There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:
During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.
Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”
In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.
He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.
A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.
A recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:
…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…
His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.
Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.
In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.
This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.
In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.
Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.
The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).
County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.
A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.
Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.
The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”
I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.
By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.
Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.
As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.
Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!
An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.
The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.
On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.
The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.
Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”
Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”
The store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.
(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)
But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”
That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.
In the final weeks of 1919, no one in Sonoma county knew what would happen when Prohibition officially began on Jan. 17, 1920. Was it just token political gimcrackery to appeal to a certain class of voters, or was this really the end of the wine industry in the United States? Our wine-making, grape-growing and beer-brewing ancestors already had endured a year of being whipsawed by good/bad news, and now the frightful precipice yawned directly before them.
For those new here, some background will help: This is the third and final article about that bumpy road to national Prohibition. Part one (“Onward, Prohibition Soldiers“) covers local efforts by the “dry” prohibitionists to close or restrict saloons in Sonoma county in the years following the 1906 earthquake. Part two (“Winter is Coming: The Year Before Prohibition“) picks up the story in 1918, when the notion of prohibition has expanded beyond simple demands for temperance into a tribal war between rural, conservative and WASPy sections of the nation against those who lived in areas which were urban, progressive and multicultural.
Much of the angst during the latter part of 1919 centered around the “Wartime Prohibition Act,” a law that pretended the U.S. was still fighting WWI although the war had been over for a while. The real intent of the Act was to impose bone-dry prohibition upon America months before the real 18th Amendment Prohibition took effect, but there were legal questions raised and the Justice Department said the government (probably) wouldn’t enforce it, leading to patchwork compliance.
Saloons in Petaluma and Healdsburg closed, but many in Santa Rosa remained open pending a court decision, the bars becoming de facto speakeasies: “In some saloons, it is said, you have to cock your left eyebrow and ask for ginger ale, while in others you ask for whisky and get it,” reported the Press Democrat.
“City and county officials seem to have adopted a policy of hands off,” noted the PD, but all that ended shortly before Hallowe’en, after President Woodrow Wilson tried to kill the Wartime Prohibition Act and failed (see part II). Santa Rosa went dry, although some saloons stayed open to serve soft drinks – perhaps with something extra for the left eyebrow crowd – in the hopes that the courts would rule the Act unconstitutional, allowing America to have one last “wet Christmas” before full-fledged Prohibition kicked in. Sorry, the Supreme Court finally said in mid-December; the Act was valid law. Hearing that news left millions of Americans crying in their beer – or would have, if there were any suds to be had.
Over the following weeks, newspapers ran stories about their local taverns shutting down or evolving into some other kind of business. Reporters marveled that famous bars with their polished brass foot rails were sold for the wood and metal; the back bars, with their ornate carvings and etched mirrors which had reflected generations of men arguing politics and fast horses were taken apart and went for cheap. From the PD:
Santa Rosa saloon sites will be occupied by restaurants, candy factories and candy stores, and even by real estate offices…In only a few cases are saloon owners hanging onto their leases of Santa Rosa property, with any idea that they might be able to return to business. “It’s all over, so why worry about coming back,” declared one former saloon proprietor…About half of the old saloon sites are already wiped off the map. More are in process of change, and of the few remaining open as cigar stores and soft drink emporiums…
While the barkeeps and the drinking public were made miserable by Prohibition’s approach, the grape growers seemed to wobble between denial and panic.
Just as the saloon crowd hung on to an unrealistic optimism that Prohibition would include an exemption for beer (see part II), many growers couldn’t imagine their lovingly tendered vineyards might become worthless overnight. The editor of the California Grape Grower newsletter found “during the last weeks of August, the writer visited practically every grape district in the State in an effort arouse the growers to an understanding of the critical situation. He was amazed to find them making absolutely no preparations for the disposal of their crop in the case the wineries were not permitted to operate.” Louis J. Foppiano later said in an interview they thought Prohibition “might last a few months, if ever, and then things would get back to normal.”1
The Sonoma County Grape Growers’ Association was only slightly more realistic. Faced with the choice of crushing the 1919 vintage or letting the grapes rot on the vine, they recommended proceeding with the harvest and holding the crush in reserve until the prohibition question is finally solved [emphasis mine].
But trusted authorities were telling them to get out of the wine grape business – NOW. Even 72 year-old Charles Wetmore, who had devoted most of his life to building the California wine industry, said any growers who did not have a contract for their grapes “should lose no time in converting all the space they can into young orchards.” The PD reported “all over the county the vineyards are being stripped of their grapes, and in many cases the pickers are being closely followed by other crews, tearing out their vines in anticipation of this being the last crop that will ever be harvested in the county.”
The advice from the Department of Agriculture was that Sonoma and Napa growers should switch to raisins – even though it was pointed out that wine grapes do not make good raisins because A) they have seeds, B) are not sweet, and since we have a shorter growing season than places in the Central Valley C) the raisins would rot on the vines instead of shriveling. The government’s response was that growers could replant all the vineyards – or, since there was a market for subpremium U.S. Grade B raisins, maybe we should be happy to settle for becoming a second-class version of Fresno.
