CADILLAC — In many ways analogous to the contemporary debate over whether or not to legalize the use of marijuana, alcohol consumption was a contentious issue that polarized area residents for many years prior to Prohibition.
Before the federal government banned alcohol for more than a decade starting in 1920, residents of area counties voted on the issue several times. As part of the state “local option,‘ counties could vote to prohibit alcohol sale and use within their boundaries. Proponents of this ban often were referred to as the “drys‘ and opponents the “wets.‘
In 1908, residents of Wexford, Missaukee and Osceola counties considered approval of the local option for the first time … and leading up to the vote, disagreement over the issue raged between local saloon owners, pharmacists, law enforcement and the religious community.
At that time, area counties were rife with saloons that sold beer, liquor and wine: Wexford County had 39; Missaukee County had 9; and Osceola County had 21.
Among those most vocal in their opposition to the use of alcohol were area clergymen. A coalition of churches led an Anti-Saloon campaign aimed at influencing public opinion and the vote.
“Rev. Mr. Halsaple was the first speaker,‘ the Cadillac News reported in regard to a large gathering held before the 1908 election. “The Anti-Saloon campaign in Wexford County would be an impersonal campaign, he said, devoid of any mud slinging, at least from the standpoint of the league and its adherents; not a campaign against any man or men, but against an institution, that is a detriment to the welfare of society.‘
In addition to saloon owners who stood to be closed down if alcohol was banned, another group opposed to the local option were pharmacists, who claimed prohibition could exacerbate problems associated with alcohol use; they also feared many saloon owners would begin posing as “fake‘ pharmacists in order to legally prescribe alcohol.
The issue became so polarizing that the then-Cadillac Evening News was compelled to take its own stance on prohibition.
“As the result of observation and experience and of the information that can be obtained as to the results of county prohibition elsewhere The Evening News does not believe that better conditions would be brought about through an experiment in such a direction in Cadillac at this time,‘ the paper wrote.
On April 7, 1908, a record number of Wexford County voters showed up at the polls to decide on the local option: the result was 2,101 in favor of prohibition to 1,766 against. All four wards of the city of Cadillac voted against prohibition but the majority of townships voted for it — most notably Cedar Creek, where it passed by a vote of 310 to 170.
Voters in Missaukee and Osceola also decided to prohibit alcohol, by margins of 228 and 400, respectively.
Fallout of the 1908 vote
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, there was a veritable panic among the drinking public, who proceeded to stockpile as much booze as possible in preparation for the coming drought.
“A local representative of a brewery took orders immediately after election day for delivery of beer in cases, and those orders have been filled,‘ the Cadillac News reported. “Several dray loads have been delivered from house to house with the result that many a Cadillac home is today better stocked with beer than it ever was before.‘
Local pharmacies also reported huge increases in alcohol sales: “During the first three days following the adoption of local option, the druggists of Cadillac made 93 sales of liquors … last week the total was increased to 251 sales,‘ the Cadillac News reported. “The sickness in Cadillac last week was appalling.‘
Within the city of Cadillac, 19 saloon owners had to make a decision about what they would do with their businesses: soft drink emporium, billiard room, restaurant, cigar store, barber shop, and ice cream parlor were some of the plans owners had for their businesses following the vote; others simply closed down or rented their space to others.
Some made light of the desperation drinkers had in finding alcohol after the ban: “A grocer who always enjoys a joke, when it’s on the other fellow, treated a couple of his customers out of a ‘half point’ this morning. After each of his friends had taken a good ‘swig’ they realized that it was vinegar they were indulging in.‘
The night before the ban went into effect was a celebration of unhinged debauchery in Cadillac and surrounding cities. “Thursday was like a holiday in Cadillac,‘ the Cadillac News reported. “All day the streets were well lined with visitors from the country and camps … Until 10 o’clock there was comparatively little noise, but when the town clock struck the hour of 10, bedlam broke loose and until morning there was marching up and down Mitchell Street, noisy singing, the breaking of empty beer bottles on the pavement … The busiest men in the city last night were draymen who were carting kegs and cases of bottled beer to various homes about the city, where the owners hesitated to have it delivered in daylight … From early evening until closing time the saloons were packed. At some places it was impossible to get up to the bars and drinks had to be passed over heads to get to the thirsty ones.‘
It was reported that Lake City and McBain were relatively calm by comparison to Cadillac and Mesick, where “there was considerable doing there in the way of noise and drunkenness.‘
Bootleggers and moonshiners
In the days and years following the ban, police routinely arrested individuals for violating the ban on drinking, as well as producing beer and liquor.
In Osceola County, a division deputy revenue collector came across a moonshiners’ camp located in the thickets of the wilderness in the northern part of the county less than a month after the 1908 ban went into effect.
