth Amendment ratified
Feb 06   IRS rules any drink over 0.5 percent alcohol as intoxicating
May 01   Wartime Prohibition Act bans using foodstuffs to make beer, wine or liquor
Jun 27   Volstead bill introduced
Jun 30   Wartime Prohibition Act bans sale of beer, wine or liquor
Oct 10   Volstead sent to Wilson
Oct 27   Wilson vetoes Volstead, overridden by Senate next day
Nov 19   Senate rejects Treaty of Versailles/League of Nations membership

1920

Jan 17   Prohibition begins
Mar 19   Senate rejects Versailles for second time

1921

Jul 02   Official end of U.S. involvement in WWI by act of Congress and President Harding
Aug 25   U.S.–German Peace Treaty

Here’s the cheatsheet on Prohibition: The 18th Amendment banned “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” but not drinking alcohol, buying it or making it yourself. It also said nothing about how it was to be enforced. Months after it was ratified by the states, the Volstead Act (PDF) defined what “intoxicating” meant, which exceptions were allowed and put the IRS in charge of enforcement. The Wartime Prohibition Act was passed into law immediately after the war had ended. It was entirely separate from the 18th Amendment and had no purpose other than forcing prohibition upon the nation ahead of the Amendment’s start date.

The Eighteenth Amendment was really, really close to being ratified when President Wilson addressed Congress on Nov. 11, 1918 with the message, “the war thus comes to an end” – yet still he signed the Wartime Prohibition Act ten days later. It was supposed to apply only until “the conclusion of the present war and thereafter until the termination of demobilization… as proclaimed by the President.”2

The Wartime Prohibition Act was both mean-spirited and a dirty political trick. The Senate and House had bitterly hashed out the language for the Eighteenth Amendment to include a year’s grace before it was enacted, which would allow the alcohol industry to wind down without hardship. As it wasn’t yet ratified, no one yet knew when the countdown would start – but this new law broke the deal by declaring Prohibition would begin on July 1, 1919, come what may. It also put Wilson and his Democratic Party in a sticky position. The Democrats then were an uneasy alliance of “Wets” (mostly northeastern cities) and “Drys” (old Confederacy). By signing the bill which included the Wartime Prohibition Act, he risked pissing off much of the party’s political base. Wilson would spend much of the rest of his presidency trying to undo that.

warprohibitionactadLEFT: Wartime Prohibition Act ad appeared in the Press Democrat, July 23, 1918

But it would have been difficult for Wilson to veto the Act – although it’s said he signed it reluctantly – because it was actually a rider to an important agricultural bill. Also, Wilson personally wanted no truck with the prohibitionists, both due to his disposition and because they tried to bully him during his 1912 run for the White House.

A few months earlier the Sonoma County Farm Bureau had sent a letter to the White House pleading for Wilson to not sign the Act into law. The letter included valuable figures; there were 20,000 acres of wine grapes in the county and passage would “mean economic ruin to hundreds of families in Sonoma county, whose sons are now offering themselves for the supreme sacrifice…immediate prohibition will mean the loss of $4,000,000 this year to the producers of Sonoma county. Obviously this loss will seriously impair the ability of the banks of the county to meet their quota of Liberty Bonds, War Savings Stamps…”

It was soon after New Years’ 1919 when the Prohibition countdown began, after Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. But what was it, really? A toothless, symbolic nod to morality or a law greatly expanding police powers? Until the Volstead bill came along six months later, everyone seemed to have their own ideas.

While that pot was simmering, provisions in the Wartime Prohibition Act began to kick in. First came the May 1 ban on using any kind of foodstuff in the making of boozy beverages. This had little immediate impact as the 1919 grape harvest was months away and breweries already had been shut down the previous year as businesses non-essential to the war effort (MORE).

But shortly ahead was the July 1 start of bone-dry prohibition, which President Wilson wanted to squelch by having Congress amend or repeal the Wartime Prohibition Act. Still in Paris for the Treaty of Versailles negotiations, he sent a message on May 20 to Capitol Hill: “The demobilization of the military forces of the country has progressed to such a point that it seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers…”

When Congress ignored him, Wilson sought to abort the Act by having demobilization declared complete. Just days before the Act’s prohibition was to start, Wilson was told by his secretary (Chief of Staff, today) that “best opinion says” the War Department was to announce demobilization by August 1, so he should be able to suspend the ban on wine and beer at that time. Sorry, the Attorney General cabled Wilson the same day; there would be no imminent demobilization because a million men were still in uniform under the war emergency call up.

In the last days of June, drinkers in Sonoma county and elsewhere were beset by panic. The Press Democrat reported all wineries with retail stores were mobbed; “the rush of this week is beating records. People are buying a supply to take into their homes so as to have it there for their own use. The supplies being laid in run all the way from two gallons to a hundred and even a larger quantity.” The owner of a liquor store told the PD that his shelves would be empty before the deadline.

As the nation braced for impact of total prohibition, this happened on June 30: The Department of Justice completely reversed its position and announced it would not enforce the Act’s ban on the sale of beer. Why? Because there was a pending court decision on whether “near beer” could be considered intoxicating.3

Press Democrat headlines, July 1, 1919
Press Democrat headlines, July 1, 1919

This development flung all the cards into the air once again. If the Wartime Prohibition Act’s definition of intoxicating was in question, then so was the very legality of the Act. And if the federal government wasn’t going to enforce it, then what laws regarding alcohol applied? Breweries reopened quickly and started making light beer, which was legal under the laws written in 1917. Should saloons still close? The Justice Dept. threatened they could be prosecuted retroactively if the Act was upheld in court. All closed in Petaluma; most in Santa Rosa apparently didn’t, as the City Council declared they would continue to accept the quarterly payments for liquor licenses – but no actual licenses would be issued. The situation was nuts.

Keep in mind all of this chaos surrounds just the Wartime Prohibition Act – a set of laws balancing on the fiction that WWI was still underway, although it had actually ended eight months prior. Eighteenth Amendment prohibition was still on the horizon for the new year, but the Drys in Congress were determined to keep the Act in place until that moment. “To repeal war-time prohibition now is like giving a half-cured drug fiend opium for a few months,” said Kansas GOP Rep. Little. When the Act was sent to the Supreme Court to settle its constitutionality, the House passed the most onerous bill yet, restricting alcohol under the Act to 0.5 percent. Like our little cartoon bear seen at the top, reprieve was only momentary – there was always another axe waiting to fall.

