How Prohibition played in Peoria

Norm Kelly

On a Friday, January 16, 1920, Peoria, Illinois, the town that was called “The alcohol capital of the world,” faced a very bleak future. The 89th anniversary of that event is this week.

I thought that I would tell you a few things about how it played here in our old river city.  I doubt I will ever write about it again, after all, it is very old news.  However, it affected, America and everyone in it for so many years that it should never be completely forgotten.  Take a look at What Abraham Lincoln thought about Prohibition.

“Prohibition will work great injury on the cause of the temperance. It is a species of

intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to

control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes at the very principal upon which our government was

founded”.                                                                               

The truth is that the brunt of Prohibition was felt here in Peoria long before January 16, 1920.  That came in the form of the Lever Act, which was a temporary law that made it illegal to use foodstuffs in the making of alcohol.  That act, declared phony and just another tool of the Anti Saloon Leagues, led by Wayne B. Wheeler took effect in September of 1917.  It shut down all our breweries and distilleries. No city in America was more devastated than Peoria, Illinois. Peorians were forced to stand by as the government took away jobs by the hundreds. The ‘temporary law’ lasted until December of 1933.

                                          NOW  WHAT?

Happy New Year!  Our taverns, saloons, bars and dives, along with our distilleries, breweries and jobs are all gone. The local farmer has lost a golden goose in Peoria, and things are looking grim.  Folks are looking for political help, but that quickly faded.  Here we are in Peoria, Illinois, no jobs, no booze, no nightlife, now what?

Mayor Woodruff came up with a solution or at least he had an idea. Prohibition cost the city all kinds of tax revenues and the loss of liquor license fees added up to close to $170,000.00 per year. Woodruff offered the tavern owners a way out.  He would allow the taverns to reopen with the purchase of a Soft Drink Parlor License.

Remember, they could not sell beer, wine or booze.  They had to clear out everything that used to define them as a saloon.  But…they could reopen.  

So before the middle of 1921 we had 66 soft drink parlors flourishing in downtown Peoria, Illinois.  By 1922 we had 147, and in 1923 we had 161 of these little gold mines luring people inside for what? 

Well, you guessed it, these places became the fronts for all the illicit booze you could drink it was just served a bit more carefully if you get my meaning.  So, here in Peoria things were not getting back to normal, but the doors were open, the people were gathering again, and remember this was the Roaring Twenties.  It was the time of jazz, new freedoms, and the incredible Flapper.  The roar in the twenties of course meant booze, and with Canadian whiskey flowing into America by the hundreds of thousands of gallons, Peoria was right in the middle of things once again.

Peoria always had a form of gambling, early brothels and a way of offering its visitors a good time.  During Prohibition as the years slipped by, all those things became a part of the cities lure, it’s magnet, and believe me our reputation as a wide-open, bawdy town began to grow.

Our breweries and distilleries began to open up producing things from vinegar to processed foods. We even had a line or two open with government contracts, to produce medicinal and denatured alcohol. Our physicians were allowed to issue prescriptions for a pint of booze, and they made a fortune off of that little Volstead loophole. 

Of course there were risks connected with all this, and some folks paid the price.  Federal fines and jail sentences up to a year were nothing to laugh at, but there were plenty of folks willing to take that chance.  We had a lot of people making their own version of wines, and stills out in the county and within the city limits kept the Dry Agents hoping.

Throughout it all Peoria thrived, and during the first ten years of Prohibition, our population grew by 28,848 people within the city limits alone. In contrast to old Abe’s comments, here is a typical Peorian’s view:

Mother’s in the kitchen                                Father’s in the cellar

washing out the jugs.                                    mixing up the hops.

Sister’s in the pantry                                     Johnny’s on the front porch

bottling the suds.                                           looking for the cops.

Peorians resented being told what they could do or not do just because a group of self-righteous do-gooders told them to do it.  Here in Peoria life went on and flourished.  In 1933 the Volstead Act was amended to allow 3.2 beer to be made and Peoria celebrated. In December of 1933 the 21st. Amendment ended Prohibition.  In 1934 Hiram Walker’s announced that they would build the largest distillery in the world right here in Peoria, Illinois. Peorians especially liked this ode written during Prohibition:

                                   Prohibition is an awful flop.

                                        We like it.

                                        It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.

                                       We like it.

                                       It left a trail of graft and slime.

                                       It don’t prohibit worth a dime.

                                       It’s filled our life with vice and crime.

                                       Nevertheless, we’re for it.

The history of Prohibition was one of violence, greed, murder, mayhem, and corruption but still the Drys and do-gooders praised themselves. Here is what one of their preachers told our local folks.

               “The reign of terror is over.  The slums will be a memory.

                 We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into 

               storehouses and corncribs.

                 Men will walk upright. Our women will smile and our children

                 will laugh.   HELL will be forever for rent.

Personally, the only question I have about Prohibition is why Americans put up with it once they learned what horrific effect it was having on our country?  If you have a real interest in that answer, Google  Wayne Wheeler.