Dry Times in the Highest State: Colorado’s Prohibition Movement

Guest writer Sam Bock (M.A., CU Boulder) places Colorado’s early adoption of Prohibition in social and political context, suggesting the continuing resonances of those circumstances today. A public historian at History Colorado, Sam is developing an exhibit on the history of brewing in the Centennial State. “Beer Here! Brewing the New West” will open in Denver at the beginning of American Craft Beer Week on May 18, 2019. Sam previously served as a contributing editor at Erstwhile.

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Emptying the stores in Colorado.

Coloradans waking up on the first day of 1916 found themselves in an unfamiliar world. The saloons lining downtown streets in cities and mining camps were silent, many having been sold months before in anticipation of the new laws. The remaining saloon keepers who ordinarily would be sweeping up beer-soaked sawdust were still at home. Their main source of revenue—the beer and liquor they sold to thirsty patrons—had become illegal overnight.

Despite the ban (or perhaps because of it) intoxicated revelers making the most of the final hours of beer sales were still out and about on New Year’s Day. Depending on which newspaper Denverites were reading on January 1st, 1916, they would have been greeted by the news that two men were arrested in the wee hours of the morning for intoxication. According to the Rocky Mountain News, Longmont farmer Charles Robbins was picked up for violating prohibition laws earlier that morning. In contrast, the Denver Post reported that, a forty-nine year old laborer named John Hanson was arrested for drinking during the night, and was welcomed at the jail with a thunderous round of applause from the resident inmates.[1]

But inmates were not the only ones cheering that day. State-wide prohibition had been on the ballot a number of times prior to the vote in 1914. Each time, campaigners failed in their attempts to expand the beer ban from dry cities like Ft. Collins and Greeley to the rest of the state. Through on-the-ground political organizing, appeals to religious values, and zealous advertising, the “drys” (as prohibition advocates came to be known) finally won the political battle in 1914. Opting for a fifteen-month grace period, they did so four years before the rest of the country followed suit.

While Colorado was among a few other states that imposed liquor bans in 1916 (a list that includes Iowa, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arkansas, and South Carolina), the question of why our state went dry so early is one without an obvious or simple answer. Like most questions about the past, finding out why a state with a hearty appetite for alcohol went dry four years before the rest of the nation requires us to examine a combination of local circumstance and broader context.

Colorado’s powerful dry coalition was composed of very active chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU), local religious leaders, itinerant preachers, suffragists, and progressive-minded community members. For these folks, alcohol was both the cause and a symptom of Colorado’s social problems, and drys constantly fretted over the state’s moral character. Puritanical religious beliefs and rigid Victorian sensibilities held that consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication was sinful, and that God might be on the lookout for ways to punish a society composed of loutish, unproductive drunks. Moreover, newly enfranchised women (who had gained the right to vote in state-wide elections in 1893) voted for Colorado to ban alcohol because, as the wives of saloon-going men, they disproportionally suffered from the negative effects of drinking in the form of domestic violence.

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A prohibition supporter’s button.

Though drys were—and still are—derided as prudish killjoys, temperance reformers and prohibitionists in early twentieth-century America were responding to the slate of problems associated with alcohol. Drys saw Prohibition as addressing a very real public health crisis. The early twentieth century represented the pinnacle of America’s drinking habit, and more alcohol was being consumed in 1916 than at any other time in American history. Prodigious consumption rates were driven partly by the introduction in the mid-nineteenth century of lager beer that was more drinkable and cheaper than other kinds of alcohol. But concerns for public health were just one of the many motivating factors that helped bring about Prohibition in Colorado.

As if these circumstances weren’t enough reason to ban beer, drys looking around Colorado in the early twentieth century saw what the rest of the nation would recognize four years later: that industrialization and immigration had fundamentally changed the social and economic landscape under their very feet. Beer and the omnipresent saloons where it was served were constant reminders that the daily arrival of more foreign immigrants was rapidly changing Colorado’s ethnic and cultural character in the early twentieth century.

