By JUSTIN DENNIS
“Youngstown is dry!” reads The Vindicator’s Sunday, May 25, 1919, front page – the day after nearly all of the city’s 400 liquor-sellers shuttered at midnight.
City saloons rushed to empty their stock. Men hauled spirits home by the gallons. Taverns roared with a final Saturday night bash.
“There were a few who insisted upon getting ‘lit up’ and they landed in the city bastille to sober up,” The Vindicator reported.
Friday marks 100 years since Ohio became one of the first states to outlaw booze ahead of nationwide prohibition set by the 18th Amendment, known as the Volstead Act.
Local history reveals the Mahoning Valley helped birth the national Prohibition movement, which ushered in “one of the most lawless periods in American history.”
Historians say one Brookfield Township native at the center of it all briefly became “the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.”
When the 18th Amendment took effect in 1920, the only other federal prohibition was against owning slaves. Ohio was the biggest state to pass Prohibition laws in 1919 – and stood to lose $4 million in annual liquor tax revenue. While Mahoning County and Youngstown attempted to go dry in 1917, it failed at the state level.
In the 19th century, the national per capita consumption of alcohol was nearly double what it is today, said Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning County Historical Society.
“[Youngstown] was a rough-and-tumble city. It was a city in its prime as far as industrial might and the amount of money that was made locally. In the 1920s, steelworkers – through reforms and strikes – were making more money and working less hours, so they had more time for leisure,” Lawson said. “People worked hard, and they drank hard, and you had all the requisite problems that went along with that.”
Mahoning County historian Howard C. Aley noted as much in his 1975 book, “A Heritage to Share.” In 1878, Youngstown had 60 saloons, one for every 187 people. By 1909, there were 296. In 1910, saloons outnumbered grocery stores.
“Prosperity often encourages indulgence, and the period immediately after the Civil War is recognized historically as a period of hard drinking,” Aley wrote.
The Youngstown Temperance Union formed in 1877. The Catholic Total Abstinence Society grew out of the city’s St. Columba Church in 1897. The Christian Endeavor Society of Portland, Maine, even pushed to abolish music in Youngstown bars.
Carrie Nation, a temperance activist best-known for taking a hatchet to a tavern, once called Youngstown “the worst city she had ever seen,” according to Aley.
Drunkenness was such a public health crisis Youngstown Council members sent a prohibition ordinance for referendum in May 1870, nearly 50 years before Ohio went dry. The city’s dry law passed by a vote of 748 to 431 the following month.
The attorney general later struck down the rule, as it wasn’t properly recorded. When the city solicitor produced the ordinance ledger, the attorney general noted the ink had not yet dried and the mayor admitted as much, according to Aley.
A ‘LOCOMOTIVE IN TROUSERS’
In 1869, one year before Youngstown’s ordinance, Wayne Bidwell Wheeler was born in Brookfield. He grew to become one of the foremost proponents for anti-liquor laws in the nation and ultimately led the national Anti-Saloon League through the 18th Amendment’s passage.
“A story told in the Youngstown Vindicator said that one day a drunken farmhand thrust a pitchfork into [Wheeler’s] legs ... and young Wayne told his father the farmhand was not to blame but that the real cause of injury was the liquor that he had drank,” reads a history curated by Jim Hoffman, parishioner of the Brookfield United Methodist Church, the cornerstone of which bore Wheeler’s name after his death in 1927.
Wheeler was drawn to the movement after a church lecture by its founder, the Rev. Howard Hyde Russell, and worked full time for the league while studying at Western Reserve Law School, Hoffman wrote. By 1902, a few years before the prohibition debate heated up in Youngstown, Wheeler was the league’s superintendent.
“He initiated so many legal cases on the league’s behalf, delivered so many speeches, launched so many telegram campaigns and organized so many demonstrations ... that his boss lamented that ‘there was not enough Mr. Wheeler to go around,’” reads a 2010 Smithsonian Magazine article.
One of Wheeler’s former classmates described him as a “locomotive in trousers,” according to the article.
Wheeler and the league amassed great influence in the Ohio Legislature and pushed a local-option bill allowing communities to vote for temperance.
Beloit, Springfield, Coitsville and Green townships voted to go dry between 1906 and 1909. Campbell didn’t, and Struthers, after 17 years “bone dry,” decided to take a sip, Aley wrote.
In 1909, the anti-prohibition and option camps sparred in Youngstown. As Wheeler spoke locally, so did famed pro-liquor criminal defense attorney and Kinsman native Clarence S. Darrow, who met a capacity crowd at the city’s opera house.