During those summer months the Volstead rules were under debate and rumors flew. All liquor advertising would have to be removed or painted over (true); people could be arrested for telling someone where they could get a drink (false). The government could take away your home if you had liquor on the premises (false); the government could seize your car or truck if liquor was found in it (true).

Wine makers in Sonoma and Napa were particularly susceptible to rumors because the grape harvest was approaching and they desperately wanted good news. The PD reprinted an item from the St. Helena Star squashing a report that the ban on wine would be lifted just in time for the crews to begin picking. Nope. But there was actual good news when the first Volstead details were announced in September; there would be exemptions for the making of wine for sacramental and medicinal purposes, and Kanaye Nagasawa promptly announced the Fountaingrove winery was “going ahead with plans to pick the grapes and make them into wine, just as though there was no such thing as a prohibition law,” according to the PD.

That happened in September while President Wilson was spending a month on a private train barnstorming around the country, trying to drum up public support for the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. His tour was cut short when the President suffered a mini-stroke, which was not revealed to the public. Back in the White House on October 2, Wilson had a major stroke which left him partially paralyzed. This too was kept secret from the public, even the Congress and Cabinet members. For the remaining 17 months of his presidency, we now know crucial decisions for the country were being made by a troika consisting of his secretary, doctor, and primarily his wife, Edith.

During those fragile early days after the stroke, Congress sent him the Volstead Act to sign. While the press had hashed over most of its rules and regs under the upcoming enactment of the 18th Amendment, the Act also contained an ugly surprise – immediate enforcement of the Wartime Prohibition Act. Although real Prohibition was only three months away, the Drys wanted to give everyone else in the country this one last poke in the eye.

The White House vetoed the act, pointing out there was a distinct difference between the permanent constitutional amendment and that temporary wartime measure, which Wilson had asked Congress to cancel a few months earlier.4 The veto message was written in the first person and signed by the president, although it’s now believed he had no role at all in writing it and probably knew nothing about what was going on with the issue, so carefully did Edith shield him from any upsetting news.5

The Act went back to the House, where the Dry “steam roller” (as the NY Times put it) rushed through a veto override after it was noticed a number of Wet congressmen coincidentally were absent that afternoon. After their defeat, historian Vivienne Sosnowski wrote, “…the anti-Prohibitionists stormed out of the House as soon as the vote was counted, feeling defrauded by what seemed to them to be an illegitimate and essentially malicious act: They felt like stunned victims of a savage ambush.”6 The Senate joined to override Wilson’s veto the next day and the Volstead Act was now law. America was officially bone dry.

Before the Senate actually voted, however, the White House announced it would annul the Wartime Prohibition Act just as soon as the Senate ratified the Treaty of Versailles in the near future. The peace treaty would have given Wilson the power to do that, as the veto message specifically proclaimed demobilization was complete. The Press Democrat jumped at this lifeline:

Press Democrat headlines, October 29, 1919
Press Democrat headlines, October 29, 1919

What a lift of the “wet ban” would have accomplished is unclear, as the Volstead Act was now law and it had immediately flicked on the switch for prohibition (note the “Bone Dry America” deck below the banner hed). With such little time remaining before the Jan. 20 start of Prohibition, it could only have sown confusion. I believe, however, that the White House announcement was a pivotal moment in the history of our nation – and maybe even the world.

Less than a month later, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, and with it, U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Historians agree America’s failure to join the League left it weak and rudderless during the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, key developments leading to WWII. But reasons why the Senate refused to ratify the treaty are less clear.

Gather a group of eminent scholars on American history in a room (tip: They’ll all be underpaid by their universities, so at least offer nice canapés). Some will argue it was because Congress hated peace terms in the treaty. Some will argue it was because Congress hated the League of Nations charter. It was because the nation was in the mood for isolationism. It was because Republicans were miffed at Wilson for not including them in treaty diplomacy. It was because Wilson’s stroke (which no one knew about at the time, remember) had left him disinhibited and implacably unwilling to negotiate with Congress. It was because there was a bipartisan faction called the “irreconcilables” who thought the whole thing just stunk. And you know what? ALL of those scholars are right. There were multiple reasons why the Treaty of Versailles failed to get a two-thirds Senate vote.

But go back and read the newspapers at the end of October 1919. The pressing concern was this: Will the Drys demand Congress oppose the treaty because passage might mean Wilson lifting the “wet ban?”

Oh, no, said the Anti-Saloon League (see transcript below), we wouldn’t monkeywrench something like that – and besides, wartime prohibition would continue until another treaty was eventually signed with Austria-Hungary, they said, both moving the goalposts several years further away and revealing that yes, the League took Versailles ratification as a serious threat to prohibition.

This was a turning point in America’s history, but on the eve of that critically important Senate vote, our political system was paralyzed over anything which might possibly touch the (increasingly irrelevant) Wartime Prohibition Act.

Soon it would be 1920, which would not only be the birth of Prohibition, but also the death of the Progressive era in America. It was to be a major election year and Wilson would be a lame duck even if he had been capable of leadership; in the next Congress, two out of three representatives would be from a Dry district. Appeasing those voters was paramount, and best to be on the record voting down the Treaty of Versailles, even though there was only a possibility it might have given the Wets a brief and meaningless win.

Thus here’s the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! punchline to our story: Hey, we may have lost the chance to avoid World War II, but at least we completely eliminated the possibility of some schlubs drinking a lite beer for a few weeks around New Year’s 1920.

As 1919 came to a close, the tribe of the Drys were jubilant, not just for the banishment of alcohol, but for victory in their culture war – in modern parlance, they were satisfied that they were now “owning the libs.” New York Congressman Richard F. McKiniry said at the time it was mainly about the rural areas spitefully “inflicting this sumptuary prohibition legislation upon the great cities. It preserves their cider and destroys the city workers’ beer.”

