Published in January 2020 on WhatcomTalk.com
January 16, 2020, marks 100 years since the beginning of the 13-year period in American history known as “Prohibition.” While the “Noble Experiment” sought to improve the everyday morality of Americans, it led to many unintended consequences, including the rise of organized crime.
In a city now considered a beer drinker’s paradise, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t get a beer anywhere (legally, at least). But for most of the years between 1911 and 1933, this was the reality for Bellingham residents.
John Barleycorn Must Die
In hindsight, Prohibition is considered among the federal government’s greatest failures. It’s important to understand, however, why temperance was a social movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
While America had been a nation of beer and cider drinkers since its founding, the increasing availability of hard alcohol was corrupting many citizens. In Ken Burns’ Prohibition documentary, it’s noted that by 1830, Americans over the age of 15 were consuming an average of three times the amount of hard alcohol they consume today.
“There was a drinking problem,” says Jeff Jewell, Whatcom Museum archivist and historian. “There was a lot of domestic violence. Working men would cash their check at a bar, spend their family’s only income, and on and on. It was a mess.”
Marissa McGrath, co-founder of Bellingham’s popular Good Time Girls historical tours, says many women of the era felt trapped by their husbands’ drinking. If women worked, they couldn’t out-earn their husbands. Regardless, they often had no agency over how their family’s money was spent.
Temperance leagues sprang up across the country, several of which were female-led. Most prominent was the Women’s Christian Temperance League, which helped link temperance to another popular political issue: women’s suffrage.
Still, the importance of saloons continued to outweigh a dry movement. Back then, saloons catered to more than a working man’s thirst: he could get a meal, bath, haircut, or shave. Dirty clothes could be laundered. Saloons were often places to receive mail, read newspapers, or cash paychecks. Often-nearby brothels could also be visited. It all makes sense, McGrath says, as many of the era’s single working men never learned domestic skills.
“If you came into town from working as a logger or as a fisherman, you got paid, and the only place you could cash it was in town,” she says. “So you cashed it, spent it all that weekend, and then went back.”
Bellingham was rife with saloons, says current Good Time Girls co-owner Kolby LaBree. By late 1910, there were 30 saloons on Holly Street alone.
Despite legitimate concerns with drunkenness, the dry movement also pushed absurd disinformation. In some textbooks, children were told alcohol could cause deafness, insanity, or even spontaneous combustion. Cheap novels of the era also peddled sordid “true” tales.
“There was a story about a woman who was an alcoholic, and she locked her 5-year-old in a closet so she could go out and drink,” McGrath says. “And she left him there so long that he ate his own arm.”
What really drove Prohibition, however, was the Anti-Saloon League. Formed in 1893, the ASL tackled temperance politically, pressuring legislators and polarizing the dry versus wet debate until the middle ground fell away.
In 1910, a leading temperance proponent—evangelical preacher Billy Sunday—visited Bellingham. In a massive tabernacle erected on the site of what’s now a downtown Rite-Aid, Sunday gave sermons to 20,000 people over six weeks.
His often-hyperbolic oratory both entertained and affected listeners. McGrath says Sunday used to tell crowds that, when he died, his wife should skin him, turn his hide into drumheads, and hire boys to walk through saloon districts banging said drums while shouting “Billy Sunday still lives!”
Washington’s November 1910 election saw women gain suffrage a full decade before the 19th Amendment took effect. It also saw local-option votes on prohibition in dozens of cities across the state. Bellingham went dry by a scant 99 votes, and Ferndale joined in. Sumas, which voted against going dry, remained “a center for saloon and lawless interests,” according to a November 1910 Lynden Tribune article.
By January 1911, saloons in dry cities were forced to stop serving alcohol or close, and public consumption was forbidden. Purchasing booze and drinking at home, however, was okay. But by letting people decide the fate of their saloons, municipalities weren’t doing themselves any favors. Jewell says that before 1911, at least a third of Bellingham’s budget was comprised of revenue from liquor licenses. Federally, the government took in millions from excise taxes on liquor. But with the creation of a federal income tax in 1913, the national government had another revenue stream to sustain itself. Municipalities also adapted to other taxation methods.
In November 1914, a Washington State voter initiative further restricted drinking. By January 1916, the selling, purchasing and manufacturing of alcohol was illegal. Bellingham Bay Brewing Company, one of the biggest breweries in Western Washington, closed after 15 years of steady beer-making. Leopold Schmidt, the German immigrant who founded it, shifted his focus to the hotel that would eventually bear his name, and Bellingham would not have another commercial brewery for 79 years.
Other saloons remained open, switching to soft drinks and becoming smoke shops or billiard halls. The Horseshoe Café, Jewell says, became known for selling fishing tackle. Oddly enough, county auditors in Washington could still issue permits to obtain small quantities of liquor and beer every 20 days, as drinking alcohol wasn’t actually illegal yet. But in November 1918, another referendum turned every inch of the state bone-dry.
Nationally, a proposed amendment to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol passed through Congress in December 1917. Thirty-six states had to approve the law, and they had seven years to do so. It took just 13 months, and by January 1920, any beverage with more than one-half of one percent alcohol was illegal.
