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Friday, March 27, 2009

"No Rum for Me!"

This 19th century poster utilized the mother and child motif to drive home the benefits of making alcohol consumption illegal.
A call for the end to the "failed experiment" of Prohibition (1920-1933) is reflected in this 1920's poster.
Originally published on March 25, 2009 (see new notes attached)
Journal Opinion


“No crime is, perhaps, attended with more evil consequences to society and individuals, than that of drunkenness.” This statement was made by the Council of Censors of the State of Vermont at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It reflects the growing influence of the temperance movement in both Vermont and New Hampshire. While the sentiment was not new, it reflected a changing view toward the use of “ardent spirits.”

Prior to that time in the area’s newly-formed towns, alcoholic beverages were widely used and taverns were common. Frederic Wells, writing in the histories of Newbury and Ryegate, described local attitudes. “Everybody, practically, drank; only here and there was a man who did not drink at all. Intemperance, and all the evils that followed in its train, was regarded with indifference by most, with aversion by some, and with horror by a very few.” Hard cider, apple brandy, potato whiskey and rum were present at most gatherings including town meetings, militia musters, weddings, funerals and even court sessions.

Wells felt that the rough toil of earlier times justified this use. “Their vigorous frames could readily withstand the effects of the stimulants.” There must have been a lot of rough toil in Topsham, for, in 1814, 78 barrels of rum were sold. Wells added that many men who drank cider daily, even when it was hard, “rarely tasted anything stronger.”

The battle against the evils of intemperance was one of the first reform movements in nineteenth century Vermont and New Hampshire. In 1817 the Vermont legislature organized a committee to investigate “the too free use of ardent spirits.” As the movement grew, temperance became increasingly valued as a personal characteristic. Joseph Stowe of Haverhill was one such “staunch temperance man.” In 1825, he would not provide rum for the laborers building his East Haverhill saw mill. The men refused to complete the work and the “country round was scoured before men enough could be got to finish the work.” His life was later threatened when he proposed posting the names of town drunkards.

In towns on both sides of the river the efforts of newly-formed temperance organizations began to have an impact. Abby Hemenway wrote of Bradford, “One of the earliest combined efforts in the State, in favor of temperance, was organized here in 1826…and in the course of 42 years a great deal of evil has been averted.” Three hundred members of a Thetford church voted unanimously, “not to use ardent spirits except as medicine.” Piermont was described as being “remarkable for temperance.”

Vermont was described by author David Ludlum as “a paragon of sobriety.” In 1826 the Vermont Temperance Society was formed. Rev. Silas McKeen of Bradford served for at least a time as its secretary. Subsequently, the movement broke into two factions; those who felt persuasion would bring results, while, the others, felt a law mandating prohibition was needed. When Vermont created a local option law in 1844, several local towns including Topsham and Newbury voted that no liquor could be sold locally. Vermont adopted state-wide prohibition in 1850 followed by New Hampshire in 1855. These laws remained on the books until 1903. Bars and distilleries were legally closed.

There is no doubt, that despite laws to the contrary, liquor was manufactured and consumed in the area. Oh-Be-Joyful recipes were brought back by returning Civil War veterans and adapted to local use. Items in the Bradford Opinion in the 1870’s confirm the existence of home distilleries and cider mills. The following news item appeared in one weekly Corinth news column: “Several illicit distillers of cider brandy in Corinth have been arrested during the past week.…better let that kind of business alone.” Later this notice appeared: “Our correspondent concludes that West Fairlee Center is getting to be a dangerous place for peaceable people…Is it on account of cider brandy leaking down through Bear Notch?”

If there was no consumption, temperance groups would have declined. To the contrary, from Lyme to Ryegate, they flourished. In 1866, men and women in Haverhill and Newbury formed local chapters of the Good Templars, an organization dedicated to the cause of temperance.

In 1876, temperance got a major boost in Bradford with the formation of a Temperance Society, followed by local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Sons of Temperance. A temperance rally in September 1876 led over one third of the town to pledge not only to abstain from the use of liquor, “…but to use their influence to stop its sale and use among their fellow men.”

There were a number of temperance activities in East Haverhill. A leader was Ellen Ruddick Richardson. Her local activities led her to become president of the New Hampshire Women’s Christian Temperance Union from 1899 to 1918. She spoke widely on behalf of the movement and was recognized nationally for her work.

These efforts to restrict the use of alcohol were met with resistance. Many resented the intrusion of the government into what they saw as a personal freedom. Immigrants, for whom alcohol was an important part of cultural life, saw restrictions as an effort by middle-class Protestants to punish them. Alcohol manufacture and sales were major industries, ones that would be shifted from the law-abiding to illicit businesses. For that reason, bootleggers often favored tighter regulations. The struggle often pitted urban users against rural teetotaling crusaders.

A broad-based crusade was building that moved for states to pass local option laws and even prohibition. Vermont and New Hampshire’s prohibition laws were replaced by local option laws in 1903. At the same time momentum for national prohibition was growing. The first national law had been introduced by New Hampshire Congressman Henry William Blair in 1876, a proposal that never made it out of committee. As Senator, he reintroduced it in 1886 and it was defeated 33-13.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, a coalition of groups pushed for a Constitutional amendment. The Anti-Saloon League with its five million members was a leader in the effort. Their influence was enhanced by the grain shortages experienced during World War I. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1917 and it went into effect on January 16, 1920. Opponents pointed out it was the first amendment to the Constitution that denied a right. The Volstead Act implemented the amendment. It was illegal to manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States.

