Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Night They Tried to Drink Oshkosh Dry

On this day in 1919 the people of Oshkosh set out to drink the city dry. And dry it was, when midnight arrived. June 30, 1919 was the true beginning of Prohibition in the United States. At midnight the Wartime Prohibition Act went into effect outlawing any and all intoxicating beverages. It would be another 14 years before you could enjoy a legal beer in Oshkosh. The drinkers of this city weren’t going to let this night pass without one last plunge.

In the days leading up to June 30th confusion reigned. The Wartime Prohibition Act was hastily drawn up. The perimeters of the new law were poorly defined. Many believed President Wilson would negate the Act altogether and that the scope of the law didn't include beer or light wine. Others seemed to realize exactly what was coming down. The Oshkosh Wine and Liquor Company took out a series of ads in the Northwestern notifying its customers that they were selling off their stock. “This is your last chance,” was their sober warning. Oshkosh’s three large breweries, Oshkosh Brewing, Peoples and Rahr’s, abruptly halted brewing operations and discontinued advertising their products. And the Elk’s Club announced they’d march a funeral procession down Main Street for John Barleycorn where the “Final disposition of all worldly effects of the deceased will be made.”
From June 26, 1919
 The early action of June 30th centered around the breweries, where they scurried to unload the last of their beer. The Northwestern reported that all three breweries sold-out their entire stock of bottled beer and “one brewery engaged extra autos, wagons... even sending out goods with bicycle riders.” As the work day ended things began to heat up. By early evening the Oshkosh's 107 saloons were crowded with rowdy drinkers out for a last, legal binge. “It was more or less of a wild night about town,” according to the Northwestern. “Jags were numerous and many people got a ‘bun’ on who have not been intoxicated in a long time.” The paper also noted that there was “considerable singing of barroom choruses” and at one unnamed saloon drinkers smashed their glasses after every round. Meanwhile the promised Elk’s Lodge Funeral March never materialized. Lodge members couldn’t be coaxed away from their clubhouse bar. The onlookers who had gathered along Main Street hoping to see something “unique” went home disappointed.

June 28, 1919
At midnight the saloons closed and the crowds took to the streets. The Northwestern reported that “beer parties were numerous,” with “groups of people who had not yet had enough carting away bottles and other containers and holding further revels in the open.” All that aside, there wasn’t much trouble. Only four arrests were made for intoxication and all four were released in the morning without having to face a judge.

The next day many of Oshkosh’s saloons opened once again... to sell soft drinks. At least, that was their story. Though July 1st would make it illegal, beer and liquor were never hard to come by in Oshkosh. The trade went underground. As the Northwestern put it in an editorial the day before the lid went down, many “will probably find ways and means to keep in the swim.” They were never more right.


  1. We have had SOB meetings like that!

  2. I've yet to be at an SOB meeting that wasn't like that!

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