Belleville was more than ready for Prohibition's 'great drought' to end

News-DemocratMay 24, 2014 

Despite concerted efforts by the federal government to enforce the Volstead Act during the 1920s, Belleville never was a completely dry city during Prohibition.

Of course, neither were many places which was one of the things which doomed the 18th Amendment.

There were many reports of raids on secret drinking establishments but people of the time said still almost everyone knew where to get a drink.

So on Dec. 5, 1933, when the Belleville Daily Advocate wrote about the end of Prohibition, it was no surprise that Belleville was more than ready.

"With legal whisky scheduled to return here tonight indications were that the 'great drought' had already ended in Belleville today," the paper wrote.

"One man who said he made a survey of local beer resorts reported that he could find only three of them in the city where whisky of varying quality was not being sold."

The newspaper gave mention to Belleville's reputation on the subject of liquor.

"East St. Louis, Dec. 5 (Special) -- Belleville, the wettest spot in the country by vote, will be unable to taste of legal liquor until at least eight hours after official repeal, it was disclosed there today.

"The matter is of deep concern to saloonkeepers and city officials who pride themselves in living in the wettest spot in America. But apparently there is nothing they can do about it.

"The first shipment of liquor to Belleville will leave Chicago immediately after repeal and will not arrive in the county seat until seven or eight hours later.

"However this will not interrupt any scheduled celebration since the 'barkeeps' report they have a goodly supply of bootleg.

"Belleville voted 10 to 1 for repeal when Illinois went to the polls last November and thereby became 'America's wettest spot.'

"Before prohibition the city had 114 saloons. It now has 98 places licensed to sell beer and light wines."

The next day the newspaper had more on the death of Prohibition.

"Volstead Prohibition, aged 13 years, 10 months and 18 days, died last night and many Belleville wets were so sadly aggrieved that they felt constrained to drown their sorrows while others admitted that they were celebrating the end of the 'great drought.'

"A special Associated Press message received by The Daily Advocate, announcing President Roosevelt's official proclamation of the repeal of the eighteenth amendment by the twenty-first, was the signal for the Western Brewery Company here to return to the market with Wurzburger beer a darker and heavier brew than is 3.2 Stag, having an alcoholic content of 5 percent by weight and 6 percent by volume."

While a few heavy drinkers took up where they had left off earlier, most behaved, the newspaper said.

"Considerable jollification was reported in wet centers here, but police arrested only two men on charges of intoxication and reported that both were 'regulars.'

"The local brewery made delivery of its new product from 9 o'clock last night until midnight and resumed deliveries at 5 o'clock this morning. Waiting trucks from Chicago and Peoria left here with the new product as soon as a government officer verified official repeal by the Advocate dispatch."

Within a couple of days, price gouging had already emerged.

"Belleville liquor dealers and saloon keepers will meet at city hall at 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon to launch a protest against the high prices of liquor and beer," the newspaper wrote.

"Congressman Walter Nesbit, ardent wet and leader in the fight for repeal, will address the meeting, and Mayor Geroge A. Brechnitz has also been invited to speak.

"It is planned to form a liquor dealers' association having as its object the operation of 'good, decent, clean saloons' in Belleville."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional columns that will appear on Belleville's history in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration.

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

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