From the State Board of Viticultural Commissioners came wails of lamentation, that Prohibition would “seal the doom” for an entire agricultural industry unless the Amendment was overturned, as wine grapes could only be used to make fresh wine. Don’t even try turning it into grape syrup or unfermented grape juice, they warned, “because there is no rational assurance that such products could be successfully marketed.”
Let’s hit pause for a moment to consider the scope of all this. Saloons could be repurposed into restaurants; instead of selling to breweries and distillers, grain farmers could sell to flour mills and make the same money. But wineries couldn’t be turned into ice cream parlors, and it would take years for any “young orchard” to bear a fruit crop. Hops, a major Sonoma county crop unaffected by Prohibition, was out of the question because the plants needed a plentiful water supply. Thus the United States government was about to wreck the economy of Northern California – and for no reason other than pleasing the moral ideals of some. Hardest hit would be Sonoma county, where the wine business brought in $4 million/year.2 Put another way: It would be like the government today forcing the county to lose about a billion dollars of its GDP over the next decade.
This was a serious issue which urgently needed a serious national debate – but instead of that, our ancestors received a condescending lecture. Since the real intent of prohibition was to bully the rest of country into obeying WASP cultural standards, it should come as no surprise that a self-righteous prig blamed Wine Country for being the cause its own problems.
“The Wine-Grape Riddle” was a lengthy essay which appeared in Country Gentleman, the most popular magazine in rural America. It accurately quoted the red flag warnings from state Board re: no use for the grapes other than making wine, most of the vineyard land being unable to support any other kind of farming, plus nothing would be as profitable as wine grapes. Mostly, however, the editorial writer makes sneering remarks about the North Bay having a remarkable number of idiots. “The combined intelligence of all the purveyors and manufacturers of intoxicants who ever lived wouldn’t furnish the average pullet with sense to cross the street safely.”
According to the author we demonstrated our collective stupidity by voting for prohibition, thus acting against our own best interests. That was a remarkably ignorant thing to write; the previous year Californians had voted against pro-prohibition ballot items, and by overwhelming numbers in Wine Country (see part II). And, of course, voters never had a direct say in its passage – amendments to the Constitution are ratified by the state legislature.
But that was just the editor’s starting premise; he claimed 42 percent of Sonoma county farmers were foreign born, further presuming most never bothered becoming citizens so they could vote – which was because they were Italians and too simple-minded to understand what prohibition meant. Yes, Gentle Reader, on the eve of a multi-million dollar agricultural crisis, the largest chunk of (what was almost certainly) the most widely read information about the situation was at its core an assortment of ugly stereotypes and ethnic slurs, believe it or not.
Our ancestors must have been crestfallen when that magazine arrived in their mailboxes; the start of Prohibition was still a month away and here was their obituary already written, their livelihoods sent off with a caustic goodbye and good riddance. The Press Democrat fired back with a response from state Board member Charles E. Bundschu and although the letter (transcribed below) could have been stronger in its defense of Italians, it otherwise countered most of the points in the article.
And then the day of Prohibition arrived: January 17, 1920. But instead of the sky falling, something very good and very unexpected happened. Three good things, actually.
Just days after Prohibition officially began, vineyardists found buyers hammering down their doors, offering $25/ton for their 1920 wine grape crop in the autumn. Everyone appeared taken off guard; not only were their grapes still in demand, but that was a premium price. The Press Democrat remarked, “the grape growers of Sonoma county cannot complain of National Prohibition as the price is paid to be more than per ton higher than the average price paid for grapes during the past ten years.” A few days later, that offer was already too low.
As winter turned into spring, the contract price kept climbing: $30 per ton; $40; “Growers Are Refusing $50 Ton for Grapes,” was the PD headline on April 1, which might have seemed like an April Fool’s Day joke, had it been predicted just a couple of months earlier. By early May it was up to $65, and a year later, it would be nearly twice that. The growers who had taken a gamble and not ripped out their vines had now hit the jackpot.
What was going on?
It seems that it was foolish to presume people were going to obey the new law. Even before Prohibition home winemaking was popular (and yes, it was mainly done in Italian households). At end of 1919 at least 30,000 households in Northern California and Nevada were making home wine but they were buying just a fraction of the wine grape crop sold to consumers; most of it was shipped East via refrigerated freight cars. And once Prohibition began and there was no other way to obtain wine, demand for the wine grapes skyrocketed 68 percent over the previous year.3
All of this was legal. There was no restriction in the Volstead Act on growing wine grapes, selling them to a broker who would transport the produce somewhere else in the country where they would be purchased by a consumer in, say, New York City. Sure, it was now against the law for the buyer to allow those grapes to ferment an alcohol content higher than 0.5 (ABW) but hey, who’s to know?
When the Act was made law just a few months before Prohibition, the culture warriors believed it would be tweaked to fix any shortcomings, presumably making it even MORE restrictive. That Country Gentleman article suggested it might be modified to block transport of wine grapes or make it “too dangerous for the householder to manufacture his own wine,” which sounds uncomfortably like tossing out the Fourth Amendment blocks on searches and seizures.
