May 12, 2016

There's Trouble A-brewin': Montana's Brewers and the Anti-Prohibition Movement

By Anneliese Warhank, Archivist and Oral Historian

Three men posing as researchers, carrying what they claimed to be instruments to test the wind velocity climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty and draped two sixty foot black crepe banners to show their opposition to prohibition. This act of civil protest, 90 years ago this past Sunday, made front page news across the county. The men reportedly belonged to an organization known as the World War Veterans’ Light Wine and Beer League[1]. This organization, along with many other organizations and individual citizens across the country opposed the absolute prohibition of alcohol, which was enforced from 1920 to 1933 as the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although organized opposition to Prohibition eventually led to its repeal, why didn’t these so-called “Wets” gather this support prior to 1920? Although a number of factors played into the passage of prohibition, the lackadaisical efforts made by the men of the brewing industry resulted in a lack of leadership for those who felt the country would not benefit from such a law.

The pro-temperance supporters (Drys) had been in this country since Colonial times, but the movement really began to gain speed with the creation of groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.), the Prohibition Party, and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Organized in Ohio in 1893, the ASL differed from other pro-temperance groups in that it was a non-partisan, interdenominational organization that united people on a single common cause who may not have agreed on other matters, something that had stymied the efforts of similar organizations. Its founder, Howard Hyde Russell, called for a “…statewide network of local agitators knowledgeable in both local affairs and temperance politics…”[2]  Talks such as the one given by John Woolley and Rev. George Morrow at the First Methodist Episcopal church in Missoula on March 27, 1914 were well attended. These men painted the manufacturers of alcohol as vermin by saying such things as, “…the chase will never cease until the old rascal has been caught and skinned and his pelt hung on the barn.”[3]

Kessler Brewery touted the health benefits of its beers, claiming
you'd notice its health benefits in the glow of health on your cheek.
Helena Independent, June 29, 1900 
While the Drys grouped together to gather support from the general population, the Wets failed to assemble as unified a front. Of all the groups representing the Wets, the brewers were some of the most powerful men, and Montana had its fair share of them. The discovery of gold in the state brought both prospectors in search of their fortune, and brewers to supply them with beer. The Virginia Brewery (later the Gilbert Brewing Co.) in Virginia City, one of the first documented breweries in Montana, opened in 1863, the same year gold was discovered in Alder Gulch. By the turn of the century, these men felt the need to organize, meeting for the first time as the Montana Brewer's Association (MBA) in 1902[4]. As the pro-temperance movement gained ground, brewers fought to counter the arguments of the ASL by painting beer as the more "temperate" alternative to hard liquor. Newspaper ads like the one produced by Kessler Brewery described their beer as a refreshing tonic[5]. But unlike the ASL, the MBA and the American Brewers Association, failed to incorporate members of the general population into their fight against Prohibition. A great example of this can be seen in the 1915 correspondence between Charles Kessler and A. A. Lathrop. He goes as far as warning Kessler that without gathering assistance from all those who opposed prohibition, he would be in a hurt of trouble[6]. Despite sending multiple letters offering his services for pamphlet writing, Mr. Kessler clearly did not take these letters seriously, describing them as "entertaining"[7].

Mr. Lathrop's passion for assisting is not just evident in the text of his letter, but in his handwriting.
Incoming Correspondence from AA Lathrop. Kessler Family Papers. MC 161. MHS Research Center Archives.
Other groups who opposed prohibition attempted to make their voices heard as well. The Montana Commercial and Labor League, led by bankers, liquor manufacturers, and labor leaders took out full page ads in newspapers[8] and distributed pamphlets across the state warning of the effects prohibition would have on the economy[9]. Religious leaders like the Rev. Martin D. Hudtloff, pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Butte proclaimed the pro-temperance movement actually drove people away from church[10].  Many of these critics were dismissed because of the ethnic and religious prejudices involved in the pro-temperance movement. For example, Montana brewers (and brewers in general) often were descendants of German immigrants. Likewise, a predominant portion of members of the Lutheran church also had German roots. These divisions also contributed to the lack of unity within the opposition to temperance.

There are a number of other factors that played into the Pro-temperance movement, but ultimately the ASL held the power because they had the most influence over the progressive politicians of the time. The common man held little power in comparison. However in a democratic society, one likes to think that when the silent majority speaks up, leaders listen. Perhaps if the brewers & the rest of the Wets had unified & rallied the masses, the 1920s may truly have been a more temperate decade.

Has this post “w(h)et your appetite” for more information about Montana’s brewing history?  The Lewis & Clark Brewery, in conjunction with the Montana Historical Society, is hosting a Montana brewery theme trivia night on May 18th. For more information, check out the Helena Craft Beer Week website.

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[1] “Wets Drape Statue of Liberty in Crepe.” Kalispell Daily Inter Lake, May 8, 1926. 
[2] Kerr, K. Austin. "Organizing for Reform: The Anti-Saloon League and Innovation in Politics." American Quarterly,
      Spring 1980, 37-53.
[3] “Root of All Evil is Failure to Vote.” The Daily Missoulian, March 28, 1914.
[4] "Brewers Flock to Butte to Form an Organization" The Butte Intermountain, April 16, 1902.
[5] June 1906 Helena Newspaper
[6] A.A. Lathrop Letters to C. Kessler Sept.-Dec. 1915. Kessler Family papers. MC 161. 11/20. Montana Historical Society
      Research Center. Archives. Helena, Montana.
[7] Dec. 5, 1915 Letter. Letterpress book. Kessler Family papers. MC 161. 16/1. Montana Historical Society Research
     Center. Archives. Helena, Montana.
[8] "Talking of Taxes" The Glasgow Courier. January 28, 1916.
[9] Keep Montana prosperous : what will state-wide prohibition cost you? Montana Commercial and Labor League.
      1916.
[10] "This is Plain Talk" The Glasgow Courier. February 4, 1916.

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