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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Uncivil Disobedience


Dec. 5th marks the anniversary of the demise of our nation's most enthusiastic effort to regulate public morality: on this date in 1933 Prohibition officially came to an end.

Though called The Dairy State, Wisconsin might as easily have been known as the Brewski State, since beer-making was a tradition in its many German-American communities. In 1921, when Prohibition sentiment was at its highest, the state passed the Severson Act to enforce the federal provision; it was quickly denounced by progressive Governor John J. Blaine. In 1926 a popular referendum overwhelmingly supported an exemption for 2.75% "near beer" and in 1929 voters endorsed another that called for an end to prosecutions under the Severson Act.

By then federal officials were afoot in Wisconsin to assess conditions. Investigator Frank Buckley found that our state was "commonly regarded as a Gibraltar of the wets -- sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor." After ten years of Prohibition, he found that in Madison "The section of the city known as the Bush is made up of Sicilian Italians of the worst sort, most of whom are bootleggers. ... The queen of bootleggers, an attractive young Italian girl [shown here headed for jail in 1933], caters exclusively to a fraternity-house clientele. While in Madison the writer visited the local chapter of his national fraternity (D. K. E.) one morning about 9 o'clock. Quite a commotion was observed at the time, as a result of an attempt to induce two of the brethren, who had apparently imbibed well but not wisely the night before, to get up for morning classes." Plus ca change..., as they say.

Other cities were worse. At the opposite end of the state, Hurley "tucked away up in the wild lumber and iron section of northern Wisconsin, right on the Michigan State line, has the distinction of being the worst community in the State. Conditions in Hurley are not unlike those of settlements like Dawson City, Cripple Creek, El Dorado, Borger, and other boom communities. Gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, and dope are about the chief occupations of the place. Saloons there function with barmaids who serve the dual capacity of soda dispenser and prostitute." Of course, by the time poor Frank Buckley visited Hurley in 1929, the world had known 10,000 years of gambling, drinking, and prostitution, and no mere amendment to the U.S. Constitution was likely to change the dark side of human nature.

By then, too, former Gov. Blaine had become a U.S. Senator and was making a national reputation for himself with calls to repeal the 18th Amendment. After a dozen years of seeing breweries go bankrupt and organized crime take their place, of watching innocent drinkers be poisoned by black market moonshine, and of having misguided government interference turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, voters came around to his point of view. On Feb. 28, 1933, Congress passed an amendment repealing prohibition which became law on Dec. 5, 1933, when Utah ratified it. Wisconsin had been the second state to approve it, on April 25th, when people like these began to celebrate the end of a repressive era.

For more stories of Prohibition in Wisconsin, visit Turning Points in Wisconsin History.
:: Posted in Curiosities on December 3, 2005

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