But after having experienced a couple months of “bone dry” Prohibition, public sentiment was starting to shift in the other direction. New Jersey and Wisconsin defied Volstead and authorized sale of light beer. More newspapers began editorializing against Prohibition calling for a national referendum or immediate repeal. With 1920 being a major election year, the Democratic party – still torn between Wet and Dry factions – added a “moist” plank to the party platform which reflected President Wilson’s views that exceptions be made for wine and light beer. (The resolution also cited concerns about “vexatious invasion of the privacy of the home” which suggests people were worried about raids, whether the threat was real or no.)
On July 24 the Internal Revenue Bureau ruled homemade wine and cider could have more than 0.5 percent alcohol as long as it was consumed at home and “non-intoxicating.” Home wine making was now legal, as long as you didn’t make over 200 gallons/year – the equivalent of about 1,000 750ml bottles.
That was the second bit of good news for our grape growers during the early months of Prohibition. The third was the rapid development of commercial dehydrators.
Shipping fresh grapes across the country was always a chancy proposition; the railcars could be delayed because of labor issues, routing problems, overcrowded delivery terminals or a host of other reasons. Growers assumed the entire risk of transportation; if the fruit was spoiled by the time it reached the buyer, they were liable for shipping costs. Among the horror stories was that of a small Alexander Valley vineyard that shipped twelve tons of grapes to New York only to receive a 17¢ check. 4
Those risks were reduced significantly if dried grapes could be shipped instead. UC/Davis had been working on perfecting the best formula since the summer of 1919, with the goal of not drying them to the point of becoming raisins but rather to evaporate away the water content, keeping the grape’s color and flavor once it was rehydrated. Charles Bundschu’s letter in the PD mentioned the importance of this; in fact, he predicted everything that would happen in early 1920:
…The demand for dried Wine grapes is so great since Prohibition has become effective that California will not be able to supply the demand. To bring up a very important point, the very same grapes that were formerly used for the legitimate business, are now being dried and sold in small quantities to people who are making their own wines. It is encouraging an illegal business and I would ask whether under these conditions it is better to conduct a business along legitimate lines or whether it is better to force people to violate the laws?…
Read the California Grape Grower newsletter from those months and marvel at how quickly the gloom and despair turned into bullish optimism. Even though the dryers were not cheap and were the size of a two-bedroom bungalow, wineries and investors were gung-ho on building them; a Chicago brokerage spent $35,000 on one at West Eighth street in Santa Rosa. By the 1920 harvest, there were seven dryers in Sonoma and three in Napa county, including Beringer and Gundlach Bundschu.
I’ll wrap up this particular article on that high note from the summer of 1920, as the topic of this series was just the advent of Prohibition. Although I’ll certainly write about our bootlegging days later, for more of what happened locally in the vineyards beyond this point see Vivienne Sosnowski’s book, listed with other reading materials below. But in my prowlings I stumbled across an intriguing rabbit hole that no one has researched (as far as I can tell) and I’m hoping this coda might tempt some other historian to dig deeper into the story of “Vino Sano.”
Although the future of dried wine grapes seemed bright, the demand for them hit the skids after the government sanctioned home winemaking that July, which was followed by ultra-cheap European dried varietals flooding the East Coast markets. Also, the fresh grape shipping situation improved dramatically every year; the railroads kept adding hundreds more refrigerated cars annually and as the war faded in the distance, there was far less scheduling chaos caused by the military commandeering the tracks. By the 1921 harvest there was little interest in drying wine grapes, or at least selling them on the open market – there might have been private contracts. It became a niche market, like making sacramental and kosher wines (legal under Prohibition, but only under special license).
Then in August, 1921, this little ad began appearing in Midwestern and Eastern newspapers:
That San Francisco address belonged to Karl Offer. He was (supposedly) a former German aviator who was awarded an Iron Cross for valor in the 1914 Siege of Tsingtao, settling in San Diego the following year and where he became a dealer in fine German jewelry. After the U.S. entered WWI he was arrested as a German agitator/alleged spy and sent to Ft. Douglas in Utah for the duration of the war. When Offer surfaced in San Francisco during early 1921 he was now a bond trader (particularly German bond futures) and currency speculator (German marks and Russian roubles) running large ads in newspaper business sections.
Most of Offer’s “kick in a brick” ads were in the help-wanted sections as he was seeking salesmen and distributors; his own product ads stopped the next year as Vino Sano dealers began their own regional advertising, followed by him opening storefronts in San Francisco and New York City (and possibly elsewhere). The ads and the package itself included a clever gimmick, warning customers there was a risk the reconstituted juice from the brick could ferment and become alcoholic.
That grape brick concept was simply an act of genius. Fresh wine grapes were only available for a few days in the autumn and you had to have connections to get them, particularly outside of the Bay Area. The bricks were shelf-stable and could be ordered through a grocery store or pharmacy. The markup was also astronomical; as a rule of thumb three pounds of fresh grapes made one gallon of wine, and the wholesale price of dried grapes was 10¢ a pound. Vino Sano agents sold those bricks for up to $2.50 per.
