Revisiting Prohibition: Kentucky was ahead of the times

bourbon's birthplace embraced temperance movement

jwarren@herald-leader.comOctober 18, 2011 

  • Alcohol sales bans persist in one-quarter of state's counties

    Prohibition is still alive in Kentucky, but it's a local debate. There are 39 dry counties, mostly in rural Kentucky, and 32 wet counties. Dozens of other counties are dry but allow some form of alcohol sales.

In November 1919, Kentucky voters narrowly approved a state constitutional amendment banning the sale and distribution of alcohol in the state two months before Prohibition began nationwide.

Not until Jan. 17, 1920, did the Volstead Act take effect, making America, officially at least, a dry nation as provided by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Prohibition returned as a topic of conversation earlier this month with the premiere on public television of Prohibition, a three-part documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns. It traces the rise of the anti-liquor movement; shows how millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans chose to violate the national liquor ban; and details the vast, often violent, criminal industry that quickly sprang up to satisfy the country's thirst for illegal booze.

The documentary generally presents Prohibition as a bad idea that was doomed from the start. But some historians and social commentators say Prohibition produced benefits, lowering alcohol use and associated health and social problems, at least temporarily.

The idea that Kentucky — a state which takes so much pride in being the birthplace of bourbon whiskey and the home of many distilleries — could vote to ban alcohol seems almost unthinkable today. But historians say it was typical of a period in which anti-alcohol fervor ran strong and dry forces successfully promoted Prohibition as a solution for many societal ills.

"There is something of a perception that the dries kind of pulled the wool over the eyes of the American people all of a sudden in 1919 and 1920," says Thomas Appleton, a professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University. "But that's not true. It was a movement that lasted a full century, and here in Kentucky it began in the 1830s and moved steadily forward."

Lexington churches celebrated when Prohibition went into effect, but the liquor ban didn't go over any more smoothly here than in other cities across the country.

Lexington newspapers soon were carrying stories of liquor seized by police at private establishments and of increasing acts of lawlessness, like the theft of whiskey from the James E. Pepper Distillery on Old Frankfort Pike by gun-wielding bandits.

Clinton Fugate, a "bespectacled and scholarly looking" student working his way through law school by bootlegging, was jailed after police raided his apartment on South Limestone.

In Louisville, agents raided the prestigious Pendennis Club, confiscating champagne, whiskey and gin, according to James Klotter, a history professor at Georgetown College.

Among Lexington's leading bootleggers was Lawrence Piercy, a former city patrolman. His main rival, Isaac "Ike" Miller, ran a bootlegging operation out of a farm near today's Cardinal Valley neighborhood.

Lawmen who fought the illegal trade sometimes paid in blood. Lexington police officer J.J. Estes was shot and killed while chasing a bootlegger in 1927. You can see his name today, enshrined at the police memorial in downtown Lexington.

Former University of Kentucky political science professor Bradley Cannon, who created the Prohibition exhibit that recently was on display at the Lexington History Museum, said various Lexington restaurants established back rooms or basement areas where customers in the know could buy a drink, if they gave the right password.

In contrast, Appleton notes that alcohol carried no stigma during Kentucky's early days. Drinking bourbon was considered safer than water from the uncertain supplies of the time. Some Kentucky frontier churches paid their preachers in whiskey, which was easier to obtain than cash, Appleton says.

But by about 1830, many in Kentucky and elsewhere began thinking that drinking had gotten out of control. Stories spread of wives abused and children neglected by drunken husbands and fathers.

"From about the 1840s on, temperance parades and rallies were common in Kentucky, trying to get people to sign temperance pledges," Templeton said. "Temperance started out as meaning the wise use of distilled spirits. But eventually it became synonymous with prohibition. By the 1850s in Kentucky and nationally, you had dries saying that moral persuasion wasn't enough and that legislation was needed."

Lexington native George Washington Bain became a leading anti-liquor speaker on the chautauqua circuit. Garrard County native Carrie Nation took a more direct approach, smashing up saloons with a hatchet. Alcohol supporters in Kentucky tried to fight back but had relatively little success.

"The wets were not as effective in propaganda and public relations as the dries were," Appleton said. "It's amazing, but Kentucky really contributed more to the dry cause than to the wet cause."

A proposal to ban alcohol in Kentucky was approved by the state House in 1914 but died in the Senate. Undaunted, Kentucky's dry forces pushed a prohibition bill through the legislature in 1918, and voters approved it the next year. But it was largely academic once national prohibition began.

James Klotter says Kentucky, a state with many distilleries, was hit hard when the nation went dry.

"Louisville lost between 6,000 and 8,000 distilling jobs," he said. "Some small communities that depended on distilling, like Tyrone in Anderson County, almost vanished."

Many people gave up alcohol when Prohibition began. But others saw drinking as a personal matter beyond the government's purview.

J. Winston Coleman, a prominent Kentucky historian of the period, made home-brew in his basement during the 1920s, according to Klotter. Other affluent citizens relied on their favorite bootleggers to keep them supplied.

Some respected citizens ran afoul of the law. Congressman John Langley of Floyd County had to resign in 1926 after being convicted of liquor law violations. He later wrote a memoir, They Tried to Crucify Me.

"It affected people at all levels of society," Klotter said. "Some lost jobs, and Kentucky tax revenues fell because of lost business taxes. But others gained by going into business illegally."

By the late 1920s, however, enthusiasm for Prohibition was fading nationally. The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, the only U.S. constitutional amendment ever rescinded.

Dries, however, never lost faith in the movement they had backed, Appleton said.

"People look back on Prohibition as something that curtailed people's freedom," he said. "But it really was part of the Progressive Era in America.

"Dries believed that if you got rid of the influence of liquor, you could purify politics. You wouldn't have vote-buying anymore; you would have less insanity; fewer criminals in jail; the cost of law enforcement would go down. It really was a progressive goal."

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6297 Ext. 3255.

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