Prohibition was not popular with many Belleville residents

News-DemocratApril 26, 2014 

AP GRAPHICS BANK

Some of the darker years in Belleville's history, at least according to people who enjoyed alcohol, were the nearly 14 years of Prohibition.

The Belleville Daily Advocate, on Jan. 16, 1920, noted the coming of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, mostly banning alcohol.

"The death of John Barleycorn was celebrated here and in a number of other places, 24 hours before his demise," the newspaper wrote.

There were church services celebrating the event and, no doubt, contrasting wakes in area saloons.

"A number of saloons here will close their doors in the next few days, but the exact number is not known. Several proprietors have been hoping that something would turn up that would permit them to continue," the paper wrote.

Alas, there was no hope.

On Jan. 21, 1920, the paper noted that federal enforcement officers were already after local property owners to remove their saloon signs.

"Many saloons in this city have already given signs of this nature a coat of paint and others will have to follow this course if they desire to avoid a fine," the paper noted.

To make matters confusing, some saloons had already closed due to temporary wartime prohibition, enacted in 1919 ostensibly to save grain to make fuel for the war effort in World War I.

Belleville, a beer-making and beer-loving town, was never in favor of abstention.

Clear back in June 1855, a proposal to make the area dry lost by more than 14,000 votes, according to old newspapers.

Local Prohibition enforcement was less than enthusiastic.

In May 1921, Belleville Mayor J.J. Anton said that the law would be enforced but citizens would not be molested.

"He said that while the police are here to enforce law and order they should use some judgment when making arrests," the paper wrote. "The new police chief has had charge of the city three days and in that time not a single arrest was made or fine imposed."

There were some good results, as these stories suggest.

"In 1919, 80 persons were arrested on charges of being drunk while in 1920, 43 were taken into custody for being drunk," the paper noted.

It also noted that the county was forced to close the workhouse for a while because it didn't have enough people because drunkenness arrests were down.

In February 1922, the newspaper noted, "The city clerk said that Belleville has a total of 66 soft drink establishments. In the days before the advent of the Volstead Act, Belleville had as many as 117 saloons."

The city did lose one of those establishments after agents raided the soft drink parlor of Herman Schmidt at 423 S. Illinois St. and caught him selling liquor.

In October 1922, the paper wrote, "A small fortune was dumped into the sewer at the Star Brewery late yesterday afternoon when government agents poured 1,000 barrels or 35,000 gallons of beer away. This was real beer, none of the molly coddle variety that has been existent since the advent of one-half of one per cent. It was real he-beer with a kick in it and it all went to waste in the sewer because the Star Brewery has quit making near-beer."

Near-beer was real beer with almost all the alcohol removed to make it legal. Amazingly, it didn't sell well so the brewery had to get rid of the stock of real beer it had brewed to make into near-beer.

Many people ignored Prohibition as best they could as the newspapers noted.

"The local police are putting forth every effort to discover the identity and bring about the arrest of bootleggers who are operating at dances in this city. It is said that moonshine whisky is sold by these bootleggers to frequenters of the dances and every possible effort in the past to detect the sellers of the liquor has proven a failure.

"Persons who have been arrested for being intoxicated have being questioned, but have refused to give the information which might lead to the arrest of the guilty parties."

For some reason Prohibition lasted through the decade even though most people hated it.

In 1930 referendums, the newspaper noted that St. Clair County voters wanted Prohibition repealed. More than 24,000 said it needed to go while nearly 7,000 said it should stay.

In the city of Belleville, the ratio was 20-1 to repeal the amendment.

On Dec. 5, 1933, they got their wish.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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