Offer was charged twice for violating the Volstead Act, in 1924 and 1927 and in both cases was acquitted by juries. Let it be noted, however, that he was found guilty of something worse – in 1925 he was charged with misleading investors and lost his bond trading license. In 1942 he was again suspected of being too pro-German and ordered to leave the West Coast as a potential security threat.
I would very much like a researcher to discover where he obtained the dried grapes that his San Francisco factory pressed into bricks. The only article on grape bricks suggests they came from the Beringer winery but that article contains factual errors, among them claiming the bricks were made of “concentrated grape juice” while news coverage during the jury trials clearly stated they were “compressed grapes.”
The big question I hope someone can answer is this: How successful was Vino Sano? Did they manufacture 10,000 bricks? 100,000? A million? More? Sure, the finished product was probably not very good wine unless the home winemaker was very lucky, but more relevant is that their degree of success could be a unique bellwether to what was happening nationwide. I imagine selling a consumer-friendly wine-making kit tapped perfectly into the zeitgeist of the time, with the public growing more rebellious against Prohibition with every passing year.
1 When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America’s Wine Country by Vivienne Sosnowski, 2009
2 Statement from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau to President Wilson mentioned in part II: “PRESIDENT TOLD OF VINE AND HOP INDUSTRY HERE”, Press Democrat, August 8 1918
3 The 1919 crop was 128,000 tons and the 1920 estimate was 215,000 tons. The 1921 estimate was 250,000 tons with Sonoma county being the largest producer, despite much of the Northern California crop being lost to a late frost. Household statistics based on those who declared they were making wine under the Wartime Prohibition Act and paid the 16 cents/gallon tax.
4 Sosnowski op. cit. pg. 80
Santa Rosa May Be Dry, But Some Have Their Doubts
Is Santa Rosa dry?
The law says it is, but there are some doubters.
Rumor has it that despite the war-time prohibition on ail forms of liquors, whisky is being sold openly at several saloons.
Of course, the question of the legality of 2.75 per cent beer ia being threshed out in the courts and it is openly acknowledged by the saloonmen and city authorities that beer containing that percentage of alcohol can be obtained in any saloon. The city has even licensed dealers to sell this beer, pending federal decision.
But the hard stuff — the distilled spirit of the rye and corn — whisky, which was supposed to have been everlastingly knocked out by the war-time prohibition solar plexus blow, rumor declares is still on a more or less open sale.
In some saloons, it is said, you have to cock your left eyebrow and ask for ginger ale, while in others you ask for whisky and get it.
Rumor also says that one Fourth street saloonman is in more or less of a defiant mood, and has openly issued a defi [sic] to federal officials, declaring he will sell to whoever asks for it, and make a test battle in the courts.
City and county officials seem to have adopted a policy of hands off, in view of the fact that selling of intoxicating liquor is a federal offense, and thus far no federal officers have gotten as far as Santa Rosa in their raids on whisky-selling saloons. Several arrests, however, have been made in San Francisco.
It is pointed out by those interested in suppressing the sale of whisky, that the city has issued no licenses for the sale of this brand of fire-water, and the saloons are operating under another form of license, designed for 2.75 per cent beer.
– Press Democrat, October 2 1919
MAJORITY OF GRAPE MEN ARE CRUSHING THEIR CROP Precedent Set by Leaders Following Decision of Association Is Being Generally Followed Under Conviction That It Is the Only Procedure Possible to Save Any Part of the Crop.
The majority of the grape growers in Sonoma county are crushing the 1919 vintage, when unable to sell, and some are doing so who could have sold, according to a prominent grape man’s statement here last night.
The growers generally are crushing, considering it the best, and in fact the only possible precedent to follow, this man said, especially in view of the decision of the Sonoma County Grape Growers’ Association that this year’s crop would be crushed and held in reserve until the prohibition question is finally solved.
Most of the wine, in fact all that has been crushed to date, has been made for sacramental purposes, it is said.
With the grape crop coming on rapidly, forcing the necessity of harvesting the grapes, or allowing them to rot on the vines, the growers have feverishly gone ahead to save all possible of their crop by making it into wine, which will not be put on the market or offered for use in any way, until all the fine legal points are established.
All over the county the vineyards are being stripped of their grapes, and in many cases the pickers are being closely followed by other crews, tearing out their vines in anticipation of this being the last crop that will ever be harvested in the county. Those taking out their vines are already laying plans for experimenting with something else, hoping that they will not entirely lose out by prohibition.
– Press Democrat, October 8 1919
BOOZE OF ALL VARIETIES NOW BANNED HERE
Booze of all kinds was absolutely non-procurable in Santa Rosa Wednesday night, due to the passage by Congress of the dry enforcement act over the presidential veto.
Even the lowly 2.75 per cent beer, hitherto on sale in every saloon, was not obtainable.
“No. we have no beer, but we have some very nice soda water,” was the answer made in half a dozen saloons which were open Wednesday. All the other liquor emporiums were as dark as the the outlook of their proprietors.
Some of the saloon proprietors are keeping open, selling soft drinks, to be on the job when war time prohibition is declared off by the signing of the peace treaty. Others who have closed say they will reopen when the saie of liquor is again legal.
