Prohibition in Duluth (1916–1933)

This cartoon, which appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on June 21, 1932, was captioned, “Still holding the dike.” (Image: Zenith City)

Part 3: Bottoms Up!

In 1929, after ten long years of rampant lawlessness, a group of women nationwide launched the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. It was a coalition of wealthier, educated women of high reputation and class, both Democrat and Republican. They were patently non-religious, and ready to turn the idea of “home protection” made popular by the WCTU on its head. Prohibition did not bring about a better home, but rather brought crime and vice to the communities it was supposed to protect.

The card for membership in WONPR read:

Because I believe that National Prohibition has incited crime, and increased lawlessness, hypocrisy and corruption.

Because I believe that the cause of real temperance has been retarded and that sumptuary laws have no place in the Federal Constitution.

I propose to work for some change in the law which will bring about a sane solution of the problem, and, therefore, enroll as a member of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

By 1930, the Wets had won Congress, in part because of an exposé in the Washington Post showing that the very same politicians who voted for Prohibition were drinkers themselves. At the 1932 party conventions, Prohibition was a bigger issue than the depredations brought by the Depression. In the election, it was estimated that over 70 percent voted for repeal candidates.

On February 20, 1933, Congress proposed the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition, but it would take until December to be ratified. Meanwhile, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, legalizing 3.2 beer and low-alcohol wine. On April 7, 1933, at the stroke of midnight, people could buy beer for the first time since the beginning of national Prohibition. Fitger’s historian Coopen Johnson described the scene near Duluth’s largest brewery:

Excitement was brewing throughout the city in the anticipation of 3.2 beer becoming legal, and Hollywood could not have written a better script. Fitger’s had been locked up at six in the evening on April 5, 1933, to make sure nobody tried to break in prior to midnight. Empty trucks were lined up two abreast from Fifth Avenue East to Seventh Avenue East. Additional trucks were locked inside the brewery yard awaiting the signal to be loaded.

The beer parade started promptly at midnight. Police Sergeant Elmer Stovern fired a pistol as the starting signal, and Scott Cash, an inspector for the Federal Bureau of Industrial Alcohol, unlocked the gates to the brewery. A German “Oompah” band immediately struck up with the popular song “Happy Days are Here Again.”

Inside Fitger’s, Victor Anneke hosted a gala party in the boardroom…. Next door at the Pickwick, and at other cafés, hotels, and taverns in and around Duluth, the general public began celebrating during regular business hours later that day.

August Fitger’s diary noted that 147 trucks were loaded after midnight. On that first day, April 6, 1933, Fitger’s sold 19,000 cases of beer, plus 1,260 kegs of beer. Fitger claimed that in one night, the Federal government “collected $80,000 in excise taxes from Fitger’s!” The $80,000 was an exaggeration. It was closer to $8,000, which was still a substantial amount.

Local legend has it that the owner of the Pickwick, Joseph Wisocki, threw the last glass of “near beer” into the fireplace and the place stayed open for 24 hours to celebrate, serving several thousands. (Others say it was Fitger Brewmaster John Beerhalter who tossed the final pint into the fire.)

Victor Anneke, who had become Fitger’s president after his father Percy died in 1928, spoke to all of Duluth through WEBC Radio the evening of the repeal. His speech began:

Tonight marks an historic moment in the progress of Duluth and the nation. After fifteen years of enforced idleness, a great industry goes back to work again. Thousands of men are being put on new payrolls. Millions of dollars are being spent in this renewed activity. Tonight, as I said, is historic in our national life, for tonight marks more than the legalization of beer. The great principle of government is involved.

Tonight marks the end of the stranglehold which the foes of true temperance have long had upon our laws, and which they have sought, by every means, to enforce upon an unwilling public. Tonight should be remembered, it seems to me, because it was tonight that the right to true temperance, moderation, and good fellowship has been reborn in this country of ours, and the uncontrolled, intemperate drinking of harmful concoctions behind closed doors has been struck a death blow. Good fellowship belongs in the home, the club, or the legitimate hotel and cafe. Let’s put it there once more and keep it there.

Anneke went on to assure listeners that not only were Fitger’s facilities and crew—some who had been on the job for 40 years—ready to go, but that, “each member of the Fitger organization has been working for months to make your first bottle of Fitger’s Beer in 1933 even finer than the last bottle of 1918. The trucks you heard go out of here tonight did not carry green beer. It was fully aged, as fine as any Fitger’s ever brewed.”

When the Repeal Amendment took effect on December 5, 1933, local newspapers reported that while bars and ex-speakeasies in Superior celebrated into the wee hours, Duluth was technically still dry by local ordinance, and there was quite a bit of confusion over whether the state-wide local option was still in effect. Private parties went on into the morning, but public celebrations were reported to be subdued.

It took the Duluth City Council another two months of wrangling to repeal the local ordinance and put into place the regulations required for liquor licensing.

When the regulations were finally passed, the council took the unusual step of having them take effect immediately. On February 5, 1934—the same day as the vote—liquor was sold legally in Duluth for the first time since 1917. According to newspaper reports, supplies were rushed from storerooms and by 6 p.m., six restaurants and hotels were “in the liquor business.” In contrast to the years of blind pigs running 24 hours, every one of the businesses closed up shop at midnight. Twenty off-sale permits were subsequently issued, along with the state-allotted 50 on-sale permits.

Five years later, Fitger’s brewmaster John Beerhalter had this to say about America’s “Noble Experiment”:

Our nation was just beginning to outgrow its adolescent period when [World War I] and Prohibition came upon us. During the thirteen years our industry was outlawed, we saw crime increase, bootlegging and racketeers gain enormous power, the breakdown of law enforcement, and growth of illegal, inferior products. When the 3.2 beer law passed in 1933, the activities created by our industry took up seven percent of the labor force. Since re-legalization, we have paid about $300 million in brewery wages and salaries and an equal amount for American farm products used in brewing. Breweries are major consumers of grains, especially barley. It takes a whole acre of barley to make 21 barrels of beer. During the past five years, brewers have spent nearly $100 million for wooden and steel barrels and glass bottles and beer cans. We’ve spent more than $1.5 billion in state and local taxes. And we’ve spent billions on trucks and machinery, printing and advertising in newspapers and on radio.

In essence, the Noble Experiment did not reduce crime nor help the economy, as its shortsighted proponents believed it would. In fact, it was the reason many of the gangsters, such as Al Capone, gained power and could also have been one of many reasons for the economic downturn known as the recession.

Generations would pass before the overwhelmingly negative connotation of the word “saloon” was excised from the American consciousness. One permanent and fairly ironic effect of Prohibition was that women would never again be barred from public drinking establishments, no matter what they were called.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.