There were, of course, exceptions: homemade and sacramental wines, booze bought before 1920, patent medicines, and alcohol needed for non-drinking purposes, were still legal. Many distilleries actually stayed open with government licenses, producing whiskey for “medicinal use.” A doctor’s prescription could net you three pints a month.
Still, the enforcement of Prohibition was a struggle from the start, and many places weren’t as dry as they seemed. Bellingham’s proximity to Canada—a country with no temperance law—made obtaining booze possible if you were willing to risk it. Prominent Seattle bootlegger Roy Olmstead used tiny D’Arcy Island—between Vancouver and San Juan Islands—to smuggle thousands of cases of Canadian whiskey into Washington.
Customs and Border Patrol, of course, had no shortage of confiscations. In an April 1921 photo from the Whatcom Museum archives, CBP seized a couch coming across the border at Blaine. Underneath unsuspecting cushions, a hollowed-out space held nearly a dozen bottles of Gordon’s Dry Gin.
While Bellingham lacked the iconic speakeasies found in larger cities, it had—for a time—something similar in the basement of what’s now Bayou on Bay restaurant. In many cities, it was called a “blind tiger.” Here, McGrath says, it was called a “blind pig.” The concept was simple: people paid cover to enter a place and see a non-existent prized animal. While they “observed,” they were given a drink. If more time “seeing the animal” was desired, more money meant another taste of the good stuff.
Other unsuspecting places could wet your whistle, if you knew where to look. One such place was “Tripoli Grocery,” a small store and soda fountain owned by Italian immigrants. From their location in a still-standing brick building at 700 West Holly Street, they sold traditional sundries by day. At night, they sold hidden secrets.
In late August 1922, local sheriff’s deputies raided the joint and found 10 quarts of moonshine. They arrested grocery operator Julius D’Aprile and soda fountain operator Tony Bellino. A third man, Emory LaBree, was also arrested.
Ensuing months saw a flurry of newspaper headlines with scandalous details: a still hidden in a manure pile, allegations of double-crossing by illegitimate business partners, and the employ of young, beautiful women who some might describe as “flappers.”
The story is especially interesting to Kolby LaBree, because Emory LaBree was her great-grandfather. She discovered her family’s connection to bootlegging several years ago while conducting genealogy research. The rest of her family, including her father, knew nothing about it.
In the early 1920s, while living in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Emory LaBree and a partner smuggled homemade moonshine across the border in vehicles with secret compartments. In Bellingham, they delivered to the Tripoli.
After being arrested, LaBree quickly turned informant for authorities, unable to afford jail time since he was married with children. Here, he was facing a $500 fine and six months in jail. His information actually helped law enforcement find a still hidden on a farm near Marietta.
Two raids in November 1922 revealed additional contraband at the Tripoli: 23 pints of 160-proof whiskey hidden inside “tincture of orange” bottles, and two gallons of 100-proof moonshine in a backroom refrigerator. Plans to close the Tripoli for being a public nuisance didn’t materialize. In January 1923, LaBree served as a witness at D’Aprile’s trial, which was packed with onlookers. Finding jurors not prejudiced against Prohibition law was, the Bellingham Herald noted, decidedly difficult.
Eventually, Francis D’Aprile took over the Tripoli, but the place continued selling alcohol. During a Sept. 1924 bust, police found an elaborate system to quickly jettison their stash. A man behind the storefront counter could pull a handle attached to a wire, which travelled beneath floorboards to a crate of uncorked whiskey bottles on a stairwell leading to the cellar. The wire would tip the box, spilling the bottles into a nearby oil barrel. They were only caught, police said, because one bottle failed to make the barrel during the raid.
Emory LaBree eventually moved to the Silver Beach area of Bellingham in the late 1920s, and briefly served on the local police force. Though she can’t prove it, Kolby suspects he continued making whiskey for his own consumption throughout Prohibition.
By 1932, America had fallen into the Great Depression. As people looked to progressive policies to weather the storm, it was clear Prohibition had become unpopular. Its enactment didn’t eradicate the evils it had sought to, and in large cities, it led to underground networks perpetrating violent and non-violent crime. By December 5, 1933, the 18th Amendment was officially dead. To this day, it remains the only constitutional amendment to ever be completely repealed.
A century later, both McGrath and LeBree see both sides of the experiment. Prohibition actually helped democratize drinking, casting away male-centric saloon culture in favor of bars where men and women could drink together, as they’d often been forced to do in speakeasies. It also helped re-set liquor laws, creating many that are still commonplace today.
Still, Prohibition serves as a reminder of what can happen when complex social issues are blanket-legislated by the government.
“When we create solutions that only address the symptoms of larger social issues, we often end of up in a situation where the problems don’t go away,” McGrath says. “Prohibition didn’t solve spousal abuse. It didn’t make poverty easier to endure. Before Prohibition, people really trusted and believed that laws were moral and made sense. And Prohibition laws didn’t really jive with a lot of people’s cultural understanding about what was right and wrong.”
Nearly a century after her great-grandfather was arrested, LaBree agrees.
“It criminalized a lot of normal people who maybe became less inclined to obey the law in general,” LaBree says. “I don’t necessarily think my great-grandfather thought of himself as a criminal. They were just doing the same old thing they’d always done, and suddenly they had to be sneaky.”