But the dry enforcement bill has accomplished one other thing in addition to drying up Santa Rosa — it has made a lot of converts for the early signing of the peace treaty.
– Press Democrat, October 30 1919
Liquor Licenses Are Refused by the City
Despite the fact that several saloon men have applied for liquor licenses the city authorities under the present federal laws have refused to issue any license for the sale of liquor. Most of the saloons in Santa Rosa have been closed, as they have throughout the state, but in a few cases the proprietors, in an effort to retain any possible advantage in case wartime prohibition is annulled before national prohibition goes into effect, have kept their places open and cater to the soft drink trade, although they are said be losing money by doing so.
– Press Democrat, November 5 1919
ENFORCEMENT LAW AND BEER ALCOHOLIC CONTENT DECISIONS NEXT MONDAY
By the Associated Press.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 15.—By unanimous decision, the legality of the war-time prohibition act was upheld today by the supreme court. The decision was written by Justice Brandeis and held in effect, however, that the war-invoked “dry” law may be revoked by presidential proclamation of neutralization.
Giving his opinion that the court, however, would not add its opinion regarding the constitutionality of the prohibition enforcement act or on appeal regarding the alcoholic content of beer, leaving those cases to future opinion, which may be handed down next Monday, before the court recesses for the Christmas holidays to January 5.
This decision practically swept away all hopes of a wet Christmas, as the chance of the war-time act being repealed before prohibition takes effect one month from tomorrow was considered remote.
PENALTY ACT IN DOUBT
Upon the court’s decision on the prohibition enforcement law will depend whether the federal government has at hand any legal means for making tho amendment effective.
The constitutionality of wartime prohibition. however, the drys are confident, will keep tho country dry until the amendment is carried into effect by law of its own.
In deciding the question the Supreme Court also dissolved injunctions restraining revenue officials from interfering with the removal from bond of about 70,000,000 gallons of whisky valued at approximately $75,000,000, held by the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company of Louisville. Ky.
WAR POWER STILL IN USE
The signing of the armistice did not abrogate the war power of Congress, Associate Justice Brandeis said in reading the decision of the court.
Justice Brandeis said the government did not appropriate the liquor by stopping its domestic sale, as the way was left open for exporting it.
Justice Brandeis also called attention to the continued control of the railroads and reassumption of powers by the government relative to coal and sugar under war acts to show that the government continues to exercise various war powers, despite the signing of the armistice.
The constitutional prohibition amendment is binding on the federal government as well as the states, and supersedes state laws, the court declared.
– Press Democrat, December 16 1919
THE WINE GRAPE RIDDLE BRINGS OUT MANY POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
The publishers of the Country Gentleman recently sent Mr. Jason Field, one of their traveling editors, into this section to investigate and write up the present standing of the wine grape industry, and his report has no doubt been read with much interest by their numerous subscribers in this territory, some of whom do not quite agree with him in the results of his findings.
After carefully studying and reviewing the whole situation Mr. Field disposes of the “Riddle” in the following illogical summary:
1. Beverages containing alcohol – which includes wine – cannot be manufactured or sold any more; and
2. Therefore, the wineries will not run and the wine-grape growers must go out of business; but
3. It has not yet been declared illegal to transport either wine grapes in the fresh state, or wine-grape raisins for wine making purposes: and
4. Thousands of tons of grapes and raisins are being sold and shipped to individuals who will make wine of them: and also
5. It may not be illegal for a man to crush grapes in his own house for his own use, even though the juice does ferment; and
6. As it will probably ferment before he drinks it, he may be a violator of the law; but
7. As yet no one seems to be in a position to say that he will even then be interfered with, unless
8. He soaks up a skinfull of the liquor too hastily and then goes out and gets arrested; whereupon
9. It will be asked where he got the intoxicating liquor, and the manufacturer – even himself – can be and will be imprisoned: and meanwhile,
10. What in the name of Sam Hill will he do with his vineyard — root it up and go out of business, or just paddle along and take his chances?
This logic is quite beyond the innocent Italian in Sonoma County, and he is getting wild-eyed trying to understand it.
Mr. Field then concludes his investigations with the following hint of a solution:
It is the little vinyarists [sic] who are hardest hit, naturally. The big holders have capital enough to hold out for a long lime; to go into other lines; to seize shipping opportunities.
The big ones are “hollering” the loudest, and making the most money out of their grapes this year. The little chap who has, because the land was so cheap, jerked his vineyard rigid out of the sage-brush, at the front door of Coyoteville is the one who will go in the wall.
Suppose that the prohibition law is so rigidly enforced as to make it dangerous for the householder to manufacture his own wine, either from fresh wine grapes or dried grapes — thus cutting off all markets for the wine making purposes?
At first glance this appears an unreasonable supposition. Human nature being what it is, and the transition from grape juice to wine being a natural one, it would seem that illicit wine would always be with us. But it is possible for the enforcement officers to make it so difficult to transport the makings that the wine-grape growers could no longer profitably count on that outlet. What then?
There are several possible “outs” for the wine-grape grower with established vines. Few new plantings would be made on such obscure and doubtful chances. They are:
1. Drying by sun and evaporators for use as raisins. We have seen that most wine grapes would not make good raisins. Some would make raisins of fair quality. But this market is not promising.