Between 1890 and 1915, Colorado’s population boomed. More than 500,000 new people appeared in the 1920 census than had done so in 1890.[2] Immigrants to Colorado came from places like Italy, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland, China, and Mexico. Most were males under the age of 30. All of the new arrivals came looking for work. Flush with instant capital as a result of the gold rush, employers in the state needed labor. The economy called for miners, railroad workers, day laborers, shopkeepers, saloon owners, and brewers. At the same time as these young men began forming their own communities, a xenophobic reaction began to take root among the upper- and middle-class Anglo-American Protestant families who had established themselves here following the Civil War.[3] Middle- and upper-middle class professionals who had moved to Colorado from points east found themselves living among newly-arrived immigrant laborers whose customs seemed incompatible with more traditional American values. Saloons and drinking were deemed antithetical to the hard-working, family-oriented values of the growing Anglo-Protestant middle and upper classes.

Perhaps in response to the hostility and even outright violence that Colorado laborers experienced as they tried to grapple with a rapidly changing economic landscape, labor unions cropped up across the state. Colorado lacked the union halls and recreation facilities that helped define the character of labor organizing in places like Chicago and Boston. But what the state had in abundance were saloons, which were already used as community gathering places. Nascent unions often formed out of the natural foment and commiseration that happens over a few after-work beers. With saloons acting as midwives of labor organizing, it was predictable that mine owners, railroad magnates, and timber barons would want to ban the beer that fueled feelings of solidarity among their workers.

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The cover of a 1918 pamphlet against alcohol.

Any hopes that Prohibition would tamp down on crime rates or hasten the “Americanization” of the immigrants who met in Colorado saloons were dashed almost immediately after the saloons shut down. Major instances of labor unrest continued sweeping through early twentieth-century Colorado, partly inspired by the massacre of striking workers at Ludlow in 1914 and partly spurred on by the fact that abused laborers now lacked the most common sudsy outlet for their grievances. Meanwhile, a new type of criminal organization found that bootleg hooch—mostly in the form of distilled liquor, not beer—could provide the financial underpinnings of statewide criminal empires. Italian and Sicilian mobsters who ran small-time extortion rackets before Prohibition were suddenly flush with ill-gotten cash. They put their wealth to good use, grabbing suddenly and violently at the chance to dominate the lucrative bootlegging business.

With the rise of the mob and the bootleg liquor trade in Colorado came the need for more and better law enforcement. Though the amendment that banned liquor statewide in 1916 came with a small provision for empowering prohibition enforcement agents, Colorado mostly relied on a patchwork of professional and semi-professional local police and county sheriffs to enforce prohibition laws. Legislators also authorized the creation of the Colorado Rangers under the newly-formed Department of Public Safety, but their success in apprehending bootleggers, homebrewers, and moonshiners was limited to say the least. By the 1920s, with the mob’s influence omnipresent and the police proving ineffective at curtailing bootlegging and speakeasies, urbanites—particularly in Denver, but also in towns like Grand Junction and Boulder—became receptive to the appeal of the Ku Klux Klan.

Unlike in the southern United States, where the KKK waged reprehensible campaigns of racial violence and suppression, Colorado’s Klan took a more subtle—though still insidiously racist and xenophobic—approach to extending its reach. Klansmen here gained ground by marketing themselves as a group committed to enforcing law and order as opposed to promoting racial segregation. Though openly hostile to African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Catholics, and others, the KKK in Colorado focused on controlling political offices and extending its networks by promising to enforce Prohibition and protect the Anglo-Protestant values the beer ban embodied. The strategy was highly effective, and Colorado’s per-capita Klan membership was second only to Indiana’s in 1922. That the Colorado Klan could count Denver’s mayor and its chief of police, as well as many judges and hundreds of police officers, on their membership roles should give a clue as to the efficacy of their law-and-order platform.

Scholars have long noted that the national Prohibition movement was an exceptional moment in American history. As historian Daniel Okrent put it, Prohibition came about when “a mighty alliance of moralists, progressives, suffragists, and xenophobes legally seized the constitution, bending it to a new purpose.”[4] That new purpose was, for the first time in American history, to put constitutional boundaries on individual liberty. Colorado has often been a bellwether for national political trends, and that history extends all the way back to 1916 when the state’s constitution proved a site of contest over the moral character and economic trajectory of the Centennial State.

The consequences of banning beer would touch nearly every facet of life in Colorado, and in many ways, the Prohibition era mirrors our own time. A sense that the nation was in crisis sent Coloradans seeking major political change, and the effects of those changes continue rippling through history. They are written in our laws and can be tasted in our beer.

 


[1] Dick Kreck, “High, Dry Times as Prohibition Era Sobered Denver,” The Denver Post, July 3, 2009.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau.

[3] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2011).

[4] Ibid., 1.

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