THROWBACK THURSDAY: When Winona refused to dry out
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the History & Heritage Sesquicentennial edition of the Winona Daily News, published on Aug. 19, 2001.
Like citizens across the U.S., many area residents’ reaction to the 18th Amendment banning alcohol sales was simple:
At the time, Winona boasted three breweries, which helped fill a local demand for more than 24,000 barrels of beer annually. Many Winonans simply didn’t believe that Prohibition could happen here. Winona dutifully dried up July 1, 1919, but the true alcohol drought was short-lived, despite the fact that prohibition lasted until Dec. 5, 1933.
The ban sparked a do-it-yourself craze, with residents realizing that home brews did the same job as professional breweries, if not as tastily. In many ways, the 18th Amendment had the opposite of its intended effect on people across the country — and Winonans were not the exception.
Going into 1919, when beer, wines and liquor could still be sold legally, there were 42 saloons in Winona. During those years when the sale of liquor was banned, it’s estimated that there were 100 to 200 places in the city where you could stop for a drink.
In the June 30, 1919, issue of the Winona Republican-Herald, headlines noted that “reluctantly Winona tonight at midnight would part company with King Barleycorn,” added that a number of parties were planned throughout the city, and the demand for the ice was unusually heavy, even for a hot summer day.
At a time when federal and state laws prohibited the sale of anything intoxicating, the municipal court began handling a surprisingly large number of intoxication cases.
On Oct. 6, 1919 — just a little more than three months after prohibition had gone into effect — two proprietors of soft drink parlors were brought into court on charges of illegal sales of liquor. Two days later police intercepted two wagonloads of beer being transported across the bridge to Winona from La Crosse, and a new term, “beer runners,” was coined.
By virtue of its location, Winona emerged as one of the waypoints on the heavily traveled bootlegging routes between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Bullet-riddled trucks and cars were encountered a number of times, abandoned in a ditch or on some side road, empty but still reeking of recent cargo.
On one occasion, a 21-year-old St. Charles youth was shot in the back by hijackers while driving a truck loaded with 400 gallons of alcohol near Stevens Point, Wis. A check of the truck registration led to the identification of the owner and subsequently provided information as to the location of a $25,000 alcohol plant in the St. Charles area, which was raided.
Ironically, Winona — with its widespread reputation for noncompliance with liquor regulations — was the boyhood home of two of Prohibition’s most strident supporters. Dr. James M. Doran served as commissioner of Prohibition from 1927 to 1930, and William Dewitt Mitchell was U.S. attorney general from 1929 to 1933.
Doran, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., spent his boyhood years from 1895 to 1910 in the city while his father was serving as a Methodist minister here. Mitchell was born in Winona in 1874 and lived here with his parents until he enrolled in the University of Minnesota.
Shortly after his appointment as national Prohibition commissioner, Doran visited the home of an old friend in Winona. Many thought the sudden spurt of enforcement activities in the area, beginning in 1928, was the result of that visit.
The record shows that from 1919 to June 1928, 103 liquor cases were filed against Winona people in the U.S. District Court. During the next 18 months alone, 108 cases were filed and 71 men and women sentenced on liquor violations. In the 18-month period beginning July 1, 1928, fines levied totaled $30,400 and jail sentences imposed totaled 68 years.
By late 1931 and early 1932, the national clamor for repeal was rapidly gaining in strength and virtually every possible angle to rally more sympathy for the snow-balling movement was pursued.
During the early spring months of 1932, organizations throughout the city joined in plans for a “repeal parade” similar to ones being staged at that time in most cities. When the local expression of opinion on the question was finally taken in an election here Sept. 12, 1933, the vote was more than 5-to-1 in favor of repeal, with 7,598 for and 1,440 against. Dec. 5, 1933, marked the end — or, rather, the collapse — of this nation’s Prohibition.