2. Grape syrups. There is at present no market developed for grape sirups [sic]. It is doubtful if a market could be created in time to do the growers any good. The sirups would have to bring a much larger price than ordinary sirups.
3. Grape juice. Under this head something is going to be done. The market for grape juice has grown by leaps and bounds in the past several years, and the Eastern manufacturers of grape juice foresee a vast demand which Concord vineyardists of the East cannot supply. This is said to be the explanation of the sale of vineyards and wineries to the so-called Virginia Produce Company. I am told that the head of this company is a well-known grape-juice manufacturer.
At present the unfortunate part of it is looked at agriculturally, that the wine-grape growers are in the position of one who is doing something under the blanket instead of in the open. It is not wrong to raise grapes; it is not wrong to send grapes to somebody else; but if wine is made and someone becomes intoxicated, then the finger begins to swing around to the man who raised the grapes.
Subjoined is a copy of an answer to Mr. Field’s version of the “Riddle” which was sent in by our townsman, Mr. C. E. Bundschu.
Dear Sir: —
The articles on the “Wine Grape Riddle” by Jason Field published in your issue of November 15th and 29th have been read with a great deal of interest and I wish to compliment Mr. Field on the data that he has gathered covering this question, but the article is written from a probition [sic] and I therefore am taking the liberty of giving you the other side of the question:
First let us refer to the article in which he writes about the sweet wine industry, which centers in through San Joaquin Valley. It is quite true that in the face of Prohibition legislature, properties have changed hands at unheard of prices; there are two reasons for this: If Mr. Field had only extended his investigation a little farther he would have found out that land values in California have greatly increased since the war, there is a boom at the present time in country lands and prospective buyers are therefore paying exhorbitant prices on land purchases. There is no boom in the sweet wine industry as the manufacture of sweet wine, except non-beverages and medical purposes, is prohibited.
Furthermore the districts where sweet wines were produced are especially well adapted for raisin grapes and the demand for raisins has been an great that prices have advanced from 3 and 4 cents to 13 and 14 cents per pound, and this naturally would be an incentive to purchase vineyards for raisin purposes; a great part or all sweet wine grapes are particularly well adapted for raisins. The Wine grapes that are grown in this section are also easily dried in the sun, which is a very inexpensive process; it is not necessary to put up any dryer or dehydrator. The demand for dried Wine grapes is so great since Prohibition has become effective that California will not be able to supply the demand. To bring up a very important point, the very same grapes that were formerly used for the legitimate business, are now being dried and sold in small quantities to people who are making their own wines. It is encouraging an illegal business and I would ask whether under these conditions it is better to conduct a business along legitimate lines or whether it is better to force people to violate the laws? I say force, because I believe a man is entitled, according to the constitution of this country, to enjoy his glass of wine or glass of beer, the same as any other food, which he has been in the habit of using. Wine is a food, which he has been in the habit of using [sic]. Wine is a food and a temperance drink. There are many foods which are more injurious than wine.
I would also like to enlighten Mr. Field, why Fresno county, which is one of the largest grape producing counties in this State voted “dry.” It is not entirely due to the prices fixed by the California Wine Association, but we have in this State what we call local option, and people in the Fresno district voted dry in order to do away with the road house and the saloon; there was no other alternative, but to either vote the district bone dry, or allow the road house and saloon; and therefore you can readily understand why this section voted dry. The Wines produced in this section are not consumed there, but shipped out, in fact we might say 90 per cent of the wines produced in the State of California are shipped to the Eastern markets.
Referring to the second article on the dry wine districts, Mr. Field admits that a great injustice is done to the Grape grower who was encouraged in the planting of grapes by the United States Government, as well as by our State. The United States Department of Agriculture is still maintaining experimental plots throughout this State and the Government is appropriating funds for the maintenance of these experimental vineyards. On the one hand the Government prohibits the manufacture and sale and on the other hand the Government is leasing land for the sole purpose of demonstrating to the farmer what grapes are best adapted for his particular soil.
I would like to correct an impression, however, that Mr. Field gives, that the Italian dominates the Dry Wine Districts. This is not so; it is true that the Italian is generally employed in wineries and vineyards, but from any ownership stand-point the vineyards in this part of the State are owned by Americans, that is to say generally of foreign extraction, there are French, Swiss, German and Italian. We might say the largest portion is in the favor of French and German-Americans. The pioneers of this industry planted their vineyards in the late 50’s and early 60’s, some of these estates have been handed down to the next generation and some of them are still farmed by the original settler.
It is easy enough to make the statement that the grapes can be uprooted and other crops planted, but this is easier said than done. I would like to point out an instance, and I can mention many more, that are in the same class. A man that has spent a lifetime in setting out a vineyard, perfecting his winery and settled down with a family, now in his declining years is asked to root up the vineyard and plant other crops. A man that has made a specialty of wine grapes is not familiar with other crops and the time that it would take to replant and get returns would be at least from six to seven years, in the meantime. who is to support the family and how is a man able to finance such a change? Then again it is a question of whether the soil will produce other crops. Seventy-five per cent of the vineyards grown in the dry wine districts are grown on land which will produee no other crops, so as to give a man fair returns on his investment.
