Alcohol Prohibition #ThisWeekInHistory

Raid at Elk Lake

(Gillette, Wyo.) On Oct. 27, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which effectively gave the federal government the power to stop people from consuming the alcohol many people wanted to drink, as was the intent of the 18th Amendment.

In Jan. 1920, the nation decided to constitutionally prohibit the sale and use of alcohol, but the amendment didn’t contain any specifics on how the law would be enforced. So, they passed a law to enforce the law.

By 1933, the nation decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to constitutionally outlaw alcohol, and the nation constitutionally repealed the constitutional prohibition on alcohol.

The story is a little more complicated than that, and the attempt to enforce Prohibition in Wyoming was as convoluted and futile as it was anywhere else in the country. It did little to stop anyone from drinking. It spread corruption and general distrust of law enforcement, and it generated violence unrivaled as alcohol gangs vied for control of their lucrative territory. Sound familiar?

During Wyoming’s territorial days, anti-alcohol crusaders were active, but they were regarded a bit like people today who warn against the health consequences of eating beef. They didn’t get much political traction in a state full of independent-minded ranching folk.

By 1915, that began to change as the nation was caught up in a wave of prohibitionist fervor. Members of the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union submitted 10,000 signatures to the Wyoming Legislature calling for the state to go dry.

They still didn’t get very far in Wyoming, but they were seeing a lot more success in neighboring states. By 1917, Wyoming was the only dry state in the Rocky Mountain Region, and they were profiting pretty well from it. Just as some people today (not anyone at County 17, of course) head to Colorado to acquire their favorite forbidden intoxicants, people residing in the states neighboring Wyoming headed to Wyoming to get their whiskey and beer.

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That lasted only a year, because by 1918, by citizen initiative, voters passed a law three-to-one outlawing alcohol in Wyoming. There’s a number of reasons why rugged, independent Wyoming hopped on the bandwagon of sobriety, but perhaps the biggest factor was World War I.

The temperance movement was largely started and ran by women. And with so many men over in Europe fighting a war, the voting rolls were suddenly much more populated by women, who tended to favor not having their men stumbling in drunk at 2 a.m. from bars they were often forbidden from entering.

While this special interest group managed to pass their law, getting it enforced was another matter entirely. The passage of the law led to the state’s first statewide law enforcement agency, the Department of Law Enforcement, and its sole duty was enforcing alcohol prohibition.

However, many county governments, including many sheriff’s offices, refused to enforce it. This was especially true in areas with a lot of mining, oil drilling, and ranching, which tended to have a lot of hardworking men who wanted to drink after a hard day’s labor. They also had a lot of men who liked selling it to them. Sheridan County, for example, largely ignored the law altogether.

During this period, Salt Creek was having an oil boom, and there was some serious coal mining in Kemmerer. When these places fell upon a depression (one that proceeded the Great Depression of 1929), they especially didn’t take kindly to laws against alcohol. Not only were people making money off it, times were tough and people wanted a drink.

Corruption spread rampantly as bootleggers paid off the cops who really didn’t want to enforce the laws in the first place. While there wasn’t quite the violence that was seen on the streets of Chicago among gangsters such as Al Capone, the black market bred a lot of crime in the Cowboy State.

By 1921, the feds were tired of all this lawlessness and they sent men in to do something about Wyoming’s wayward drinking population. That year, in Sweetwater County, the largest raid in Prohibition history sent 62 individuals to jail.

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In 1923, William Ross was elected governor, and the man was a progressive Democrat who was not shy about his love of Big Government Prohibition. After his election, he passed laws that made it easier to force local governments, like those in Sheridan, to enforce the federal laws against consuming the alcohol many people wanted to consume.

The following year, Ross died, and his widow was voted into office as the first woman governor in the United States. Nellie Tayloe Ross, like her late husband, really felt it was the government’s job to tell people what they could and could not drink.

By this point, the state was really cracking down on those county scofflaws, such as the Sheriff in Cody, who was being prosecuted for taking bribes. She actually attended his entire trial.

Fortunately, this gave her less time to campaign, which probably wouldn’t have helped her anyways. She lost the election of 1926 to Republican Frank Emerson, whose campaign was not so interested in raiding people’s liquor cabinets.

It would still be May 18, 1933, before a full 72 percent of voters in the state voted for the federal government to stay they hell out of the saloons and let grown men have a drink if they want.

The party at midnight on May 19 was probably something to see.

SOURCES: http://www.wyomingpbs.org/prohibition.php

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at kevin@county17.com or 701-641-6603.