Pubdate: Wed, 16 Dec 1998
Source: Wisconsin State Journal (WI)
Copyright: Madison Newspapers, Inc. 1998


Given Wisconsin's reputation for both making and consuming alcoholic
beverages, it's hard to imagine the days of Prohibition.

But from 1920 through 1933 it was illegal in the United States to
either manufacture or sell any beverage with more than 0.5 percent
alcohol. Prohibition was the law of the land until it was lifted 65
years ago on Dec. 5,  1933.

Given Milwaukee's large German population at the time, the passage of
the 18th Amendment was greeted with less than unanimous enthusiasm in

Not only was beer a favorite beverage, brewing had become the state's
fifth largest industry, providing steady employment for hundreds of
immigrant workers. Prohibition put the brakes on this flourishing
industry, along with  the cultivation of malting barley as a cash crop
in Wisconsin.

But the issue was hardly clear-cut. Prohibition brought to the surface
some  of the great divisions that had developed both nationally and in
the state  during the second half of the 19th century - Protestant
Yankee churches vs.  "immigrant" churches and rural vs. urban values.

Some ethnic groups, most notably the Norwegians, were identified as
ardent "drys."

Because the issue cut so deeply across party, ethnic and social lines,
Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette refused to deal with it, saying it
was a political issue - which it most certainly was.

But while Wisconsinites were split over the issue of "demon rum,"
there is little question of Prohibition's impact on the brewing
industry. More than 400  commercial breweries were in operation in
Wisconsin before Prohibition, but  fewer than half reopened.

"The reason so many breweries never came back is that no one had any
way of knowing how long Prohibition would last," says Madison writer
Jerry Apps, author of "Breweries of Wisconsin."

Some of the brewers that were able to survive Prohibition evolved into
the  true giants of the Wisconsin beer industry: Schlitz, Pabst and
Miller of Milwaukee and G. Heileman in La Crosse.

Some breweries managed to stay in business by manufacturing their own
malt and selling to home brewers, who worked around Prohibition by
fermenting in their basements or cellars.

Pabst, in particular, created a healthy demand for its malted barley
by openly marketing to the home brewers. Pabst also branched into
other areas, including opening a large dairy operation in Oconomowoc
known as Pabst Farms.

Others switched to bottling soft drinks. For example, Gray's Brewing
Co. in Janesville concentrated its efforts on making soft drinks and
has only recently gotten back into the beer business, riding the
microbrewing craze.

Ironically, however, Prohibition did little to reduce the amount of
alcohol  consumed by Wisconsinites.

"One chap I interviewed said Prohibition didn't slow down drinking at
all,  it actually increased it," says Apps.

Thirsty Wisconsin residents either made their own beer or liquor,
purchased it from bootleggers or brought it across the border in
Canada. Stills were common, hidden away in backwoods hollows where
potatoes, corn or grains were fermented into moonshine whiskey.

Much of this activity, of course, was done with full knowledge of law
enforcement officials, who were often the first to line up when a new
supply was tapped.

"I heard one story about a town upstate where the county sheriff used
to call ahead and warn everybody at the speakeasy that he was on his
way," says Apps.

Yet despite the violations, Prohibition arose from a deep and sincere
belief  of many Americans that alcohol was driving the country to

ruin. These mostly  white Protestants, whose ancestors were among the
early settlers, feared that  drinking, especially among the millions
of newly arriving immigrants, was a  true threat to law and order.

And there was some evidence to support that belief. In the large
cities, including Milwaukee, slum conditions were so severe that men
went to saloons to escape the depressing reality of home life.

The hardworking, nondrinking, church-going farmers and business people
in the rural districts and smaller communities began to think of the
cities as citadels of sin - and blamed alcohol.

Groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union grew out of this
belief. Among the early founders of the WCTU was Wisconsinite Frances
Willard, the daughter of a Janesville area livestock farmer who became
an internationally recognized figure for her support of women's
rights. (Willard died in 1891, some 30 years before Prohibition or
national women's suffrage.)

Eventually the struggle between "wets" and "drys" aggravated the
struggle between rural and immigrant America, between established
Protestants and Catholics and Jews. It had also given rise to the
bootlegging industry, creating famous gangsters such as Al Capone and
Johnnie Torrio, who created the model for gangland

Prohibition finally ended in 1933 when the nation's most influential
people,  as well as the general public, acknowledged it had failed.

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Checked-by: Rich O'Grady