“Tents sprang up all over the south and west sides of the city as local halls proved inadequate to the crowds who gathered to hear the oratorical fireworks,” Aley wrote.
Wheeler’s biographer later wrote the Brookfield man “controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents … held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States,” Smithsonian reported.
Less than a week after Wheeler’s death in 1927, the Mahoning County chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union offered to fund a local memorial to the man whom Smithsonian wrote “turned off the taps.”
After the Brookfield church’s previous building burned down in 1928, the new building built across the green was named the Wheeler Memorial Methodist Church in 1930, according to Hoffman.
In spring 1919, Youngs-towners prepared for a sober future.
Grills and saloons forced to close by midnight Saturday, May 24, 1919, planned to reopen the following week and serve soft drinks and soda, according to Vindicator archives.
Smith Brewing Co. refitted its plant to churn out ginger ale and other carbonated soft drinks and changed its name to Smith Products Co. Youngstown’s longest-running brewery, George J. Renner Brewing Co., also gave last call and changed its name to the Renner Co. that year.
On prohibition’s first day, police arrested just two people for drunkenness, “and these appeared to be hangovers from Monday night,” according to Vindicator archives.
But Youngstown drink didn’t go anywhere. “It just became an underground economy,” Lawson said.
“There were speakeasies all over town here. There was illegal transport of spirits. There were people that owned taverns,” he said.
The Vindicator reported the first arrest of a speakeasy operator June 6, 1919, only about two weeks after the city went “dry.”
“Anybody that had any enterprising spirit and wasn’t concerned about the prohibition laws saw the opportunity to make money in doing this,” Lawson said. “The only way it functioned was through a combination of secrecy but also paying off local officials and law enforcement to look the other way.”
DRUNK AND DISORDERLY
Arrests in the county more than doubled between 1920 and 1921, and the courts even provisioned a submachine gun for the sheriff’s office, according to “These Hundred Years,” a retrospective published by The Vindicator in 2000.
One of the most notable convictions was then-Youngstown safety director David J. Scott, who was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for accepting bribes from bootleggers.
“The lawlessness of the prohibition era was very much in evidence on Boardman, Front, Watt and Walnut streets. Bootlegging establishments defied the law on Federal Street, and illicit stills were in operation from Bottle Hill to Sharon Line, and from ‘The Monkey’s Nest’ to Lansingville,” Aley wrote.
Emil A. Renner, whose father, George J., started the family’s Pike Street brewery in 1885, claimed notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone wanted the family to start its plant back up, according to an interview Renner gave to a Youngstown State University student in 1974.
Renner said he was approached by a man he believed to be Capone’s associate after Renner Brewing Co. closed in 1919.
“He said, ‘I want you to run the brewery. And I want $2,500 cash every week. You have to do what I tell you,’” Renner said.
The man wore a distinctive derby hat and a fur-collared coat. He never gave his name, but claimed he worked for the Pennsylvania state government, Renner recalled. He said his father cautioned against it, and Renner ultimately turned “derby hat” down.
Renner Brewing reopened after prohibition ended in 1933 and business was better than ever, Renner said.
Enforcement of the Volstead Act was part of the Ku Klux Klan’s platform, and boosted the group’s “meteoric rise” to prominence in the area, Lawson said.
“They really were targeting non-Protestant, immigrant Catholics, Jews, orthodox Christians that have entirely different cultural values coming from eastern Europe, including the whiff of communism,” he said. “A lot of those immigrants didn’t take [prohibition] very seriously. ... This was the great cultural tension – you had immigrants who thought it ridiculous. They kept making it, and people operated stills and brewed beer and fermented wine.”
In 1929, Youngstown vice squads were ordered to “crack down on the liquor racket” and some 850 known bootleggers, Aley wrote – but it never happened, according to a Vindicator report.
“[Mahoning] Sheriff William Englehardt and his men entered the city in 1930, smashing 30 bars in the heart of the downtown district, but as time went on, it became apparent that prohibition was an unworkable legislation, termed by [31st U.S. President] Herbert Hoover, a ‘noble experiment,’” Aley wrote. “Having created underworld kingdoms which only the federal government, after relentless attack, was able to bring to heel, the Prohibition Amendment was finally credited with having wrought the greatest damage to the moral integrity of the nation of any single act in previous history.”
In Aley’s account, the Great Depression and the rock-bottom U.S. economy were the death knell for prohibition. The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, under President Franklin Roosevelt. The 21st Amendment handed liquor regulation back to the states.
“I think just by regulating it and better education, I think rates of consumption and alcoholism dropped,” Lawson said.
“Prohibition was not the answer. When it comes right down to it, you cannot legislate human nature,” Lawson added.