For them Prohibition was an end in itself – but other Drys had religious fervours that Prohibition was to lead America into becoming their New Jerusalem. I’ll give the last word to Daniel Okrent, author of the best modern book on Prohibition: 7


…by the time the Volstead Act became law, the Drys had become giddy in their political dominance and confident they would retain power sufficient to correct any errors or omissions. They believed that their cause had been sanctified by the long, long march to ratification, that it had truly been a people’s movement every bit as glorious as any other in the nation’s history…Over the next decade, the product of eighty years of marching, praying, arm-twisting, vote trading, and law drafting would be subjected to a plague of trials, among them hypocrisy, greed, murderous criminality, official corruption, and the unreformable impulses of human desire. Another way of saying it (and it was said often in the 1920s): the Drys had their law, and the Wets would have their liquor.

 

 

 

 


1 Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920’s by Kevin Starr, 1990, summary of chapter 6, “The People of the City: Oligarchs, Babbitts, and Folks”. The “chemically pure” remark comes from a famous 1913 essay, “Los Angeles: The Chemically Pure” which bemoaned that LA had been taken over by intolerant moral purists from the Midwest with a “frenzy for virtue.”

2 Misunderstandings about the so-called Wartime Prohibition Act are common and it’s easy to see why; even with modern internet search tools, information about it is damned hard to find. That title wasn’t used very often at the time (and usually spelled “War-Time” or “War Time” when it did appear), and was frequently just called the “Norris Amendment” because the rider was added by Senator George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska who led that party’s dry faction in the Senate. It is also often misstated that it was part of the “Emergency Agricultural Appropriations” bill, but it was actually attached to the Food Production Act for 1919 (H. R. 11945). Some authors further confuse it with the 1917 Food and Fuel Control Act, AKA the Lever Food Act, which placed restrictions on industries deemed nonessential to the war effort. When Wilson signed that earlier bill on August 10, 1917, he issued a further proclamation cutting back brewery output by 30 percent. For primary sources and more details, see this excellent study produced by the Carnegie Endowment in 1919.

3 “Near beer” had been a common term since at least 1909 and meant 2.75 percent alcohol by weight – or 3.4 percent by volume, which is the way we usually measure alcohol content today. This was the maximum content for beer as set by the 1917 Lever Food Control Act. Today’s light beers are about 4.1 percent ABV.

4 To the House of Representatives: I am returning without my signature H. R. 6810…The subject matter treated in this measure deals with two distinct phases of the prohibition legislation. One part of the Act under consideration seeks to enforce war time prohibition…which was passed by reason of the emergencies of the war and whose objects have been satisfied in the demobilization of the army and navy and whose repeal I have already sought at the hands of Congress…it will not be difficult for Congress in considering this important matter to separated these two questions and effectively to legislate regarding them; making the proper distinction between temporary causes which arose out of war time emergencies and those like the constitutional amendment…

5 Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, 2009; pg. 415

6 When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America’s Wine Country by Vivienne Sosnowski, 2009; pg. 45

7 Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, 2010; pg. 114

 

sources
SCORES IN RUSH TO LAY IN WINE
Unheard of Rush at Wineries in the County Where Wine Can Be Purchased at the Present Time in View of Approach of July First.

It might be said that there is a great rush on at every winery in Sonoma county where wine can be purchased these days in view of the approach of July 1.

This has been the case for weeks past, but the rush of this week is beating records. People are buying a supply to take into their homes so as to have it there for their own use. The supplies being laid in run all the way from two gallons to a hundred and even a larger quantity.

It is said that scores of people who openly state they have never drank wine before that they are not in favor of stopping the industry and are not going to let the opportunity go by to have a taste while tasting remains.

A well known winemaker in town yesterday stated that he never saw such a rush as had been on at his place this week by people calling and buying wine to take to their homes. Among them were people, he said, who were not in the habit of drinking themselves, but wanted to see their friends enjoy a glass of wine even after the war-time prohibition became effective, when they are their guests. Just three days more of a rush, if nobody rules to the contrary, some homes are going to be very popular after July 1.

– Press Democrat, June 28 1919

 

OLD JOHN GIVEN MERRY OLD RUN
Thousands of Dollars Worth of Liquors Were Sold to People to Take to Their Homes by the Various Establishments Here Saturday

In establishments where liquors are sold in this city there was the biggest rush of years on Saturday.

Men and women, in view of the “bone dry” law becoming effective so soon, were laying in a little stock, many of them for medicinal purposes.

In one establishment before seven o’clock at night, it was stated over one thousand dollars’ worth of liquor had been sold at retail in bottles and in dimis. or in cases since the store opened in the morning and the proprietor stated that he would be all sold out before the time for closing came Monday night.

The rush continued at the wineries and hundreds of customers were purchasers of a little wine or sherry to tide them over for a time and allow them to gradually taper off into the enjoyment of some other beverage.

Old John was given a merry old run here Saturday. There is one more day and night left for the saloons.

– Press Democrat, June 29 1919

 

NAGASAWA BACK FROM EAST TO MAKE WINE FROM CROPS
Japanese Vineyardist Hopes for “Reprieve,” But Will Use Output for Medicinal and Sacramental Purposes If the Drouth Continues Unabated.

Confidence that the grape crop and vintage of 1919 will be disposed of without any loss is displayed by Kanaye Nagasawa, owner of Fountaingrove, one of the largest vineyards and wineries in Sonoma county, and Nagasawa is going ahead with plans to pick the grapes and make them into wine, just as though there was no such thing as a prohibition law.

[..]

– Press Democrat, September 4 1919

 

GRAPE AND WINE SITUATION IN NAPA COUNTY DESCRIBED

The following article regarding the grape and wine situation from the last issue of the St. Helena Star, will be read here with interest:

Winemakers and grapegrowers are still up in the air and don’t know just where they will land. There seems, however, to be brighter prospects than before that the entire crop of grapes will be cared for.

Wine making in the old way, for beverage purposes, seems to be a thing of the past, at least for this year, as the law does not permit its manufacture for beverage purposes, and notwithstanding rumors there is no evidence at hand that the ban will be raised in time for this vintage, if at all.

ALL KINDS OF RUMORS

All kinds of rumors are afloat about raising the ban on wine making, and all such merely confuse both winemakers and the grapegrowers. One rumor reached St. Helena Wednesday coming indirectly from the office of the Collector of Internal Revenue in Los Angeles that the ban on winemaking would be raised on September 25. Immediately the Star wired the collector for verification and authenticity of the report and received the following reply:

Los Angeles, September 4, 1919.
St. Helena Star. St. Helena. Cal.:
Statement erroneous. Absolutely no information at this office regarding amendment of present regulations concerning winemaking.
John H. Carter. Collector.

