When the distillery lights went out in Peoria

DeWayne Bartels

As you raise a glass of cheer Friday to celebrate the weekend, consider that 92 years ago — Jan. 16, 1917 — Peorians were already on the precipice of experiencing that great failed experiment called Prohibition.

“Wait,” you say, “Prohibition did not start until Jan. 16, 1920. 

Peoria historian Norm Kelly would agree, but tell you the booze spigot in Peoria was turned off well before Prohibition.

“Believe me when I tell you that by the time Jan. 16, 1920, rolled around, folks in Peoria considered Prohibition old hat,” Kelly said recently.

The beginning of 1917, he said, was a wonderful time to be living in Peoria. The population was close to 76,000.

The job market was good and the schools were considered top-notch.

The city boasted a rich park system and a great downtown shopping area.

“Peoria grew like no other town along the Illinois River because of our breweries and distilleries,” Kelly said.

“The local farmers had a sound market for all of their farm production, and the old river city was the center of everything between Chicago and St. Louis.”

Peoria was the entertainment capital of downstate and beyond.

“Peoria was the place to be,” Kelly said.

“But, that all changed shortly after America declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.”

Peoria — which was the Alcohol Capital of the World — was among the first to feel the wrath of the nation’s politically connected Temperance Movement.

Temperance forces, whose purpose was to close every tavern, brewery and distillery in America, jumped on the opportunity the war with Germany offered.

“Men of German descent owned most of the breweries in America, which made them an easy target because of the anti-German feelings in America,” Kelly said.

“Temperance groups throughout the United States brought a major campaign against their beer-making conglomerates. They reminded Americans that these Germans were sending ‘all that money back to help the war effort in Germany.’ It worked.”

As the war heated up, 5,500 men from Peoria went off to fight.

Many of them were employed in the distilleries and breweries.

They expected to have their jobs back when they returned from the war. That was not to be.

“President Woodrow Wilson and the lawmakers, pressured by very influential temperance people, especially Wayne B. Wheeler, decided that now was the time to remind America that they were in a war,” Kelly said.

“Laws were passed under the guise of helping the war effort. In reality, it was all just a part of the Temperance Movement.”

The Lever Act became law  Aug. 10, 1917.

As a result, the distilleries and breweries were forced to shut down by Sept. 19, 1917.

“Keep in mind that at this time, 26 states were already dry. The Lever Act was a food and fuel control act’” Kelly said.

“It said, in plain English, that it was illegal to waste grain on alcoholic beverages. With no raw materials, the distilleries were forced to shut down.”

Kelly said the result here was devastating.

“Along with our breweries we had the Clarke, Woolner, Corning, Atlas and Great Western distilleries. Peoria grew head and shoulders above all the other river towns because of these large distilleries, and their shutting down did not bode well for Peoria’s future,” Kelly said.

“Now, the temperance groups had America right where they wanted her on the righteous path to being dry. The next step was to proceed with God’s work and move on to amending the Constitution to permanently close down every saloon, brewery and distillery in America. That was their goal, and, as they saw it, the root of all evil was alcohol.”

Kelly said the only thing that saved Peoria was the war. Peoria companies produced hundreds of different essential products for the war effort.

“Fortunately, many Peorians were able to find work, mainly because of the absence of the 5,500 men in the army,” Kelly said. 

“They certainly did not see the Lever Act coming down the pike, that’s for sure.”

Peoria area farmers were among the hardest hit by the Lever Act.

For 67 years, Peoria was the best market a farmer could ask for.

Farmers lobbied in Washington, D.C., telling Congress the American farmer could easily feed this nation and her men overseas, but all that fell on deaf ears, according to Kelly. 

“The underlying agenda, forced by the temperance folks, was not to be denied. Prohibition was going to save America and nothing could stop the Temperance Movement. After all, they were doing God’s work,” Kelly said.

“The temperance people were not satisfied with the Lever Act because it was just too temporary to suit them. After all, once the war ended and the doughboys came home, they would want their jobs back in those decadent distilleries and breweries. So, the pressure was once again applied,” Kelly said.

In Peoria, billboards and anti-saloon rallies showed American soldiers running over a snowy field with fixed bayonets. The caption read: “They give their all. Won’t you send wheat?”

“That’s all that was needed to convince Congress to pass the Wartime Prohibition Act. This law had teeth,” Kelly said.

What Kelly found funny about it was the timing. The law passed Nov. 21, 1918, but the war ended Nov. 11.

The next shoe — the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition and the Volstead Act allowing enforcement of Prohibition — became law.

“The temperance people were happy. Now all they had to do was sit back and watch the United States head down the righteous path they had made for Americans to follow,” Kelly said.

“Surely peace and prosperity would follow. Wrong! What followed were 13 years of the most violent, lawless years in America’s history.”

It was the start of the most infamous period in Peoria’s history — a period during which a Life magazine article on Peoria was titled, “As wide open as the gates of Hell.”

Peoria is a long way from that type of reputation today, but we can drown any sorrow about that legally in all the booze we want today.