Prohibition in Duluth (1916–1933)

The Erin Go Bragh Saloon along St. Louis Avenue in 1875. Duluth had saloons from the start, and four Duluthians survived the financial Panic of 1857 by starting a beer-making operation that eventually became Fitger’s Brewery. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

If you ask most people today if they’d have voted for Prohibition, they would likely answer with an incredulous, “No! Of course not!” Or, “It was a baffling paroxysm of governmental insanity pushed by religious nuts—you can’t legislate morality!”

Looking back from our 21st-century perspective, Prohibition was an era of terrifying mob violence—Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—and the daring exploits of bootleggers. In our imaginations, the era is laced with the boozy breath of forbidden fruit, righteous indignation and flappers dancing their way through glamorous speakeasies. Films and family tales have helped keep that image alive.

Still, many of us today may well have voted for Prohibition one hundred years ago. Would you? Well, do you believe in women’s rights? Are you concerned about domestic violence? Do you believe women should be able to divorce? Are you middle class? Do you worry about intoxicated people roaming the streets, ruining downtown for everyone? Do you consider yourself a Progressive? Are you an average Protestant (Scandinavian Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist or Methodist)? Do you live in the East End, Hunter’s Park or Lakeside?

If you fit any of these categories, chances are you would have been one of the majority of Duluthians who voted our city dry in 1916, with the law taking full effect on July 1, 1917. That’s right. Duluth went dry three years before the 18th Amendment became the law of the land. And most people considered it a fine idea, fully believing that if the Temperance Movement couldn’t stop the madness of John Barleycorn, Prohibition would.

Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie supported Prohibition because they thought liquor weakened worker output. The IWW supported Prohibition because they thought drink was a capitalist plot to weaken the resolve of the working man. Booker T. Washington supported Prohibition because he thought drink kept the black man down. Southern racists supported Prohibition because they thought alcohol made black men go crazy and rape white women.

Most people thought Prohibition wouldn’t affect themselves, only “those people”— ignorant and dirty immigrants and the greedy owners of dark and scary saloons. Saloons, everyone knew, were hotbeds of vice, scams and union organizing. With World War I a virulent anti-German frenzy swept the nation, and most American breweries were owned or operated by German immigrants. This set the final nail in John Barleycorn’s coffin, and fine, upstanding, respectable folks were sure they wouldn’t miss him.

1870–1900: The Growth of the Temperance Movement

From its earliest inception the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) enjoyed a following amongst the wives of Duluth’s richest men. The WCTU was formed in Ohio in 1873 with the goal of creating a “sober and pure world” and believed spreading the gospel of temperance was the way to achieve it. The group defined “temperance” using the same words as the Greek writer Xenophon, who wrote, “moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.” The WCTU asked its members to take the following pledge:

Women’s Christian Temperance Union Pledge:

“I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including wine, beer and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same.”

As the women’s suffrage movement gained steam, so did the flurry of speakers and events making the rounds at local churches. Duluth’s First Presbyterian, Pilgrim Congregational and First Methodist churches in particular played host to national temperance speakers, and their congregations were largely made up of the descendants of Duluth’s Fisheater pioneers, including many of the Zenith City’s most influential citizens.

The temperance movement’s influence can be seen in Duluth’s developmental history. When the Village of Lakeside was established in 1889, its Protestant leaders adopted a charter that prohibited the sale or manufacture of alcohol within its borders. When Lakeside Village became part of Duluth, the city had to make a promise to the village, and it did so with this piece of state legislation:

The common council of the city of Duluth is hereby prohibited from ever granting any license to sell or dispose of any wines, spirituous or malt liquors within the limits of the territory hereby constituted as the city of Lakeside, after the same shall have been annexed to the said city of Duluth in accordance with the provisions of this act.

Lakeside remained dry until 2016.

As the temperance movement gained momentum, wealthy Presbyterian ladies who would only set foot in the West End to do their Christian charitable duties found themselves allied with the immigrant Scandinavian Lutherans and Baptists who also saw Temperance as a solution to the plague of alcoholism amongst workingmen of the community.

