Prohibition in the South


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It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time in Savannah where one couldn’t stumble along River Street with a rum and coke in hand, all the while trying your damndest not to spill a drop of that sweet, sweet nectar on the historic cobblestones. But such a time did exist. And it was called purgatory.

Actually, it was called Prohibition. From January of 1920 to December 1933, the sale, production, transportation, and importation of alcohol was deemed illegal in the United States under the 18th Amendment. Barrels of booze were unceremoniously smashed in the streets, the pungent remnants trickling down the curb and into the waiting hands of children eager to fill their makeshift vessels and run the goods home to Mom and Pop. Long-established breweries like Yuengling, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stroh’s, and Anheuser-Busch were forced to halt production on the hard stuff, instead funneling resources into other, more family-friendly markets that would keep the business afloat until this silly law was (hopefully) repealed. Imagine slicing off a hunk of Pabst cheese; mixing up some Coors-brand malted milk; spooning out a scoop of Yuengling ice cream. Yep, times were pretty dark in dry America. Fortunately, the one freedom the law didn’t touch was at-home guzzling, whereas any alcohol imbibed under your own roof, using your own stash, did not elicit any harsh legal consequences. Unless you had a still going–and even then the rules were a little bit fuzzy.

Why?

Truth be told, rumblings of discontent with alcohol consumption were embedded in American culture long before Prohibition was officially passed. Thanks mostly to a bunch of overly zealous Christian crusaders oozing with “moral fiber,” drinking became negatively tied to issues like poor health, crime, hygiene, social standing, and corruption early in the 19th century. You’re poor? Put down the hooch. Toothache? You heathen alcoholic. Wife left you? Should have laid off the devil’s firewater. You get the general idea. While most proponents of the temperance movement relegated themselves to proper means of protest, taking up prayer circle outside the local saloon and parading hand-painted banners along public thoroughfares, there were others that took a more, let’s say, “hands-on” approach to defeating the big bad boozing beast.

The infamous Carrie Nation was one such radical. A hatchet-wielding child of Kentucky, she became something of a legend for her notoriously destructive bar-room raids, sending shards of glass and amber liquid flying as she smashed her way to alcohol abstinence. With over 30 arrests under her belt and numerous establishments left totaled in her wake, the queen of the so-called “hatchetation” is still remembered for her steadfast loyalty to the pre-Prohibition campaign. And, ya know, the axe.

Spigot of the South

When professional-baseball-player-turned-evangelical-preacher Billy Sunday first visited Savannah, he was notably quoted for labeling the town as the “wickedest city in the world.” Rather than hang their heads in shameless humiliation, Savannians relished the title–probably toasting the fire and brimstone sermonizer with a whiskey, neat, later that same day. Georgia’s oldest city had been ardently opposed to the laws even some 13 years prior to national Prohibition, when Governor Hoke Smith enacted statewide legislation to ban alcohol. After all, places like Tondee’s Tavern–formerly located in the space now occupied by the Coffee Fox–were more than just places to sit and sip. Political discussions, formal meetings, even haircuts took place in these casual watering holes. So it only makes sense that Savannah’s rebuttal to a forced dry-up would be a serious one: become the undisputed “bootleg spigot of the South.”

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Prohibition Museum:

Housed in nearly 6,000 square feet of space on St. Julian Street, the American Prohibition Museum takes you on a journey throughout 83 years of tumultuous history, with interactive exhibits, photographs, artifacts and captivating research as your guide. Learn about why Prohibition began in the first place, who led the way and how the period influenced American culture, touching on everything from fashion to social gatherings, and dance crazes to classic cars. There’s even an old-fashioned (and fully stocked) speakeasy, where you can sample a unique 1920s-style cocktail–and toast to Prohibition never, ever happening again.

For more information, visit americanprohibitionmuseum.com or call 912.551.4054. The American Prohibition Museum, 209 W St. Julian St.

 

It's Just Business:

The downfall of legal alcohol was the up-rise of gangsters in the 1920s. Prohibition allowed gangsters to use their many connections to get alcohol to the people, while taking the money for themselves.

Because of Prohibition, there was suddenly a huge market for an illegal commodity. The gangsters of each city began to take over the sales of alcohol, and the most famous was Chicago’s boss gangster, Al Capone.

Capone was “public enemy number one.” He worked with Chicago’s leading figure in the underground gang scene, Johnny Torrio. Capone had to convince speakeasy operators to buy illegal alcohol from Torrio.

After a near-death situation by a rival gang, Torrio decided to get out of the criminal world and hand his empire over to Capone. Within two years, Capone was bringing in $60 million a year from alcohol sales alone. Other revenue streams earned him an extra $45 million a year.

Capone bought off Chicago police and important politicians, which fueled his rise to power. However, he still had enemies. Capone drove an armor-plated limousine and toted around armed bodyguards everywhere he went.

Eventually, the law caught up to Capone and he was charged with tax evasion. He received 11 years in prison. During this time, his health began to decline so badly that his mind had reverted back to the mentality of a 12-year-old child. Right before his death, Capone was no longer the man everyone feared, but instead, a legacy left behind with the memory of Prohibition.

The American Prohibition Museum is located in Savannah, Georgia 

At 209 West St. Julian Street, Savannah, GA 31401

Hours10AM–4:15PM(912) 220-1249,

www.americanprohibitionmuseum.com/building-the-museum

 

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