A local account of prohibition and the ways around it

By: Rich Tarrant

Almost 100 years have passed since representatives of the U.S. Government, in their infinite wisdom, passed the 18 Amendment to our Constitution: “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” It seemed like the right thing to do. And for the next 33 years perhaps no law – and most certainly no Constitutional Amendment – was ever ignored more frequently by the American public. “Prohibition” as then Kentucky U.S. Representative J. Campbell Cantrill once put it, “was tantamount to “legalizing the manufacture of intoxicating liquor without taxation.”

Following the American Civil War many communities throughout our nation exercised something called “Local Option”. That was to allow local communities an ability to accept or reject national legislation (e.g., concerning the sale of alcoholic liquor). By and large the intention was to initiate a grassroots movement that would result in a national Prohibition law. But it was not until an organization called the Anti-Saloon League, organized in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, that the movement really took off. Drawing heavy support from religious organizations and their congregations the movement steadily grew. It should interest some to note that the league was not a “temperance movement” like similar movements of those days. In fact, whether one used alcohol or not, was unimportant. The Anti-Saloon League was not a temperance movement. It was a “legislative” movement.

Well, we know what happened. The movement caught fire and the 18th Amendment was passed to what was probably both the joy and chagrin of the American public – depending on which side of the issue one stood. American President Herbert Hoover called it “The noble experiment.” But as the years turned it might have been better termed “The ignoble failure”.  For those who promoted the law had expected sales of clothing and household goods to skyrocket. Real estate developers and landlords expected rents to rise as saloons closed and neighborhoods improved. Soft drink and confectioners expected their sales to increase. And theater owners expected new crowds as Americans looked for new ways to entertain themselves without alcohol. But none of that happened. In fact, just with the closing of the distilleries thousands of jobs and related businesses and jobs disappeared. But more to the point, state and federal governments lost a good deal of money when the excise taxes once generated by alcohol sales were eliminated.  In fact, it is estimated that the federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue while paying out $300 million trying to enforce the law. But worse than all that the “Noble Experiment “also succeeded in making criminals of millions of persons who were otherwise law-abiding citizens. Finally on December 5, 1933 American legislators saw the proverbial light, and the 21st Amendment to our Constitution was passed ending Prohibition

Eight decades after the fact we are left with numerous romantic tales of rumrunner’s speedboats and specially outfitted fish tugs outrunning – and sometimes out gunning – the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes, along with stories of pseudo-secret speakeasies where “Joe sent me” was the preferred price of admission – fun stuff. But unfortunately, few true artifacts of that yesteryear actually remain. So imagine my surprise and glee when I received the following communiqué from a Toledo man just last week

“Good morning! I was just doing a google search on the Toledo Fish Co. and your page happened to come up with a very interesting photo of the Toledo Fish Co. tug. As it happens, I am doing some research for my uncle, who is helping restore a home near mine in Toledo’s historic Old West End neighborhood. In a fascinating discovery, he noticed some of the stair treads sounded odd, opened up a few, and found dozens of cubbies filled with unopened bottles of prohibition-era bourbon, whiskey, and gin! Opening a basement wall, he found more bottles.”

Pictured is the aforementioned tug that was modified to expel its exhaust into the water to muffle the sound. The inset snaps are bottles of gin and bourbon that had, until just recently, been secreted away for probably 90 or more years. Unfortunately the construction workers on the home were not terribly interested in the historical aspect of the find and had removed most of the bottles of Gordon’s Dry Gin and Pebble Ford bourbon by the time these photos were taken. But no matter, the pictures of the find actually took my breath away.

I’ve no doubt that similar hiding places were once used in various Vermilion homes during that era. But I doubt that any of the booze once secreted therein still exists. (Note: I would refrain from tearing my house apart in search of similar items.) In this particular instance, the booze uncovered was there because the owner died prematurely in 1924. And while I don’t know, and have asked, what became of the liquor discovered in the Toledo home, I’d like to believe that some of it has carefully found its way to a local museum – along with the photographs – where it might age for another century or two, and allow another generation of Americans to observe and learn about a significant era in American and Ohio history.

Ref: Special Thanks to: Bill Cutcher and D. Ramsey.

Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: rnt@twc.com

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