On the other side, German Lutherans of the “high church” variety and Catholics were generally “Wets,” and considered beer to be the sustenance deserved for a hard six-days’ work. And wine—well, that was integral to the Catholic mass, as wine represented the “blood of Christ” on Sundays. Italians and other Southern and Eastern Europeans—also Catholics—drank wine with every meal.

So the argument over temperance looked very much like the American social structure at the time, with wealthy Protestants on one end and poor Catholics on the other. But the main plan of attack for the WCTU would not be against non-Protestant churches, but rather saloons. These notorious gathering places of the working class became the most salient point of concern for prohibitionists.

While wealthy men had their private clubs, the newcomer or immigrant workingman had his saloon. The saloon had its social advantages. Many immigrants didn’t trust banks, and a saloon would cash their checks. And a saloon was a prime place for hearing about jobs, and for simple companionship in a new town. Most saloons also offered a “free lunch,” though it required the purchase of a drink, thus inspiring the old saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Saloons could also be unpleasant places rife with both physical and moral filth, scammers and robbers—not to mention murderers. Duluth’s first murder was inspired by an altercation at Decker’s Saloon in 1869. Early settler Jerome Cooley tells tales of George Sherwood’s saloon, which he contends was a hotbed of knife and razor fights. “[Sherwood’s] place was a hang-out for all the toughs when they reached town, especially the boat hands.”

Cooley also tells of a saloon owner named John Pusley who “deceived a girl under the promise of marriage. She became convinced that he did not intend to fulfill his engagement, so one day she walked into his place of business, drew a revolver and shot him dead. She was acquitted.”

As Duluth grew nearer the turn of the century, the number of saloons grew with it, primarily located along the eastern side of Lake Avenue South, near the St. Croix Alley, home of Duluth’s Tenderloin district. Beginning in the 1890s, more saloons located in cheap hotels sprang up in what came to be called the Bowery, the area between Fourth Avenue West and Mesaba Avenue along Michigan and Superior streets.

On October 20, 1895, The Duluth News Tribune published an extensive description of the Bowery, “The Home of Street Loungers.” The writer counted—within a single block—eight saloons, three hotels with bars, and “any number of lodging houses.” The reporter continued:

To be sure [the street loungers] ebb and flow with the times and tides; that is meal times and night tides. They don’t stand up all the time. There are relays to be found on the sunny side of Sixth avenue leaning against a friendly saloon corner or sitting with their legs dangling over the high wooden gutter or sprawled upon their backs, all their lazy length reclined upon the slanting board walk. Presumably, these are the relief corps, and when their brethren standing sentinel on the corners drop with fatigue, these saunter forth and take their places.

Of course, these areas also acted as community centers for gambling and prostitution. The Tenderloin was made up of “female boarding houses,” and prostitutes working there were pretty much left alone by police. Still, newspapers of the day are full of stories of other boarding houses whose owners were charged for running “an immoral house.”

While women were traditionally forbidden inside saloons as patrons, most of these drinking establishments had side doors where women could take away “growlers”—usually a bucket of beer—to share with their lady friends at home. Saloons with back rooms might play host to more disreputable ladies, but the saloon rail itself was not a pleasant place for even the roughest of women. In general practice, saloon accouterments included communal mustache towels, spittoons, and sometimes even urination troughs below the bar.

On July 12, 1897, the Duluth common council passed an ordinance:

It shall be unlawful for any person licensed to selling intoxicating liquors in the city of Duluth to suffer or allow, in or about any place in said city, owned, operated or controlled by said licensee for the selling of intoxicating liquors, any female person to remain more than fifteen minutes at any one time or to drink an intoxicating liquors or to give any exhibition of singing, dancing, or playing or acrobatic performance or to furnish any entertainment or amusement of any kind.

The penalty was a fine of $100 or imprisonment in the county jail for 90 days, in addition to the revocation of the establishment’s license.

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