Mr. Field also mentions in his article that the State of California voted dry. This is not correct, as this State voted wet with a large majority every time this question has come up in the State, but when our State Legislature convened. strange to say the legislature endosed “National Prohibition.” If there is any “Riddles” to be solved I would like to ask Mr. Field this: “Why did our State Legislature vote ‘Dry’ when our State voted ‘wet’”? Exactly what has happened in our State is happening throughout the entire United States. And it is unfortunate that an industry representing our investment of over 150,000,000 dollars in this State alone, should be used as a political football.
Feeling that some of your readers would like to hear from the grape growers view point, I remain
Yours very sincerely.
C. E. Bundschu.
– Press Democrat, December 24 1919
Wine Company Bids $40 Ton for Grapes
SEBASTOPOL – The California Wine Association offered $40 per ton for grapes that crushed into 217,000 gallons of wine in the Sebastopol winery, according to General Manager F. P. Kelly…Wine men consider that this offer shows conclusively that the entire crush will be sold.
– Press Democrat, December 27 1919
One million dollars’ worth of wine, said to be the largest single shipment of wine ever made from California, left San Francisco for the Orient last Saturday. Included in the shipment will be 10,000 cases of the Golden State, extra dry, champagne, made at the California Wine Association’s big winery at Asti. Besides the champagne there will be 10,000 barrels of other wines. The wine went out on the Robert Dollar and will include some of the choicest wines ever produced in California.
– Sotoyome Scimitar, January 2 1920
Must Have Licenses To Sell Near Beer
Saloon proprietors and restaurant owners who sell liquor containing one-half of 1 per cent alcohol will be required to secure a liquor license, according to a statement yesterday made by Commissioner of Public Health and Safety G. C. Simmons at the meeting of the city commission.
Simmons asked that the city collector furnish him a list of all dealers who have not secured their licenses for the first quarter of the year. The city ordinance regulating the liquor traffic provides that a license must be secured for the serving of any intoxicating liquors, even to malt liquors of whatsoever nature.
– Sacramento Union, January 3 1920
COURT RULES 2.75 BEER IS ILLEGAL BREW
In Two Decisions Last Hopes Of Wets Are Swept Aside: Four Justices In Dissent
Anti – Saloon League Leader Calls Ruling “Sweeping Victory” For Prohibition
WASHINGTON—By a margin of one vote, the Supreme Court upheld today the right of Congress to define intoxicating liquors insofar as applied to war time prohibition.
In a 5 to 4 opinion rendered by Associate Justice Brandeis, the Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of provisions in the Volstead prohibition act prohibiting the manufacture of beverages containing 1/2 of one per cent or more of alcohol. Associate Justices Day, Van DeVanter, McReynolds, and Clark dissenting.
Validity of the Federal prohibition constitutional amendment and of portions of the Volstead act affecting its enforcement were not involved in the proceedings, but the opinion was regarded as so sweeping as to leave little hope among “wet” adherents. Wayne B. Wheeler, general counsel for the Anti-Saloon League of America, hailed it as a “sweeping victory” and in a statement tonight said the only question left open by the court now is whether the eighteenth amendment is of a nature that can be considered as a Federal amendment and whether it was properly adopted.
– Chico Record, January 6 1920
HOP PRICES ASSURED FOR NEXT THREE YEARS
WOODLAND—That the present hop prices will be maintained for some time despite prohibition is the conclusion of a number of Yolo growers, Anson Casselman, a local rancher, has filed a contract with Le Pierce, county Recorder, for the sale of 120,000 pounds of hops to Strauss and Company of London England…
– Press Democrat, January 15 1920
Saloons Are Fast Disappearing Here
They said it couldn’t be done, but it was done, and the evidences of the passing of the saloon and hard liquor are multiplying in Santa Rosa and other cities of the land every day.
Not only have the saloons passed into history, with the amendment to the federal constitution, but even the places where the saloons were located are passing into the hands of other businesses, in no way related to the former trade.
Santa Rosa saloon sites will be occupied by restaurants, candy factories and candy stores, and even by real estate offices, according to facts learned Wednesday in a canvass of the city.
In only a few cases are saloon owners hanging onto their leases of Santa Rosa property, with any idea that they might be able to return to business.
“It’s all over, so why worry about coming back,” declared one former saloon proprietor. “I, for one, am going to look around and get into something else.”
“Why hurry?” was the query on the other hand from another saloonman. “I’m going to stay open, sell whatever I can sell, and see what happens. I won’t starve for several months even if I don’t pay expenses.”
A hurried survey of the situation Wednesday showed something like this has happened and is going to happen to saloons in Santa Rosa:
Jake Luppold’a famous “Senate” saloon in Main street is closed. Jake says his plans are unsettled, but he does not think the saloon business will ever come back.
Scotty Tickner has opened a restaurant in his former “Recall” saloon in Fourth street.
Across the street Hans Alapt has likewise changed the Eagle Bar into a restaurant.