Another report is that demobilization will be declared on November 15, but the grapes will either be harvested or will have perished on the vines by that date. The thing for grapegrowers to do is not to pay any attention to rumors.

[..]

– Press Democrat, September 12 1919

 

PROHIBITIONISTS NOT TO INTERFERE IN PEACE SIGNING
Associated Press

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28.-—Senate parliamentarians of years’ experience said that although the question never had been raised before, they believed the prohibition enforcement bill became law from the moment of the Senate action in overriding the veto at 3:40 o’clock today.

Prohibition forces in and out of the Senate will not attempt to delay ratification of the peace treaty because of the White House announcement that wartime prohibition will end with formal ratification of the pact, officers of the Anti-Saloon League announced.

E. C. Dinwiddie, in charge of the Anti-Saloon League fight before Congress, said dry forces adhered to the belief that wartime prohibition would stand until the Senate had ratified the Austrian treaty, but regardless of that “the league will not attempt to block consideration of the treaty.”

– Press Democrat, October 29 1919

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1918madness

THE MADNESS OF 1918

On Dec. 1, 1918, Grace Brothers’ brewery was closed on account of madness.

eitherorLike other breweries across the country, the beer-making section of big plant at the foot of Second street in Santa Rosa was ordered shut down by government regulation. The given reason was the nationwide shortage of coal, which began after the U.S. entered WWI; at the time coal was the fuel that ran almost everything in the country and while the crisis had little impact on the West Coast, the situation in the Eastern states was dire. William Jennings Bryan came to Santa Rosa and told us six million tons of coal a year were wasted on brewing beer; that was almost double the true figure, but it didn’t matter that he got it wrong because he sounded so convincing, as he always did.1

Bryan was mainly a professional prohibitionist during the war years. When he came here that June he also claimed $50 million worth of food products were being used annually by brewers.2 At this point of his speech he usually harrumphed indignantly, “how can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor when men are crying out for bread?” The brewing industry pushed back that under one percent of the nation’s grain was used in making beer, but that was another true factoid not heard in Bryan’s Chautauqua tent.

Accurate facts weren’t important to his audiences who didn’t seem to mind that he was hammering simplistic either-or fallacies into their poor, soft skulls; they went away thinking it was a choice between closed schools or open saloons, bread for starving war orphans or a nickel beer. They were given the impression that making alcohol – or drinking it – was both unpatriotic and shameful.

But Grace Brothers’ wasn’t forced to stop brewing because of an actual shortage of coal or pressing demand for flour or the eloquent lips of William Jennings Bryan. It happened because by the end of 1918 most Americans were nuts.

This article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today. This chapter concerns the origins of 20th century “fake news” – propaganda created in the U. S. during WWI. Some came from the government, intending to whip up support for the war, stir hate and fear against Germany and sow suspicions about German-Americans. The crusaders, who hoped that Prohibition would soon turn America bone-dry, wanted to shutoff access to all forms of drink and force the public to embrace their moral standards. In 1918 the government and the anti-alcohol forces virtually merged.

The Anti-Saloon League – the wealthiest and most powerful of the prohibitionist groups – not only wrote critical parts of the Volstead Act legislation but stage managed the Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into the German-American Alliance, paying witnesses for testimony. At the hearings the Alliance was painted as a front for the brewer’s trade group, which was itself condemned for placing editorials against the U.S. entry into the war and others against prohibition. ASL leader Wayne B. Wheeler argued at the time this showed the brewers were acting as a subversive fifth column and the government should seize all breweries owned by German families as “enemy alien property,” regardless of whether the owners had become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Some of the propaganda efforts by the prohibitionists were clumsy (they tried to rebrand beer as “Kaiser Alcohol”) but leaks from the Senate committee served to drag the Alliance/brewer patriotism story out for months. Speakers for ASL also effectively kept reminding the public that the names Busch, Pabst, Schlitz and Miller were all German – and President Wilson’s propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information, already had spent a year shaping public opinion to cast everything involving the “Huns” as sheer evil.

You’ve seen WWI propaganda posters; everybody has. There’s a small collection at the end of this article but do a Google image search and hundreds will turn up, along with some Photoshopped knockoffs which look like the real thing (Bitcoin people are particularly adept at this).

But I invite Gentle Reader to try to imagine the power of seeing them for the first time. Close your eyes. It’s 1917 or 1918; there is no internet, TV or radio; movies are silent and black & white. You read newspapers for entertainment and often probably see a copy of Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Leslie’s Weekly or another popular slick magazine, but aside from their color covers the illustrations inside are like the newspapers, in black & white and the ads are heavy with text and light on graphic design. Ho-hum. Then one day you’re downtown and in a store window is a poster like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The colors are bright and alive; the forced perspective makes people seem to pop out of the drawing. There are only a handful of words, but the image is so powerful it makes any more unnecessary. Holy moly!

The Press Democrat and a great many other papers ran a little poem by novelist Napoleon Augustus Jennings (what a name) called, “The Appeal of a Poster:”


“Huns Kill Women and Children!”
It was staring him in the face.
Telling the tale in headlines
Of the deeds of a hellborn race:
Telling of dastards’ doings,
Black murder hurled down from the skies
On nursing babies and mothers
Such a slaughter as Germans prize.

The doggerel went on for a few more verses, each starting with “Huns Kill Women and Children!” and ended, “Get in the fight to stop them/ In France men are showing you how/ Join the Marines! Go to it!/ And the time to enlist is NOW!”

Nor were these horrible Huns just an existential threat. The head of the citizen’s State Council of Defense in California told the PD, “People are not permitted to go their usual quiet ways, misled by a false sense of security.” German supporters and sympathizers, he said, “must be hunted down as we would hunt venomous snakes in the grass.”

Every few days there was a newspaper report about a German spy being arrested, sometimes locally. Not long after the U.S. entered the war, the Sonoma county District Attorney and law enforcement officers swooped down on the Tyce family, who had a place near the peak of Hood mountain. A neighbor turned them in because he thought it was suspicious that they had a radio antenna and were foreign-born. It turned out father Ludwig Tyce was a Swiss-born chemist and he had bought the radio for his 14 year-old son. As it was 1917, there were only experimental broadcasts by voice so he was obviously listening to morse code. Although there was no transmitter on the rig the police confiscated it anyway. There was quite a large story on this in the PD, but no followup; the paper was silent on whether the kid ever got it back.