“The still was in a room on the second floor,‘ the Cadillac News reported. “Part of it was in a barrel and had been frozen in. (The collector) had the marshal chop down the barrel and hew out the various parts of the outfit. He took a large tank, also used in the process of distilling, and started for the door. The woman told him he couldn’t take the still away. (The collector) continued making preparations to leave and the woman picked up (an) ax and threatened to kill him if he tried to carry the still away. She swung widely at him, but was finally subdued by the officers.‘
In another instance in September 1912, Charles Allen, alleged bootlegger, “tumbled into the sheriff’s net after selling whiskey in a horse stall. Officers were aware of the planned sale and hid in a nearby feed box until it was time to apprehend Allen. Allen, who claimed to be of Detroit, fell into the eye of the authorities after several drunks had been apprehended at the recent fair in Cadillac ... investigations revealed that the liquor was being sold within the fair grounds. Sheriff Evans put the entirety of his force to work at the fairgrounds and ... determined that Allen was selling liquor out of the stables near the racetrack, a typical move of bootleggers in recent times. Sheriff Evans and two deputies hid in the feed box prior to an arranged sale and caught Allen in the act.‘
In 1918, Wexford County Sheriff Christoffersen and Deputy Norm Paquette got wind of a cache of beer up on the Slagle Creek and investigation disclosed that 24 barrels of bottled beer had been brought to a house and stored. The sheriff and deputy went up and raided the oasis and dumped the liquid into the creek, they having to open each bottle and “watch the amber fluid gurgle from the bottles into the stream.‘
In 1919, police arrested a Cadillac man who was operating an illicit still in the kitchen of his home; his neighbors, recognizing the odor in the vicinity of his residence, contacted the police.
Wexford County held multiple elections on local option in the years that followed the initial vote in 1908. Debate on the topic was just as heated during subsequent elections as it was for the first one.
One of those opposed to prohibition was the Hon. Harry S. Brewer, president of the cigar makers union, who addressed about 400 men at the opera house in Cadillac about the “liberal side of the liquor question.‘ That prohibition had always been a failure, that it was a check on liberty, that from an economic standpoint, prohibition was not desirable and that the licensed, regulated saloon was not an evil were main points made by Brewer.
Some of the arguments were a little on the bizarre side: C.E. Tippet, supporter of the anti-prohibition movement in Cadillac, said prohibitionists were more apt to be polygamists. “In a paid ad published by the dry committee they try to make the people believe that as far as personal liberty is concerned, it is just as much liberty for a man to have two or more wives as it is for him to take a glass beer,‘ Tippet said. “I actually believe that as far as polygamy is concerned there are 10 prohibitionists that have two or more wives, where there would be one anti-prohibitionist. Turkey is the only prohibition country where prohibition prohibits; the most immoral country in the world, where every native is a prohibitionist. There is where polygamy thrives, because it is their religion.‘
Even former lightweight boxing champion of the world Ad Wolgast, who was from Cadillac, eventually issued a statement about his position on the debate.
“Two years ago I issued a statement in favor of local option, thinking at that time local option would be best for Cadillac from a moral standpoint,‘ Wolgast said. “Since then I find local option does not prohibit, that beer and whiskey, are being shipped here daily in wholesale quantities, and I now think it best, from a moral and financial standpoint, to vote back the licensed, regulated saloon, as the only way to get what we thought we were getting two years ago — through temperance.‘
Local law enforcement took the opposite point of view: “I sincerely hope that the Michigan state legislature will pass laws that will make the state entirely dry,‘ said Cadillac Police Chief Evans in 1917. “When the voters went to the polls last November and cast their ballots for a dry Michigan the majority did so in the belief that the commonwealth would become a prohibition territory. I do not believe that the permitting of residents to have a limited supply of liquor in a certain length of time would solve the liquor problem. The state should be made ‘bone dry.’‘
During the federal prohibition years of the 1920s and early 1930s, bootlegging kicked into high gear, with former Cadillac police officers even getting in on the racket.
In September of 1925, former Cadillac motorcycle cop Percy Schryer was arrested on a charge of transporting three pints of moonshine and was later convicted of violating the liquor laws by a jury in Circuit Court.
In another case in 1923, three taxicab drivers working for a firm in Cadillac were arrested in connection with the bootlegging of illegal liquor. The establishment they worked for, which was located between the chamber of commerce and Methodist church, was widely considered a front for the trafficking of hooch. With three drivers arrested from the company, it was expected to be a “dry Christmas in the Cadillac area.‘
Most municipalities in the U.S. now allow for the sale and consumption of alcohol but there are a number that remain dry or partially dry to this day.