The Rose Bar, next to the Rose Theater, has become the realty office of Garrett Kidd and Elmer Crowell.
The Grapevine, Mendocino avenue’s only saloon in recent years, will be remodeled into a restaurant for George R. Edwards, whose Lunchery will then move across the street.
The Brandel wholesale and retail liquor store in Fourth street is to open about February 1 as a grocery under the conduct of McCarcy & Woods.
Bouk’s candy factory is already established in the quarters in Fifth street formerly occupied by the Brown & son liquor store.
Bacigalupi & Son, grocers, have already absorbed the site at Fourth and Davis street, once occupied by a saloon.
A fruit and poultry market occupies the old Magnolia site at the corner of Fourth and Washington streets.
Fire wiped out of memory the States formerly the Germania, hotel and bar, near the Northwestern station.
And so the story goes. About half of the old saloon sites are already wiped off the map. More are in process of change, and of the few remaining open as cigar stores and soft drink emporiums, like Thomas Gemetti in Third street, their plans are unsettled.
Landlords are delighted with the manner in which the old saloon sites are filling up, and tenants are glad to be able to secure desirable locations.
– Press Democrat, January 22 1920
BUYERS ARE IN THE FIELD OFFERING $25 FOR GRAPES
Higher Prices Than Have Been Paid for Years Are Now Being Offered and Prompt Vineyardists to Trim Their Vines, Plow Their Land and Get Ready for 1920 Crop Despite “Dry” Era.
With buyers already in the field offering $25 per ton and boxes for handling the crop, the grape growers of Sonoma county cannot complain of National Prohibition as the price is paid to be more than per ton higher than the average price paid for grapes during the past ten years.
Several buyers are out seeking contracts for the 1920 black grape crop at $25 per ton with $5 cash advance on signing the contract and $20 on delivery of the grapes in the fall. With the exception of the last year, when somewhat higher prices contingent on the disposal of the wine prevailed, grapes have not averaged, it is said, $20 per ton in past years.
While it is said the present price is experimental and will be only for this year’s crop it is known that there is a movement afoot to stabilize prices of grapes at approximately that figure in the hopes of maintaining the land value in the county. If it works out at a conference to be held by big growers and firms seeking the grapes in the near future it will mean that the grape industry will become a fixed one similar to hops with one, two and three year contracts to the growers.
It is understood that the grapes are being purchased with the view of drying and shipping abroad. The price of shooks and freight rates will have a heavy bearing on the industry. It has been reported that the lines may require prepayment of all freights which would add a big item to the expense of handling the grapes in transcontinental shipment.
The prices for this year, at least, are not at all dark for grape growers with the price already fixed at $25 per ton and there will be few who will dig out their vines as long as contracts can be made at that price. Reports from various points in Sonoma county this week are to the effect that vineyardists are already trimming their vines, ploughing their land, and getting in readiness for the new crop. In some cases, however, growers are taking out the roots and putting in prunes and other trees, especially in the low lands and on good hill lands.
– Press Democrat, January 22 1920
John Peterson, wine manufacturer of Santa Rosa, has sold 143,000 gallons of wine for $74,000 to the California Wine Association. Price for a single gallon was 55c. The wine will be used for sacramental and non-beverage purposes.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, May 4 1920
GRAPE MEN OFFERED SIXTY-FIVE DOLLARS
A number of vineyardists have this week been approached by buyers who have offered them from sixty to sixty-five dollars a ton for their coming crops of wine grapes. It is understood that some growers have accepted these prices, while others are disposed to hold and see the results when Grape Growers Exchange is organized. It is slated that permanent organization of the Exchange is likely to occur very soon, the time depending upon how quickly the required acreage of grapes is signed up in membership.
– Press Democrat, June 30 1920
DEHYDRATOR TO BE BUILT HERE, COSTS $35,000
International Brokerage Company of Chicago Buys Wine Association Site; Also to Build a Dryer in County.
Santa Rosa is to have a new fruit dehydrator. to be built immediately by the International Brokerage company, said to be the largest handlers of California grapes in the United States.
The company, which has its main offices in Chicago. has purchased the California Wine Association’s site at West Eighth street and the N. W. P. railroad and will begin the construction of the first unit, a $35,000 building, immediately. The first unit will be used for grapes and all other classes of fruits…
The first unit will have a capacity of fifty tons, and further units will be built as fast as the tonnage warrants, it is announced, with a possibility of a total capacity of 500 tons every twelve hours.
The company contemplates» the construction of another dryer in the county for packing and distribution.
The local dehydrator will eventually handle all products grown in this part of the state, including vegetables, green fruits and dried products. Other dehydrators owned by the company are already being operated in the central part of the state. The plant will operate the year round and is expected to have a large payroll. All the products will bear the names of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county.
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.
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.
Prop. 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
Dec 17 Congress sends Eighteenth Amendment to states for ratification
Nov 11 End of WWI; Wilson delivers Armistice address to Congress Nov 21 Wartime Prohibition Act signed by Wilson Dec 01 Breweries closed
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
Jan 17 Prohibition begins Mar 19 Senate rejects Versailles for second time
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.
LEFT: 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
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:
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.
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
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
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.”