Everything was suspicious. In Geyserville, a man and boy were seen “throwing boxes of an unusual looking mixture,” according to the PD. That was not long after a 59 year-old naturalized German-American was arrested near Vineburg on suspicion of being a German spy. They found he had a map of the Valley of the Moon and “Deputy Murray also found a German iron cross in his valise, and other articles. Then there were a number of letters and pieces of writing. The arrest is regarded as an important one.” Since he had emigrated to America in 1880, the only time he could have been awarded the medal was in a war fought when he was twelve.

This constant drumbeat of hate and fear had horrific consequences. There was vigilantism; in April, a man rumored to be a German spy was lynched in southern Illinois (a town about the same size as modern Sebastopol). He was abducted by members of the local “Loyalty Committee” and forced to kiss an American flag at intervals as he was marched barefoot through the streets to the place of his murder. Some resources claim there were other lynchings and tar-and-feathering of suspected spies, but I can’t confirm – although it would hold no surprise.

prussiancurThere were also several movies about espionage in the U.S. in 1918, most notably “The Prussian Cur,” described as a docudrama that was a “mighty panorama of the war…reveal[ing] the menace of the German spy system in America.” The film included scenes of an Allied soldier being crucified by Germans. With its heavy-handed Christian symbolism, posters were also made of German soldier performing crucifixions, as shown below. The story was certainly a myth; the victim was first supposed to be British, then Canadian, and it was never clear where and when it supposedly happened.

Crazy rumors were spreading – and the wilder, the faster and better. An unusual species of pigeon which was supposedly German was shot in Michigan. Mysterious aircraft were spotted flying over Kansas at night. German submarine crews infected with typhoid were coming ashore and spreading the disease in movie theaters. As one writer put it, “There were not policemen enough to track down every denunciation, and the volunteer committees of citizens merely added to the general terror. An invisible enemy plotted an unseen conspiracy throughout the land, and fear and the drys profited.”3

But the story that sent down deep roots in Sonoma county was that German agents were putting ground glass in bandages, flour, sugar, candy and pretty much everything else. Some kinds of chewing gum, specifically Tutti Fruitti brand, were pulled from the shelves. In Eureka ground glass was supposedly found in the Red Cross workroom; in San Rafael two women said they found it in packages of macaroni.

In March the Sonoma county DA got involved after being sent four samples of “contaminated” food. He told the PD he found some sand (“enough to catch in the teeth”) in the cornmeal and bread samples, but that was it. The paper followed with an editorial assuring readers there was nothing to worry about and that the story had originated in Arkansas, where a disgruntled baker had inserted glass into a loaf of bread in order to screw over his boss.

At the close of this exhausting year of spies and saboteurs, no one apparently had the spunk to fight the brewery closures in December, although the war was actually over at that point. And besides, as the Press Democrat commented, “it was thought that possibly now that the armistice is signed and peace is coming that the order will not be in force for any length of time.”

Oh, you sad deluded souls; you did not understand that once the righteous crusaders of morality had gained an inch of ground they would never yield. The Grace Brothers’ business would survive – and even thrive during Prohibition, according to the Grace family history website – by making soda pop (they were a Pepsi-Cola bottler) and near beer, but it would be almost fifteen very long years before their traditional and delicious suds flowed again.

NEXT: WILL WINE COUNTRY SURVIVE PROHIBITION?


1 At the start of 1918 the White House ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down for five days because of the “coal famine.” This left most cities with only grocery and drug stores remaining open; in some places schools closed for weeks during the winter due to lack of heat or curtailed hours because there was no electricity. After the government had nationalized the mines and the railroads, however, coal shortages became far less of a pressing issue. According to the 1918 Fuel Administrator’s report, breweries used about 3.3 million tons of coal the previous year.

2 Before the breweries were closed because of the coal excuse, they already had been socked by the Fuel Administration; in September 1918 the sale of grain for making any form of alcoholic drink was prohibited.

3 Prohibition: The Era of Excess by Andrew Sinclair, 1962. This is by far the most thorough book on the events leading to Prohibition.

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POWERFUL WIRELESS SET LOCATED ON TYCE RANCH, TOP OF HOOD MTN. BY DIST. ATTY., SHERIFF AND POSSE
“Not Spy,” Tyce’s Claim, Says High Power Plant Bought for Son, Who Is An Expert Operator

WHAT FEDERAL OFFICIALS regard as a most important seizure of a complete radio outfit was made Saturday afternoon by District Attorney George W. Hoyle and Sheriff Jack Smith on Hood Mountain, fifteen miles from Santa Rosa. With the officials at the time were Deputy Sheriff Chris A. Reynolds and Deputy Fish and Game Commissioner Henry Lencioni, the two latter having been sent to the scene early Saturday morning to make the direct investigation which resulted in the discovery.

The taking of the radio plant — most complete in all its attachments — crowded Sonoma county into the fore as featuring what was regarded by the officials as the most important war happening of the day on the Pacific Coast. Such was the opinion of United District Attorney John W. Preston when informed by District Attorney Hoyle as to the seizure. Preston had Hoyle tell him the details immediately over the long distance telephone Saturday night. Tho United States Attorney stated that he would at once communicate with the radio officials of the United States government in San Francisco and later would inform Hoyle as to what further steps would be taken. Later in the night Preston communicated that Assistant United States Attorney Caspar Ornbaun would be sent up to Santa Rosa on Sunday morning to meet Hoyle and Sheriff Smith and take up a further investigation. It was also hinted that arrests might follow, this latter information, however, not coming direct from the government.

The wireless outfit, fully equipped, was taken on the ranch of Ludwig A. Tyce. It is the last place on the road that leads by the W. D. Reynolds ranch, and is at an altitude of from 2,500 to 3,000 feet the ocean side, and having commanding view. The outfit was discovered, however, in a most inaccessible place, hidden from view from any road, and as District Attorney Hoyle stated, “In the most unlikely place any one would look.”

At the time of the first visit of Deputies Reynolds and Lencioni, Tyce and his wife, daughter, son, son-in-law, all ignored any suggestion that the wireless was there for any improper use. Tyce declaring that the expensive radio set had been bought by him for his son, Roland, a sixteen or seventeen-year-old lad, with a reputation of being a clever amateur wireless operator.