In the early 1980’s my Oxbow history classes conducted a number of interviews with elders who were locals in their late teens and early twenties during Prohibition. One question asked was: “How did Prohibition affect you and your family?” What surprised the students the most was that despite what they were reading in their textbook about bootleggers and speakeasies, the most common answer was “Not at all.” Many elders said that no one in their families drank alcoholic beverages. The students heard answers that were similar to that given by one elder from E. Topsham who said “I never drink anything but cold water pure.”

While they spoke despairingly of drunkards in the community, these elders admitted that illegal liquor was available. Stories were told and recently repeated, of bootleggers who would hide “hooch” in innocent neighbors’ outbuildings. In more than one local community, smugglers established a regular delivery route. A heavily-loaded car arrived at a designated time and place, flashed its headlights as a signal and out of the darkness came the customers. Bottles might also be left in culverts or other pre-arranged locations.
Across the nation there was an increase in unsafe black market alcohol and non- compliance with the law.

Alcohol sales were legal in Canada and as a result Vermont and New Hampshire were on the frontline of smuggling. Almost weekly, the United Opinion carried news reports of the efforts by the authorities to enforce the law. In July, 1931, it reported on the attempts at border enforcement. In the previous year, the officials reported that more than 156,000 bottles of illegal alcohol had been confiscated along with 265 automobiles.

Despite this report, the border patrol was overwhelmed and smugglers often made it through successfully. Roads through the area were supply routes between Canada and communities to the south. Elders told of heavy automobiles speeding along these roads, often followed by pursuing enforcers. One resident who grew up on the River Road, now Route 5, told of an incident in which an unfamiliar car careened around his farmhouse to hide behind the family barn. Moments later, a police vehicle sped past, disappearing down the road to the south.

The profit from the smuggling was great. One local purchased 12 quarts of liquor in Quebec for $28 and sold it locally for $90. Liquor was carried in loaves of bread, rigged fire extinguishers or in special tanks slung under cars. Not all smugglers got away. The newspaper carried stores of arrests, including one of an East Thetford smuggler apprehended with 250 bottles of Canadian ale after his car was forced off the road. Crashes were not uncommon and locals sometimes helped themselves to unguarded cargoes.

Not that locals needed to rely on Canadian imports, as some local residents became home brewers and moon shiners. One N. Haverhill resident made wheat whiskey, one glass of which “and you would be crawling out of the room.” The large amount of malt syrup sold by local stores for “making bread”, led the editor of the United Opinion to conclude “that the home brewing industry in Bradford was flourishing…” Homemade brews could result in alcohol content higher than the limit of one half of one percent. Alcohol was also available legally for medicinal purposes and that limitation was so abused as to make it a farce.

The unsuccessful “Great Experiment” ended on December 5, 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment. While awaiting ratification of the amendment, Congress amended the Volstead Act to allow for the sale of 3.2 or near beer. Both Vermont and New Hampshire legalized the sale of beer in those towns that voted “wet”. Bradford voted 160 to 96 in favor of the sale in April, 1933. Once liquor sales became legal, each state enacted laws regulating sales. In both states the sale of wine and hard liquor was limited to state-operated stores. Blue laws restricted the hours of sales, with no sales on Sunday. Local option votes continued. Piermont, with its active chapter of the WCTU, voted dry; a practice that continued into the 1960’s.

The government is still working to enforce alcohol prohibition among minors. It has generally been unsuccessful. In 1894, Vermont Catholic Bishop Arthur Hall said, “Prohibition drives underground the mischief which it seeks to cure, making it more difficult to deal with the evil and impossible to regulate the trade.” He correctly predicted the impact of the government’s attempt at prohibition then. We are still grappling with the truth of his statement today.
In 1891, a group of East Haverhill temperance advocates marched up Lime Kilm Road to the local Methodist Church behind the banner that proclaimed "No Rum For Me". (Archie Steenburgh/Nancy Burton) 

Notes added after JO publication:

The United Opinion of Nov.9, 1934 reported that one year after repeal of prohibition, "more bootleg liquor is being distilled in New England...than before the repeal." One official was quoted as saying "the bootlegger has changed modes and methods. Today, the bootlegger stands in his business place and poses as a legitimate liquor dispenser, but actually sells you bootlegstuff." Bootleggers were thus depriving the federal government of $500 million in taxes. The article went on to say that this trend along with more drunken driving accidents was also prevelent in Vermont.
An article in the April 6, 2009 Valley News pointed out that New Hampshire is one of 18 "control" states "that monopolize or partly monopolize alcohol sales. They decided to allow alcohol sales at some point after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, but they didn't want it to flow too freely.
In New Hampshire, a run for Johnny Walker Red in 1934 felt like a trip to Red China as customers passed written orders to clerks in drab warehouses. Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, says that system lasted into the 1970s.
'These stores were tucked away in these seedy areas of downtowns' he said. 'It was almost like we were ashamed that they were here.'"

1 comment:

  1. Dwight and I were surprised when we moved to Bradford in 1979 to find that Blue Laws still existed in Vermont. And I still think you can find 3.2 beer in grocery stores in Colorado. Many underage teenagers found 3.2 intoxicating where I grew up. Very interesting reading, Larry. Thanks.