Ken Burns’s “Prohibition” series on PBS has the television on my radar for the next couple of nights. I’m ready for a few happy hours with Burns because I’ve been reading Daniel Okrent’s detailed-and-dense 2010 New York Times Bestseller, “Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." Okrent is a senior creative consultant of the Burns series and a prominent source in the film.
For whatever reason, Wisconsin’s role may be a tad overshadowed by Chicago, Florida, California and the East Coast in this national drama of Prohibition and Repeal. Visit the PBS Prohibition series website and scroll over Wisconsin—it comes up empty like a morning-after Octoberfest boot in La Crosse or Milwaukee.
Given Sconnie’s strong German heritage, its once-entrenched brewing industry and the role of community breweries in every city, such as the 1896 Casanova Brewery in Hudson, Wisconsin’s role deserves a brief look.
The most interesting item to me, by far, is in Somerset’s 1956 “Triple Centennial Jubilee” history by Father John T. Rivard, a priest at St. Anne’s Parish in Somerset from 1946 to 1969 and who is now deceased. He went so far as to call the St. Croix County village “the Moonshine Capital of the Midwest.” Most local old-timers know some of the tales.
A little Web research reveals a couple of other items worth exploring too. A Hudson attorney and his wife from Hammond played a prominent national role in the temperance movement that started in the early 1800s. (It is interesting that this century-old movement gained real political momentum after passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913 when the new income tax would replace the federal tax monies lost if alcohol were outlawed. According to Burns and Okrent, the revenue from liquor taxes made up from 30 percent to 70 percent of the federal budget during various years.)
World War I and the subsequent anti-German sentiment also helped fuel the passage of Prohibition. Okrent writes this, which is repeated in Burns’ film:
The war’s clinching contribution to the dry cause arrived in February 1918, as the Eighteenth Amendment was beginning its journey through the state legislatures. "We have German enemies across the water," a dry politician named John Strange [a Wisconsin businessman who served one term as Lieutenant Governor 1909-1911] told the Milwaukee Journal that month. "We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller."
Many of those names were established in Wisconsin’s brewery business so that had to be a harbinger for things to come. But in addition to being a vacationland for organized crime during the entire 13-year-experiment, Wisconsin remained pretty darn wet as the Wisconsin Historical Society notes in a series of articles. And our own Senator John J. Blaine, who later became governor, led Repeal with introduction of the Blaine Act, which eventually became the 21st Amendment.
Let’s take a little tour of these influencers from Wisconsin, Hudson and Somerset. Undoubtedly there were many more from the mother state.
The Prohibition Party’s Connection to Hudson
Both Okrent’s book and Burns’ documentary outline the long history of the dry movement before the 18th Amendment. Reformers were crusading for more than a century; one prominent temperance mover and shaker was an attorney from Hudson.
Jabez Burritt Smith, who eventually served as chairman of the Prohibition Party of Wisconsin for five years, was an attorney with the Hudson law firm of Baker & Smith from March 1881 to February 1888, according his biography on the Prohibition Party website.
Born in New York in 1852, Smith lived with his family in River Falls, where he attended public schools. In 1876 he married a teacher, Marcia Bradford, of Hammond, who was also active in temperance work. They had three sons.
The family left Hudson for Madison in 1888 so Smith could become secretary of the state's Prohibition committee. He joined the T.C. Richmond law firm in the capitol city; Richmond was then chairman of the state committee. Smith remained with the Richmond firm until 1900, when he was nominated as the Prohibition Party candidate for governor of Wisconsin.
He was well known for his writings, having authored many articles for The National Prohibitionist and The Vindicator. He wrote two works of fiction, “High Joe,” a prohibitionist tale about a logger, and “Barriers Broken,” plus the nonfiction manuscripts, “The Unconstitutionality of Liquor License Laws” and “The Socializing of American Institutions,” before he died in 1914 in Hammond. He was buried in Madison.
Wisconsin: A Gibraltar of the Wets and a Leader in Repeal
The Wisconsin Historical Society’s article, “Brewing and Prohibiton,” notes that the entire state was regarded by Federal Agent Frank Buckley of the Bureau of Prohibition in 1929 as a “Gibraltar of the wets—sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor.”
The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, created in 1929 and informally called the Wickersham Commission, was charged with surveying the state of the nation during prohibition, and Buckley took on Wisconsin.
I’m guessing Buckley never bothered to visit the northwestern hinterlands and had no idea of the “Somerset Moon” crafted here. Buckley assessed each Wisconsin county in his report and provided anecdotal evidence from a few county’s law enforcement officers.