UNDER SURVEILLANCE FOR SOME TIME

When seen Saturday evening, after the wireless had been brought to the District Attorney’s office in the courthouse, by a Press Democrat representative, District Attorney Hoyle (it being understood that some important details are withheld and will be so by the federal authorities) it was ascertained from him that about two weeks since information was placed in the hands of the District Attorney by a person whose name is withheld to the effect that suspicion pointed to the fact that a wireless station had been established or was to be set up on the Tyce ranch. District Attorney Hoyle told his informant to be careful and if he had any further suspicions to communicate to do so. A week or so elapsed and the same man called upon the District Attorney confirming in a measure his former suspicions. About the same time Sheriff Jack Smith received a communication from an official source telling him of the supposed presence of a wireless on Hood Mountain, the Department of Justice having received some information to that effect.

Sheriff Smith and District Attorney Hoyle “got busy” and it was agreed that Deputies Reynolds and Lencioni, under the guise of looking for poachers, should visit the Hood Mountain ranch section. Saturday morning they proceeded cautiously and climbed to the highest position where they could overlook the Tyce place. They had field glasses and other equipment with them. With the aid of the glasses they were able to detect the aerial on the Tyce ranch. The officers then went to the ranch.

“WE ARE AMERICANS,” THEY CRY

Reynolds and Lencionl upon arrival at the Tyce ranch house, were met by Tyco and his wife. For some reason or other, not yet explained, the officers state that Tyce and his wife, almost as soon as they appeared, raised their hands and cried out:

“We are Americans. We are Americans!”

The officers then went to the location of the wireless, a sort of tankhouse effect building, hidden in obscurity and upon which was erected a sort of tower and scaffolding. In the room on the ground floor was found the wireless instrument, fully equipped for receiving messages, the outside wires running to the top of a high tree in the vicinity. The Instrument, which is said to be capable of sending and receiving messages 2,500 to 3,000 miles away, was on a table. On one side was a typewriter and several books similar to those used by a shorthand reporter and several hooks of blank telegraph forms. When shown the outfit in the District Attorney’s office Saturday night a radio operator pronounced it complete…

TYCE CLAIMS NO HARM

Tyce told the officers that he was not a German but was born In Switzerland. His wife is of German extraction, he said, but was born in Russ Roland. He scorned the idea that he had the wireless outfit on top of his mountain ranch and in such an obscure place for any other reason than that he had bought it for his son, Roland, who had operated a wireless on the coast prior to coming to Sonoma county. He said he had purchased it in New York. Tyce claims to have come to this country and to have landed at Point Huron, Mich., in July of 1908. He says he is an expert chemist and his picture appears in a trade Journal secured by the District Attorney with a group of pictures of other chemists with whom he was interested in business in Rockford, Ill., although he and his family came here from Indiana…

…No arrests were made Saturday night, as stated, but the plant was taken and further orders awaited from the Department of Justice. Again, as stated previously, Tyce denied that the plant was installed for any improper use such as receiving or sending secret information, insisting that it had been bought solely for use by the son. There is some disposition on the part of the officials to doubt this and a searching investigation will be made. It should be stated that at the time of the taking of the radio set it was only set for receiving, the sending part being disconnected…

– Press Democrat, May 27 1917

STATE COUNCIL OF DEFENSE MAKES A STIRRING APPEAL
County Councils of Defense Urged to See That People Are Not Allowed to Be Misled by the False Sense of Security and That German Supporters and Sympathizers Are Hunted Down as Venomous Snakes.

A. F. Nafzger, vice-chairman of the State Council of Defense, has just issued a stirring appeal to the county councils of defense, in which he urges that the “People are not permitted to go their usual quiet ways, misled by a false sense of security.” German supporters and sympathisers, he says, “must be hunted down as we would hunt venomous snakes in the grass,” and declares that “alertness in this may save your sons or brothers.”

[..]

– Press Democrat, January 4 1918

 

MACARONI FILLED WITH FINE GLASS

San Rafael, Feb. 9.— Evidence of a diabolical plot, presumably the work of enemy agents, to bring agony and death to unsuspecting persons, was revealed here today when Mrs. R. L. White and Mrs. C. D. Hammersmith of San Anselmo brought to Sheriff J. J. Keating three packages of macaroni in which quantities of ground glass had been embedded.

The women said they discovered the glass particles by sheer chance while cooking the macaroni. The paste is the product of a Cleveland concern and was purchased in a San Anselmo grocery.

– Press Democrat, February 10 1918

 

DISTRICT ATTORNEY MAKES AN APPEAL TO THE PUBLIC
Tells of Reports in Circulation and the Work of Tracing Them Down, and Urges That There Be No Undue Excitement Aroused in Community.

The District Attorney has issued a statement relative to reports going the rounds and making an appeal to the public not to get unduly excited or aroused over reports placed in circulation intentionally or otherwise. The statement in full follows:

“In justice to those engaged in business and also in justice to the general public of Sonoma county, I deem it my duty to make a statement relative to certain reports which have been circulated to the effect that glass had been found in cornmeal, bread, cake and other foodstuffs. During last week four of these cases were reported to me with samples of the foodstuff in which ground glass or pieces of glass were supposed to have been found.

“I immediately took up the matter of an investigation of all these cases as rapidly as possible and forwarded the first samples which I received to the University of California for analysis. The other samples brought in I carefully examined myself. I have not yet received a final report from the University of California relative to the sample sent there, but I have made a personal examination of the other samples submitted to me. Out of these samples which I examined in one case I found absolutely nothing of a foreign nature.

“In the case of some bread which was submitted to me I found small grains of sand. Just a few. yet enough to catch in the teeth and cause one perhaps to be suspicious if they did not know what these small particles were. In the case of some cornmeal which was submitted to me I found quite a quantity of sand, but in none of these did I find any trace of any glass whatever. The presence of the sand in the cornmeal is to my mind easily accounted for by the fact that this meal was from corn which had been taken to the mill and ground…The few grains of sand found in the barley bread which I examined might be accounted for by a little dirt in the bake room of the bakery where the bread was produced.

“At any rate, from my investigation thus far, I feel that there is absolutely no occasion for anxiety or uneasiness in regard to glass in any food products of this kind in this locality.

