Prohibition in Duluth (1916–1933)

A cartoon from the Duluth Rip-Saw ripping Superior, Wisconsin’s back-and-forth stances on Prohibition until it became national law in 1919. (Image: Zenith City)

Wet to Dry and Back Again

In 1915 Duluth’s neighbor Superior, Wisconsin, voted to go dry. Prohibitionists kept up a full-court press in Duluth. Speakers and meetings were advertised with regularity, and in the summer of 1916 the Lyceum Theater hosted a show of “stereopticon views depicting evils of the liquor traffic and economic phases of the question.”

The result was the proposal of Ordinance B, which stirred anti-prohibitionists to a frenzy of rallies, including one at Woodman Hall in the West End and another in Wade’s Hall in West Duluth. Allan P. Cox of Detroit spoke at the former, calling prohibition “a manifestation of mob hysteria and a mental epidemic,” a fad similar to roller-skating and tango dancing. Michigan legislator and orator Sheridan Ford declared, “Prohibition means no license, no revenue, hypocrisy, graft, outlaws and bootlegging. Licensed saloons sell a drink—bootleggers sell a drunk. Which do people want?”

Apparently, they wanted Prohibition, because Ordinance B was passed, to take effect on July 1, 1917. In addition to the closing of the saloons, the carrying of drunken persons on streetcars or any public vehicle was outlawed. If you were caught running a blind pig, you would not only be punished, but your liquor would be confiscated along with any “appliances used in aiding the violation of the law.” Selling or giving away liquor was prohibited.

Another section of the ordinance strictly regulated pharmacists and medical doctors, who were in the habit of prescribing alcoholic tinctures or wine for anything from insomnia to childbirth pains. Soft drink dealers were also licensed and regulated, with the requirement that their establishments be “open to view at all times and screen windows or boothed catering places prohibited.”

Meanwhile, Superior reversed its dry status, and became wet once again.

On July 1, the Duluth News Tribune reported:

Sportive Duluth hiccoughed a boisterous requiem over the fleeting spirit of John Barleycorn yesterday. The passing of the saloon to the ranks of outland business was accompanied with a gigantic drinking fest that started early in the morning and continued through the hour set officially for the obsequies. After 10 o’clock last night the observance was turned into a wake and up to the small hours of the morning the din of celebration was still in the air.

“Never have I seen the equal of the drinking tonight,” said Police Captain Fiskett as he returned from a tour of Superior street.

…At twilight the downtown bars were lined four and five deep. In the cheaper saloons the patrons festooned the bars and the walls in a bleary picture. Here they drank draught beer and ten-cent whisky. In the tiled floor and bright-mirrored buffets the call was for “hard stuff.” Rare old wines, liquors and cordials saw for the first time in a quarter century the cheery light of the barrooms. Liquor of vintages so old that the people who bottled them must long since have died of senility assailed the air with their fumes. …It is reported that one wine order alone at the St. Louis was for $500.

At 9 o’clock it was impossible to get within 10 feet of a bar, and in most places entry could not be had. …In several old saloon landmarks, lines were formed, extending to the sidewalk, and the men served in turn. Forced out of their favorite haunts in the more respectable bars, dozens and dozens of celebrants crossed Fifth avenue, the dead line between those of apparent respectability and the nondescript floaters who drink for necessity and not for sociability. The white collared drinkers invaded the Bowery. …Gentleman and jack fraternized and though some of the old timers resented the invasion of the “softies,” there was no trouble.

“Fifteen minutes more!!” shouted a bartender on the bowery. A renewed clinking of glasses sounded a deafening angelus and the bartenders perspired anew. With the end only minutes away the singing gave way to somber deportment that concerned itself chiefly with imbibing to the time limit.

“John Barleycorn is dead—Long may it rain.” “Let it pour.”

After the saloons closed at 10 p.m., the throng spilled onto Superior Street in a spectacle not unlike New Year’s Eve, though with all the suitcases and surreptitious packages of liquor (which was auctioned off at many saloons), some likened it more to Christmas Eve. Liquor that couldn’t be carried left in huge vans headed to Superior, and every available cart and truck was rented for not-so-secret deliveries to private residences.

Though many predicted a police roundup, there were but a few drunk and disorderly charges. A saloon on Lake Avenue didn’t empty out at closing time, and the police had to go in and throw everyone out. The newspapers had fun with the event, playing up the “funeral” of John Barleycorn. Police were called to the foot of Garfield Avenue where they found 70-year-old Haakon Hendrikson in a “drunken stupor.” The paper reported that Hendrikson “aimed to be a pall bearer or something at the last rites over John Barleycorn, but was overcome even before the floral offerings arrive.” The story was headlined “Pall Bearer at Last Sad Rites of John Barleycorn, Soused.”

The News Tribune also reported that sixty-nine saloons were closed, ostensibly for good.

One week after the ordinance took effect, Duluth Rip-Saw editor and publisher John Morrison (a rabid teetotaler) wrote,

Old Bill Booze is a prime favorite in Superior. They fell on his neck and wept bibulous tears of happiness over his appearance. …Incidentally, Duluth is getting rid of a lot of guzzlers, street walkers, loafers and useless citizens. The old town is jogging along nicely and side from a few temporarily vacant store rooms, no decrease in trade over last week can be noticed Grocers and clothiers very likely soon will report increased trade and a big boom in savings accounts probably will be experienced.

During the next year, while Superior was wet and Duluth dry, steady traffic crossed the Interstate Bridge for the express purpose of drinking. A year later, St. Louis County voted to end the legal sale of intoxicants, and Superior voted dry again. At that point, Oliver, Wisconsin—just across the St. Louis River from Fond du Lac—became the closest town where Duluthians could buy a drink in a saloon.

This state of affairs only lasted a few months, until Oliver voted to go dry. The law went into affect July 1, 1919, but not without some trouble. The night before the change Oliver’s Eagle liquor store was robbed of $2,903 in cash, but its owners likely had the best weekend of their life over the next two days. Cars, trucks, and horse-drawn wagons flooded to Oliver from Duluth as locals stocked up on legal liquor for the last time. It took “hours” to pass from the Minnesota to the Wisconsin side of the Oliver Bridge. The town’s one saloon and three liquor stores took advantage by raising prices.

The next day the News Tribune reported about drunken men thronging the streets of Oliver and one headline rang out “Orgy at Oliver Marks Passing of John Barleycorn.” Soon the entire region became very interested in visiting Iron River, Wisconsin, still wet and within driving distance.

Across the nation in the next two years, many breweries ended up closing, even if they were in wet communities, because of war-time shortages and widespread prejudice against the Germans who owned them. In Proctor during the last year of the war, a rally of 200 citizens gathered at the school to burn all the German books, after which they paraded down to a workingman’s club, took all the songbooks, and ripped out the pages with German songs. Even after the war was over, the Duluth News Tribune ran a headline declaring, “Kaiserism’s Real Nurse Was Beer.”

The US Senate proposed the 18th amendment on December 18, 1917, with ratification coming on January 16, 1919. Two months later, the WCTU held a Victory Banquet at the First Presbyterian Church, and added cigarette smoking to its list of eradicable evils.

When nation-wide prohibition took effect on January 16, 1920, Duluth had already been dry for two and a half years. The Volstead Act—which laid out the rules by which prohibition would be enforced and banned all beverages with more than .5 percent alcohol content—was sponsored by Congressman Andrew Volstead, a Norwegian from Minnesota’s 7th district.

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