He categorized St. Croix County as “Dry/Borders on Minnesota,” although he noted “No Cooperation” from the county sheriff. The capitol city, however, was dubbed the home of the “queen of bootleggers” as the action there was run by Jennie Justo, a proprietress of the city’s many speakeasies.
As Burns’s series highlights in Part Two as does Buckley in his 1929 report on Wisconsin, it was intensely difficult to enforce the 18th Amendment and the accompanying enforcement law, the National Prohibition Act, more commonly known as the Volstead Act. This act was named for Minnesota Senator Andrew Volstead, who was chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which managed the legislation. Plus, there were only 134 agents charged with enforcement in Illinois, Iowa and part of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin was clearly one state in blatant defiance of the feds: In 1926 voters approved an amendment to the Volstead Act that allowed 2.75 percent beer to be manufactured in the state, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. In 1929, it was among one of the first states in the union to refuse to enforce Prohibition with the Severson Act. WHS writes:
Pledging loyalty to the ‘will of the people’ was expressed in these referendums on alcohol, Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment for the repeal of prohibition. The U.S. Senate modified Blaine’s resolution to satisfy anti-prohibitionists and passed the measure with out delay. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment [also known as the Blaine Act] was ratified and national prohibition ended.
‘Somerset Moon’ Shines in the St. Croix Watershed
As the Burns’s documentary points out, the years between Prohibition’s start on Jan. 17, 1920, and Repeal’s enactment on Dec. 5, 1933, were quite colorful. Criminal activity started immediately with a train robbery of medicinal ethanol near Chicago on the very same day the law went into effect.
Father Rivard’s account of moonshining in St. Croix County takes up a page in his Centennial book, but undoubtedly if he would have broken his priest-penitent privilege he probably could have written an entire book. Rivard writes:
Somerset was the Moonshine Capital of the Midwest. How did it happen? In 1918 [sic] Prohibition, the noble experiment, took effect. Now the French-Canadian is not a notorious drinker, he drinks no more than any other race, but he has a keen sense of independence. No foolish law was going to stop him from having a nip from time to time. But there was no liquor to buy. So he made his own! One many is generally given credit for installing his own distilling outfit. He shall remain nameless as will all the people involved herein.
Rivard goes on to supply a “do-it-yourself” recipe and notes that the first moonshine was made by this individual from molasses and fetched upward of $30 a gallon the first year. Despite Repeal, Rivard said, bootlegging in Somerset lasted “until 1939.”
He writes: “You might ask why did it become such an industry in Somerset, why not in Hudson or New Richmond?” Some sources cite the water quality for distilling and the abundance of lakes and ponds, and the fast-running Apple River so as to hide the hooch easily. Rivard answers:
To make moon you must have confidence in your neighbors. Somerset was almost all French and much interrelated. They still have a fierce sense of loyalty to each other. They must not snitch. Neither must they be envious of each others good fortune. Jealousy and greed will break up any endeavor. Also a gentlemen’s agreement must mean something to all parties concerned. There must be a good moral background, even though the action involved is not at the time exactly legal. Also Somerset was near the State line and the Twin Cities.
All this fair-albeit-illegal trade came to an end when the local industry was infiltrated, he says. “Everything was going along fine with not too much trouble when the strangers and racketeers came on the scene.”
Unlike the flock of French-Canadian parishioners-cum-scofflaws, the interlopers, he said, were
uncouth, rude, bold and greedy. They brought the Feds down in droves. Besides they were unscrupulous and had no sense of loyalty or fairness. They would undersell the farmer and simple bootleggers to the point where it became $1.25 a gallon. Instead of taking it on the chin they fought and threw their weight around. The Feds were out to get them, and though they did not want to hurt the ‘honest’ bootleggers, the Feds had no choice. The ‘esprit de corps’ was lost.
Wisconsin’s rich legacy in these years is not lost. One lasting outcome from the end of Prohibition is the , founded in 1935. The grass-roots organization with only one paid lobbyist is “a 5,000 member, nonprofit trade association dedicated to serving the needs of the retail beverage alcohol segment of the hospitality industry in the State of Wisconsin.”
Perhaps the league’s name was a response the powerful Anti-Saloon League that helped bring about those 13 experimental years of crime, chaos and illicit celebration when the U.S. Constitution was used to legislate morality. For better or for worse, Wisconsin has a spirited culture and lasting legacy associated with alcohol.
Oh what a heady time it must have been when Americans spent so much time and energy on making and getting the Real McCoy!
For more information and to see some videos, visit Wisconsin Public Television's website.