Subverting Duluth’s Sunday Liquor Laws, 1870–2017

While the sale of liquor on Sundays was illegal in Minnesota starting in 1856, Duluth’s early history shows a revolving-door policy regarding adherence to the statute even though the city paid keen attention to liquor issues from its start—the very first ordinance passed by Duluth city officials regulated the “trading in intoxicants.”

On July 21, 1870, “Professor” F. E. McBain, owner of the Zenith Bowling Saloon, wrote a letter to the Duluth Minnesotian complaining about a new city law forbidding liquor-license holders from selling on Sundays. “After granting said license for one year,” McBain wrote, “they then pass an ordinance forbidding us to sell any liquor on 52 days of said year.” Duluth was only a few months old, having become a city in March. McBain’s letter implies that Sunday liquor sales had been allowed dating back as far as the 1850s when pioneers first established the towns that became Duluth. McBain must have had support, for Duluth’s liquor dealers were selling on Sundays again by the spring of 1872—and not everyone was happy about it. Outgoing Duluth mayor Clinton Markell ordered the end of Sunday sales in April, 1872, as the Minnesotian explained:

On Sunday last quite a number of individuals appeared on our streets in a state of intoxication, with indecent exposure in one instance. Upon this, Mayor Markell immediately determined that liquor selling on Sunday must be stopped, and his proclamation or order in reference thereto in our advertising columns will be strictly enforced tomorrow.

The paper added that incoming mayor Sidney Luce would undoubtedly uphold the new ordinance as well. Four years after the Markell-imposed ban, liquor dealers petitioned the common council for “the privilege of selling liquor on Sunday.” The newspaper failed to follow-up on the issue, and there is no indication that the liquor dealers won the day.

After the city’s financial collapse led to its reorganization as a village in 1877, the new community’s laws included a ban on Sunday liquor sales, even though the state law already strictly forbade it. In 1880, a cash-strapped St. Louis County experimented with issuing licenses for Sunday beer gardens in order to raise money, but it was quickly shut down due to a murder.

In 1884 Duluth had been ignoring both the state and village prohibition of Sunday sales for at least two years. That year mayoral candidate J. D. Ensign, a pioneer attorney of St. Louis County, promised that if elected he would strictly enforce the village’s ordinance against Sunday liquor sales. His immediate predecessors, Joshua B. Culver (who had also served as the city’s first mayor back in 1870) and C. H. Graves, later U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, had not.

Ensign won, much to the chagrin of alderman and brewer Mike Fink, who had told newspapers that Sunday was “day of all the week, the best” for selling beer. Fink, a German immigrant, was likely thinking of Frühschoppen, the German tradition of meeting in a tavern or tent for a liquid brunch following Sunday church services. The brewer introduced an amendment to the liquor ordinance “providing that on Sundays front doors of the saloons shall be closed, but implying that the back or side doors may be kept wide open.” The Duluth Tribune added the italics.

Not only did the measure fail, but in 1885 Duluth codified its village ordinances, including its liquor law. It strictly forbade Sunday sales. In fact, Mayor Horace B. Moore was elected in 1885 on a platform that included strict adherence to the law. The Sunday after Moore’s inauguration, the News Tribune noted, all of Duluth’s saloons were “closed up tight.” When Duluth regained its city status in 1887, the new city constitution retained the village law prohibiting Sunday sales. It didn’t last. By 1889 Duluthians were drinking on Sundays again.

Duluth newspapers published between 1890 and 1920 contain hundreds of stories of saloonkeepers violating the law. Following Prohibition, new liquor laws allowed restaurants and taverns to serve beer and liquor on Sundays, but banned the retail sale of packaged alcohol. Wisconsin had no such law, and for decades Duluthians who forgot to buy beer on Saturdays crossed the bay to stock up on beer on Sundays.

That state law was repealed in 2017, although in Duluth drinking establishments holding a full liquor license must also offer food prepared on-site if they want to open on Sundays.