How dry we were

  • By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
  • Thursday, September 29, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

A decade before Prohibition banned alcohol nationwide, Everett approved its own dry law.

The Nov. 8, 1910, vote was close. Workingmen cast ballots late in the day and swung the vote, giving the dries a 275-count margin, The Herald reported at the time.

“The present-day saloon is one of the greatest millstones around the neck of the American people,” then-Gov. M.E. Hay wrote to the people of Everett. The congratulatory letter ran on the front page of The Herald the day following the election.

The Owl, the Mitchell Hotel, the Bay View Bar, the Bluefront and the Everett Bottling Co. were among the 40 saloons and distilleries along Hewitt Avenue that were closed.

The era gave rise to a generation of scofflaws, bootleggers and rumrunners. Canadian whiskey was smuggled into Mukilteo basements, moonshine brewed in secret stills and speakeasies replaced saloons. Everett and Snohomish County were like other cities and rural areas around the country during Prohibition.

The story of what happened from 1920 until 1933 is largely misunderstood and mythologized. Until now.

A best-selling book and now a PBS documentary explore the era of Prohibition. Veteran filmmaker Ken Burns tells the story of America’s relationship with liquor and the dry years in his latest PBS film, “Prohibition,” which premiers Sunday night and continues through Tuesday.

The six-hour film shows how Prohibition developed during the 19th century, how the social and political factions helped pass the law, how many people widely ignored the law, and, ultimately, how Prohibition was repealed.

While Prohibition’s most famous ne’er-do-wells were in New York and Chicago, Seattle also features prominently in the movie.

Prohibition’s impact and its repeal still play out in issues debated today: liquor distribution regulations again are on the Washington ballot.

In the early part of the 20th century, Prohibition was promoted as a way to help malnourished children and beaten wives whose husbands spent their paychecks at saloons.

Far from being a universal movement, however, Prohibition deeply divided the country, said Lorraine McConaghy,the public historian at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry.

For German beer brewers, the law was seen as xenophobic. Struggling Irish-Americans thought dry laws were unfair, brought on by Protestant rich people who targeted poor immigrants.

Reformers saw the law as a way to produce a wholesome society and stronger families.

“Your head can spin because of all the different points of view,” McConaghy said.

Each of these diverse communities were represented in Everett and Snohomish County.

By 1910, Everett was a playground to the logging outfits and mills that dotted the urban and rural landscape, said David Dilgard, a historian at the Everett Public Library.

Downtown Everett, including what was once Market Street near the Snohomish River, was home to saloons and brothels. The block between Hewitt and California was such an abomination that city fathers abolished the name, he said.

It was entertainment to be certain, but there was more to the saloons than highballs, whiskey and beer.

To the man of the early 20th century, saloons were a place to socialize, read the paper, rent a room and have mail delivered.

“It was a really important part of the social fabric,” Dilgard said.

The dry laws passed in Everett in 1910 didn’t deter drinkers. People who wanted alcohol traveled by trolley car to Snohomish where liquor remained legal.

Four years later, Washington state went dry.

“To the people of the state in 1914, Prohibition was the major issue,” historian Norman H. Clark wrote in his seminal book, “The Dry Years: Prohibition & Social Change in Washington.”

Clark, who taught at and was president of Everett Community College, died in 2004. Burns and Lynn Novick, the two directors of the PBS documentary, relied heavily on Clark’s work, Novick said.

After Prohibition passed, Roy Olmstead, a former Seattle policeman, became one of the most notorious rumrunners in the region. Clark was the first historian to tell Olmstead’s story in context, Novick said.

Olmstead’s story and Seattle are prominently featured in the PBS film.

“We would have been hard pressed to tell that story without (Clark’s) book,” the filmmaker said in an email interview.

There were plenty of bootleggers and rumrunners in Snohomish County, too.

“We had them both,” Dilgard said.

Recent immigrants, including those who moved from the Appalachians in North Carolina to Darrington, had “more than an average knowledge of how to convert grain to spirits,” Dilgard said.

The hills between Lake Stevens and Marysville earned the name Whiskey Ridge, thanks to the number of stills that could be found in hollowed-out tree stumps and near streams.

When Paine Field was cleared at the outset of World War II, the remains of stills were discovered.

“You could look down any valley and see the fires under the stills,” McConaghy said. “The firelight punctuated the dark.”

During Prohibition, the roof of a home in downtown Everett blew off when a still in the attic exploded, Dilgard said.

Homes on the Mukilteo beachfront had secret basements that led to the water, a likely entry point for illegally imported Canadian whiskey.

Canadian booze was so prevalent during Prohibition that the price actually went down, McConaghy said.

Roadhouses and speakeasies sprouted up all over Snohomish County. There was a floating speakeasy on Silver Lake, accessible only by rowboat, Dilgard said.

Prohibition had serious side effects as well.

Corruption flourished. Local judges, prosecutors and cops all were bribed.

Petty criminals now had access to significant cash flow. Organized crime syndicates took hold.

In Chicago, the infamous Al Capone, leader of a bootlegging crime syndicate, became a household name.

Tainted whiskey was blamed for literally making people crazy. Several deaths were reported, often after celebrations including New Year’s Eve, Dilgard said.

By the end of the ’20s, the Great Depression was sweeping the country and worries about alcohol shifted to economic concerns.

“The forces of morality that promised that America would be cleansed and redeemed by Prohibition were struggling to defend their positions,” McConaghy said. “They were fighting a losing proposition.”

In November 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency on a platform that included Prohibition’s repeal.

Within three days of taking office, Roosevelt signed a law permitting beer to again be served legally.

Beer gardens — saloons that served only malted brew — quickly returned to Everett.

By Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing Prohibition.

A wave of new regulations followed, said Daniel Okrent, a journalist whose book, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” served as a backbone for the PBS film.

“Because you couldn’t drink at all, you could drink anytime and anyone could drink,” he says in the film.

That wasn’t the case once Prohibition was lifted. State laws were established, including the liquor distribution rules being contested by this year’s Initiative 1183.

Drinking age, alcohol content, rules about the sale of liquor all came about after Prohibition and remain issues to this day.

Studying Clark’s book or watching the PBS series may change people’s perspectives on today’s divisive political landscape.

One thing is clear: The allure of the roaring ’20s and the mythology of the 18th Amendment still are strong selling points.

The building at 1414 Hewitt Ave., today a restaurant, once may have been a brothel or speakeasy, owner Rishi Brown said.

Historians disagree. Most of the illicit activity on Hewitt was confined to the north side of the street.

Still, the era of the roaring ’20s lives on in the restaurant’s name: “Prohibition Grille.”

Don’t worry, the whiskey is fine.

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Watch “Prohibition”

The PBS documentary, “Prohibition,” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick premiers Sunday at 8 p.m. The series continues at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

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