“This is a time, of course, when we should ever be on the alert for anything which may be wrong, yet at the same time we should not be over-suspicious and endeavor to cast blame upon any one until we feel absolutely certain that the responsibility is fixed where it rightfully belongs…

– Press Democrat, March 7 1918

 

MAN HAD MAP AND AN “IRON CROSS”
Important Evidence Discovered Among Effects of Alleged German Spy Arrested Near Vineburg Friday by Deputy Sheriff Jack Murray.

The Press Democrat mentioned Saturday morning the arrest by Deputy Sheriff Jack Murray on Friday morning of a man named Wilhelm Peterch, near Vineburg. The man was arrested on suspicion of being a German spy and was detained in jail here, pending the arrival of a deputy United States Marshal.

Among the man’s effects on the ranch on which he was arrested was a carefully prepared map, which he is said to have made, showing the railroad tracks through the Sonoma Valley from Glen Ellen to Sonoma, the county roads, the bridges, the hills and valley, the principal places, including the Jack London place and the Spreckels place, and other points. Deputy Murray also found a German iron cross In his valise, and other articles. Then there were a number of letters and pieces of writing. The arrest is regarded as an important one.

– Press Democrat, April 7 1918

 

A FOOLISH SCARE

It isn’t pleasant to think of ground glass in our digestive machinery. Maybe that is the reason why the scare has gained such headway. Sensitive people see glass in purchased foodstuffs where there isn’t anything of the sort.

The government committee on public information announced the other day that federal experts, out of more than two hundred cases they had investigated in various parts of the country, had found only one genuine case of ground glass in foodstuff. That was at Fort Smith, Ark. It involved only one loaf of bread, and the offense was inspired, not by pro-German malignity, but by the desire of an aggrieved baker to hurt his employer’s business.

[illegible microfilm] stronger statement still. It “has followed the elusive ground glass story from Maine to California and from the Lakes to the Gulf for the past four months,” in co-operation with the Intelligence bureaus of the war, navy and justice departments, and in the thousands of cases that have been reported has found but one genuine case.

The experience of the New York City authorities has been just as conclusive. Occasional fragments of glass have been discovered in food, due apparently to carelessness or accident, but not a trace of ground glass.

This situation is precisely what any level-headed person might have expected, German plotters bent on crime would have more sense than to work such a weapon. “No sane German spy, or even German diplomat,” The Journal of the American Medical Association reminds us. “would choose ground glass to kill a community.”

– Press Democrat, April 23 1918

 

GEYSERVILLE IS GIVEN A SCARE
Inquisitive Strangers Cause of Some Anxiety for a Time

Geyserville, May 31—The first of the week considerable anxiety and excitement was experienced in and about town by the actions of a man and boy — strangers. These people traveled about town and even out a mile or more throwing boxes of an unusual looking mixture called salve. In addition to this, the man was very much interested in knowing all about the source of the town water supply. In this day of spies and Huns such questioning by total strangers aroused much suspicion. The county authorities were notified and Phil Varner sent to investigate. Mr. Varner seemed to think there was no cause for alarm, so the affair was dropped though many persons have been afraid of poison in the water.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1918

 

BREWING OF BEER STOPS AT THE LOCAL BREWERY

At the Big Santa Rosa Brewery Saturday Night the Brewing Ceased Until Fuel Administration Lifts Ban.

Saturday night the brewing of beer ceased at Grace Bros. Santa Rosa Brewery, as it did in every other brewery throughout the nation in accordance with a prior order of the government that brewing of beer must cease on December first. As a war conservation measure for the saving of food and fuel, it was thought that possibly now that the armistice is signed and peace is coming that the order will not be in force for any length of time.

At any rate there will be no shortage of the refreshing draught made from the beer blossoms at the local brewery as all the big cooperage is filled and there is sufficient supply on hand for several months of winter consumption. At this time of the year there is naturally a falling off in the amount of beer consumed.

– Press Democrat, December 1 1918

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ONWARD, PROHIBITION SOLDIERS

On January 17, 1920, Prohibition came to Sonoma county, as it did the rest of the land. While San Francisco marked the event by carousing and debauchery excessive even by Barbary Coast standards, the milestone passed with little notice up here. At midnight some bozo on Western avenue in Petaluma began shooting in the air and managed to knock out a PG&E powerline, likely pitching that side of town into darkness. With church bells clanging in celebration, residents suddenly without lights probably wondered if the end of the world had come – and many in wine-making, wine-loving Sonoma county were nervous that it had.

This article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today – particularly now that the nation is as divided as it was during the ignoble experiment which was Prohibition.

Much has been written about Prohibition; there’s a substantial number of books and internet resources on the topic although all seem to share the same flaw – events before it started are given short shrift and then it’s quickly on to Chicago gangsters, bathtub gin and the jazz age. You know: The fun stuff.

But take a step further back and a bigger picture emerges: Fear and loathing of alcohol was the moralistic glue holding together the various threads in America’s culture wars. Many preachers howled liquor must be scourged from the earth via a rigorous crackdown by law enforcement, which was a militant stance shared with the revived Ku Klux Klan – and while you were at their lecture, the boyz in the hoods also had a few other things to tell you about immigrants and white nationalism. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union didn’t just demonize demon rum; the group had a “purity lecturer” who addressed their 1913 convention in Santa Rosa, where she spoke about “social immorality” and “race betterment” (eugenics, in other words).

Here I’ve written dozens of articles about doings regarding alcohol both trivial and notable, such as the anti-suffrage propaganda that women would vote as a bloc to ban alcohol and that the first speakeasy in the county was the Electric Hotel in Forestville. Below the main stories are arranged to show how the prohibition movement gained steam in Sonoma county; the article following this one takes us from 1918 to the start of Prohibition and shows the early impact it had here. Spoiler alert: Prohibition generally turned out to be a good thing for Sonoma county.

As everyone probably knows, the “dry” prohibitionists saw themselves as crusaders fighting to save the nation; in Sonoma county and elsewhere there were Protestant activists eager to reform the bejesus out of drinkers. But until I began assembling this article I didn’t grasp how much of their clout leaned on intimidation; their bullying tactics were shockingly similar to the incivility found in today’s politics.

