Quit Drinking, Get to Work: #ThisWeekInWYHistory
Moonshine was often made in remote spots in Natrona County. Aftermath of a police raid on a still, 1923. Casper College Western History Center. (courtesy of the Wyoming State Historical Society)
Things in Wyoming have changed a lot since 1917, but like today, there was still an ongoing war across the Pacific Ocean, and there were still skilled laborers looking for their futures in the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
At the time, the United States had just joined the front lines in WWI and was facing a severe shortage of skilled laborers. The shortage was so profound that convicts from the state penitentiary in Rawlins, Wyoming, were called in to assist the Goshen County potato harvest in 1917.
Evidently, however, convicts could not help the situation at the Union Pacific Railway, which was experiencing freight delays that severely hampered their ability to get necessary shipments to the U.S. government for the war effort, according to a Dec. 1917 edition of the Railway Review, a record of all things railroad.
William Jeffers, general manager of the Union Pacific Railway at the time, blamed the problem on the state of saloons in Laramie, Rawlins, Green River, and Evanston, which were critical freight division points for the railroad.
Railway workers were drinking too much, too late, and were not performing at their best during the workday. His solution was to write a strongly worded appeal to the acting Governor of Wyoming, Frank Houx.
Jeffers believed that if the saloons closed at 9 p.m. and stayed closed until 7 a.m., his workers’ performance would improve.
In the years leading up to 1917, there was a strong movement to ban alcohol in the U.S. altogether, though the movement had yet to reachWyoming en mass. It would be another two years before the Volstead Act would be passed by Congress, which would grant the federal government power to stop people from drinking alcohol.
On Dec. 5, 1917, Houx issued letters to the mayors of the four named communities, imploring them to abide by Jeffers’ suggestion.
Houx’s letters apparently made sense in light of the anti-alcohol movement gaining strength and support. In 1917, Wyoming was one of the last few states in the country that still allowed for the consumption of alcohol.
It was a small victory for the temperance movement, which managed to have legislation passed in a three-to-one decision, effectively banning alcohol in Wyoming all together.
You know the story. Alcohol may have been illegal during the prohibition, but bootleggers, corrupt law enforcement officials, and grown men who wanted to be left alone made the measure nearly impossible to enforce.
Wyoming residents even played host to federal officials who, after the Volstead Act was passed in 1919, sent in agents to tear apart the Wyoming underground alcohol trade.
In 1921, the largest raid during Prohibition, in Sweetwater County, saw 62 people thrown behind bars.
It didn’t matter; no matter how much the federal and state governments attempted to tell people what they could and could not drink, Wyomingites were still managing to get their hands on alcohol.
By 1933, the prohibition was a thing of the past, and Wyoming was free to dunk their heads in the local horse trough, so to speak, once more.