Editor’s note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org
Editor's note II: Warning: The contents of this story may prove to be disturbing to beer drinkers.
Although Prohibition is most commonly associated with the 18th Amendment, passed 100 years ago, the temperance movement in America goes back almost to the very start of the nation.
By the time Beltrami County was formed in 1866, and loggers and settlers started moving to northern Minnesota and opening dozens of saloons in every little logging town, the national temperance movement was already pushing hard to outlaw alcohol manufacturing, shipping and consumption across the country.
Backwoods villages could fly under the radar for a while, but a community like Bemidji, with some “forty saloons, a red light district that never closed the year around and gambling houses in full swing night and day,” (as described by an early settler) was bound to draw attention to itself.
First attempt to shut down saloons
In November 1910, William “Pussyfoot” Johnson, a Federal Agent and leader in the Anti-Saloon League, ordered all saloons in Indian territory to close, citing a prohibition clause in the Indian Treaty of 1855, which stated that all reservation land and land ceded from tribes would be “dry.” Bemidji lay within such ceded land. Although the “dry” clause had not been enforced for 55 years, the Anti-Saloon League was looking for anything that would speed up prohibition.
Saloon owners, the Minnesota Brewers Association and others argued about the sudden enforcement of a clause that, when written, the term “liquor” generally referred to hard liquor, not to beer or wine. Whatever argument could be presented, was. Meanwhile, cities imposed hikes in liquor license rates to pressure saloon keepers and attempted to track down establishments that were selling without a license. Saloon keepers obtained injunctions to keep the Indian agents from shutting down the saloons. Two years of haggling finally brought the issue to a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. There, in June 1914, the decision was made that the 1855 Treaty’s “dry” clause stood, and the Indian Bureau had the go-ahead to close the saloons.
The “lid” is on: Bemidji is “dry”
After the decision, The Bemidji Pioneer reported: “In all, about 200 saloons have been put out of business by the Indian Bureau. County option elections in Minnesota have closed about 400, so that in all, 600 places where liquor was sold two years ago are now devoted to other uses.”
The December 1, 1914 The Bemidji Pioneer’s front page headline read: “Liquor ‘Lid’ Is on Tight. Bemidji ‘Dry’ For the First Time in Its Existence.” Saloons in Bemidji closed the night of Nov. 30 as ordered by the Department of Indian Affairs. Fixtures in some saloons were stocked with soft drinks. The Pioneer reported: “No disorder marked the ‘farewell’ of the saloons last night, and as the closing hour approached, the stocks of every bar room had been completely sold out. Record sales were registered in each saloon which operated yesterday.”
Some bar owners would leave town; some turned to farming or opened other businesses. And some resorted to “blind-pigging” (operating a speakeasy or business of illicit alcohol sales).
The Pioneer reported an unnamed man saying -- perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, “The wiping out of the saloons is making a wonderful change in Bemidji -- working a transformation. The barkeeper and his white apron will disappear and in the place of the fire water of the (Indian) and the lumberjack will come dainty maids with ice cream and hot chocolate and tiddle-de-wink tea."
The fight wasn’t over
It didn’t take long for another round of resistance to begin. Hoping to gain some time to complete the brewing in progress and to sell as much stock as possible before being shut down, the Bemidji Brewery filed for a restraining order after agents attempted to enforce the ban. Shipments of barrels and cases of beer went out, a hearing on the injunction was postponed, but “a large quantity” of beer was still at the brewery, and the agents were chomping at the bit to get at it.
The brewery eventually lost its case, and, on the morning of March 2, 1915, a raid on the business destroyed 780 barrels of beer worth $4,500. The Indian Bureau agents destroyed every case, vat, and keg, dumped the beer onto frozen Lake Irving, and waded “in beer six inches deep...the beer running in placid little streams to the floor, being carried to Lake Irving by drain pipes, entirely covering the shore line with billows of foam.”
Two carloads of beer had been shipped from the territory before the raid, but the remaining beer had no buyers, as it was illegal to ship it to another “dry” community. Prior to the closing, the Bemidji Brewery had been “selling between 6,000 and 7,000 barrels a year” as well as a good number of cases. The brewery also had a payroll of approximately $1,000/month. The business, its patrons, and its employees were hit hard by the closure. Although the 18th Amendment had not yet been drafted, Bemidji and much of Minnesota was already dry by treaty or by vote.
But the resistance was not over.