The Santa Rosa papers of the day seemed taken aback by church leaders mobilizing their flocks to pack City Council chambers (although that would hardly seem unusual now) and were unsettled that they would use children to disrupt public meetings with demonstrations. But it truly crossed a line when ministers did not shy from making threats – that they had better get their way or they would direct their congregation to inflict pain on their foes in the community with economic boycotts, blacklists and recall petitions. As noted below, when one of the most respected men in town simply remarked at a City Council meeting that history showed prohibition laws never succeed, he was attacked personally and shamed by a preacher.

There was no equivalent “wet” crowd in Sonoma county pushing back against them. Part of the reason was likely fear, but until 1918 most people here did not have to choose sides; there’s no evidence the public body was worked up about banning alcohol, either pro or con. When drinking holes were shut down it was because of specific vice complaints such as the place abetting prostitution or being a public nuisance. Roadhouses were closed after an uptick in drunken driving and because they were sometimes close enough to town to put constrains on development.

Before Prohibition Santa Rosa was always a saloon town – during the peak years of the early 1910s there were over forty places downtown where a fellow could belly up to the bar as early as 6am. Sure, some of the barroom traffic was driven by this being the county seat, but there also had to be lots of hometown support to have so many bartenders going to work even before roosters were up in winter.

The interior of Senate Saloon as shown in the Santa Rosa Republican, November 20, 1913.  TOP: The Buckhorn Saloon in Sebastopol, c. 1902 (Sonoma County Library)

 

Following the 1906 earthquake saloons were ordered closed for about a month and then allowed to reopen during daylight hours, soon after stretching the times to 6am – 8pm. When the saloon ordinance was considered again the following year, the City Council was surprised to find their meeting room mobbed with churchfolk demanding limited hours and Sunday closures. Two ministers there were spotted making a list of everyone attending (“to keep a record of the names of the people we saw” and was definitely not gonna be used as a blacklist, no sir) and at the followup Council meeting a few days later a preacher boomed their anti-saloon crusade “is a fight to the death!” He then insulted former Judge Barham by sneering that his son “…was now in an insane asylum, sent there by drink.” The Press Democrat commented, “As the last words were uttered, one could have heard a pin drop, so tense was the feeling.” The old man stood and walked out of the room in tears.

The dry crusaders lost that round in 1907, but three years later had better luck in Sebastopol, where they hectored the town into raising the annual liquor license from $200 to $1,000. Five saloons immediately shut their doors, not counting the three Chinese and Japanese places where liquor was served – those were closed automatically by another proviso in the new law which ruled no license should be granted to “Oriental residents.” (Liquor was already outlawed in Sonoma County for Native Americans; since 1908 you could be fined $500 and sent to jail for six months for selling alcohol to anyone with just one-fourth Indian blood.)

That was followed by mixed temperance success in 1912, starting with a portion of West County voting for prohibition (more of an issue about farm workers and real estate values) followed by a countywide ban on the sale of alcohol anywhere outside of major towns. That might seem like a moral victory for the drys because it closed 110 roadhouses, but as mentioned above there were public safety and economic reasons. Country hotels could still get a liquor license and a Grand Jury the next year found barkeeps trying to qualify by claiming tents, sheds and stables as hotel rooms. (The winner in this game of chutzpah was Guerneville’s main drinking spot, the Louvre, which insisted every guest room in town was part of their “hotel.”) Still, the prohibitionists chalked up the roadhouse ban as a big win for Team Sobriety.

That was also the first year women could vote in California, and about twenty towns had ballot items in 1912 to decide if their community would go dry. Cloverdale voted for leaders who promised to clean up the saloons – particularly gambling and serving liquor to minors – but rejected outright prohibition by an almost 2:1 majority. Overall, about half of the towns voting on alcohol went dry; in the Bay Area, only Los Gatos and Mountain View closed their saloons. That election showed women did not vote as an anti-alcohol bloc after all; “FEMALE OF SPECIES AS THIRSTY AS THE MALE,” quipped the Santa Rosa Republican in a headline.

Now the teetotalers were on a roll; in 1913 the Board of Supervisors amended the liquor ordinance so there could be no booze sold within fifty feet of place where dances were held. I’m confident their vote was not at all affected by what happened two weeks earlier, when a recall effort was launched against the Sonoma Valley supervisor charging he was “guilty of misconduct in office” for not demonstrating enough anti-roadhouse enthusiasm. The temperance side got locals to sign their recall petition by spreading lies that the supervisor was a drunk who had accepted “a sack of money” from Fetters Springs to obtain a liquor license.

And finally the league of morals and piety managed to get their Sunday closures. All major towns in the county tried it on a voluntary basis starting in 1916, with Santa Rosa being the only place where every saloon was shut down for the full day – saloons elsewhere in the county chose to close for the day, open late and close early, or keep their usual hours.

When Santa Rosa saloon owners made noises about Sunday reopening the PD reported several preachers met with the mayor. A “leading Santa Rosa minister” did not hesitate to threaten they would bring their well-funded state organization to town and make this place as dry as Death Valley. “If a move is started to reopen Sundays we will call an election and will bring all of the state forces of the Anti-Saloon League to this city and put up the strongest fight that has ever been waged in this city against the liquor interests. We have no doubt whatever as to the results of the election.” (Nice little town you got here. It would be a shame.) The saloons remained closed on Sundays and the next year the City Council passed an ordinance requiring it.

This brings us to the chaotic year of 1918. With the country now fully involved in the Great War, the federal government had given itself broad powers to ration and restrict goods, as well as creating new police powers to enforce those rules. Schools, military camps and any factories involved with war production were now surrounded by a five-mile radius “moral zone” where alcohol was banned. Propaganda from the Committee on Public Information not only made hate and fear of all things German into a patriotic duty, but also borrowed old tropes from the temperance movement to demonize everything to do with drinking.

With drys controlling the legislatures in most states as well as Congress, Prohibition was fast becoming America’s de facto policy even before the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. Over the following two years it became like a runaway train; many tried to stop it (including President Woodrow Wilson) and failed to even slow it down. And during that time the nation became increasingly polarized as Americans found themselves being forced to choose a tribe as Prohibition became more of a certainty.

In the glum final days before Prohibition began, Sonoma county and other places in wine country pondered what kind of future awaited, with every option looking risky – and some certainly illegal. But then on Christmas Eve 1919, the Press Democrat published a remarkable letter from Charles E. Bundschu, which showed there was indeed a path forward.

NEXT: WILL WINE COUNTRY SURVIVE PROHIBITION?

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