Duluth’s Post-Prohibition Liquor Laws

The Classy Lumberjack was a typical Bowery establishment by the 1950s. When it was demolished it’s liquor license—and 12 others within the Bowery—were redistributed throughout the city. to avoid creating another Bowery. (Image: Greg Mattson)

Duluth’s Post-Prohibition liquor laws were far more stringent than they were before the Volstead Act. Many were common-sense regulations. State law, guided by population, restricted the amount of on-sale liquor licenses to no more than 50. Separate liquor licenses were required for an establishment which wished to sell only beer, wine, and cordials. Opened containers of alcohol could be transported in a car, but liquor could not be mixed nor consumed in an automobile. Beer could be sold as early as 7 a.m., and bars closed at midnight. The legal drink age was 21, in compliance with state law.

Some previsions seem archaic to us today. While liquor could be served at restaurant and hotel counters, it could not be served at stand-up bars; saloons and taverns with existing bars need not remove the bars, but to keep them owners had to install fixed stools or chairs and serve food. Night clubs and cabarets were not allowed to serve liquor. You could neither enjoy nor serve a drink where anyone was dancing, screening a film, or playing football or baseball. Liquor stores could not sell cigars, cigarettes, malt beverages, or soft drinks—just beer, wine, and liquor. Just a year after the new laws were established, bar owners and bartenders were calling for more restrictions. They asked for provisions that allowed only men to drink at bars; women could enjoy a drink only if seated in a booth, and those booths must be opened at one side; live music would be allowed, but only if performed by union musicians; and women would not be allowed “behind bars where liquor is primarily dispensed.” The motive of this last provision was not temperance, but money. Saloon owners were using waitresses to tend bar so they wouldn’t have to pay bartenders their union wages.

In 1937, the city council allowed dancing, music, and “other forms of entertainment” to be permitted at on-sale establishments, but only under strict guidelines: Rooms for dancing “must contain at least 2,000 square feet of table and dance floor space.” Furthermore, no dancing would be allowed in the same room where liquor was served, and never on Sundays nor between the hours of 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. on any day. And no more live music: only music from radios was permitted.

As the 1930s came to a close, Duluth lawmakers looked for loopholes that would allow them to issue more liquor licenses, and drinking hours were extended to 1 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on Sundays. Several more liquor sales districts were established, others were extended. But you could not buy liquor on Christmas or after 3 p.m. on Good Friday.

The early 1940s saw more changes. Dancing was allowed in drinking establishments in September, 1941. That decision was reversed less than two months later, at the same time the city council responded to a request from the local musicians’ union to allow live music in taverns by revising the liquor ordinance to specifically ban live music from all establishments that sold liquor.

The live-music issue was followed by a debate over whether drinking establishments should be allowed to operate juke boxes, as opponents argued that music could lead to dancing, which would irreversibly corrupt Duluth’s young people. The city council wanted to allow juke boxes so that saloons would make more money and the city could then raise the cost of liquor licenses. When the council passed an ordinance allowing the mechanical music machines with a 3–2 vote, a delegation of “approximately 100 persons crowded the city hall council chambers” armed with a protest signed by representatives of 31 Duluth churches. The council caved, banning juke boxes on January 24, 1944 (the ordinance was later repealed).

As the decade wore on from the 1940s to the ’50s, the liquor ordinance was adapted again whenever it needed to comply with changes in the state law. Most of these involved operating hours of on- and off-sale establishments.

A major change in the way the city addressed alcohol regulations came in 1956 when Duluth adopted a new form of government. Since 1914 Duluth had operated under a commissioner-based system of five department commissioners (including the mayor) making up the city council. The new system, still in place today, consists of a mayor and a city council made up of five councilors representing the city’s voting districts and four at-large council members. The government reorganization included the formation of a Liquor Board, which would make recommendations to the city council regarding the city’s liquor laws and licensing.

In 1963 Municipal Judge Thomas J. Bujold ruled that Duluth’s 1933 law forbidding women from drinking at bars in hotels, restaurants, and clubs was unconstitutional.

Outside of an ongoing effort to redistrict liquor sales throughout the city, Duluth’s liquor laws remained fairly unchanged until the early 1970s. As the 1970s began the liquor board again debated Sunday liquor sales, off-sale sales on election days, whether employees under 21 years of age could sell off-sale liquor, and dancing—which circled back on the Sunday liquor issue.

In March 1973 the council voted to “permit dancing on Sundays in hotels, clubs and restaurants qualifying as food-serving establishments licensed for Sunday liquor sales.” It also allowed restaurants to serve drinks over their bars on Sunday, as long as food made up 40 percent of their total sales.

This clipping from the Duluth News Tribune shows the liquor sales zones established in 1934. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Liquor Sales Districting, 1934–1973

Sunday sales and dancing aside, the provision with the most impact on the city was the creation of zones that allowed liquor sales, restricting the distribution of liquor licenses to very specific commercial districts. The largest was along Superior Street from the ore docks at 33rd Avenue West to 14th Avenue East, including portions of Michigan Street, First Street, and London Road. You could also buy and sell liquor along Garfield Avenue on Rice’s Point and on South First Avenue East (formerly St. Croix Avenue and Canal Park Drive today), home to Duluth’s red-light district. Five smaller districts were established in West Duluth and Gary-New Duluth.

Everywhere else in the city was off limits. You could not buy liquor in commercial districts in any other neighborhood, not in Woodland, Duluth Heights, Piedmont Heights, Morgan Park, Fond du Lac, Bay View Heights, Kenwood, or Mount Royale. And certainly not in Lakeside/Lester Park, where the 1891 state law and 1893 annexation agreement kept liquor out of the neighborhood.

From 1934 until 1960, Duluth’s liquor districts remained relatively unchanged—except for additional restriction. In 1938 some established liquor districts, including along South First Avenue East, were prohibited from licenses (this was likely to aid the effort to remove the area’s brothels). When the University of Minnesota Duluth relocated its campus in the 1950s, another district was added: liquor sales would not be allowed within a one-mile radius of the college’s 1955 Kirby Student Center, which included portions of the Kenwood, Chester Park, and Hunter’s Park neighborhoods. The state’s legal drinking age was 21, and most of the university’s students were not.

A major change in the way the city addressed alcohol regulations came in 1956 when Duluth adopted a new form of government. Since 1914 Duluth had operated under a commissioner-based system of five department commissioners (including the mayor) making up the city council. The new system, still in place today, consists of a mayor and a city council made up of five councilors representing the city’s voting districts and four at-large council members. The government reorganization included the formation of a Liquor Board, which would make recommendations to the city council regarding the city’s liquor laws and licensing.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.