Happy Repeal Day!

The Bulletin, December 5, 1933: Prohibition EndedToday is Repeal Day, in which we celebrate this date (December 5) in 1933 when Utah became the final state needed for a majority to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution—ending Prohibition. To commemorate the date, I’m posting some excerpts from the book about Prohibition and Repeal as it happened in Central Oregon. So crack open a beer and read along!

The state of Oregon, like many states and communities prior to the onset of national Prohibition in 1920, was no stranger to the temperance movement. Temperance took hold in the Oregon country even before the state entered the Union in 1859: in 1844, the Provisional Government of the Oregon territory (not to be confused with the organized incorporated Territory of Oregon, which was established in 1848) passed a prohibition law that was to prevent “the introduction, distillation, or sale of ardent spirits” in Oregon. (“Ardent spirits” referred to beverages in which the alcohol content is measured by proof instead of by percentage.)

Although this law did not last for more than a few years, the temperance movement was not yet finished in Oregon. In 1854, a prohibition petition was circulated and signed by seventy-four people to ban liquor (the “worm of the still”), but as the idea of prohibition did not enjoy the support of the population of the Oregon Territory, the petition was denied.

In 1887, the WCTU and the national Prohibition Party managed to get a strict prohibition measure on the Oregon state ballot for the election of that year. Oregonians weren’t having any of it, defeating the measure by a three-to-one margin. This and other state- and national-level setbacks helped the WCTU, ASL and other temperance organizations to realize that attacking alcohol at the state (and higher) level was fruitless—focus at the local level instead was the key.

Thus were born the “local option” laws, which quickly became the most powerful weapon in the temperance movement’s arsenal. Local option allowed for the individual counties in a state to hold elections to determine whether they would remain “wet” or go “dry,” allowing the prohibitionists to focus their efforts on a county-by-county basis and later, under the “home rule” laws, on a city-by-city basis.

In 1904, the WCTU and ASL were successful in getting a local option bill passed in Oregon, and began working on getting the individual counties to go dry.

Crook County elected to go dry in 1908 in a two-to-one vote that surprised many residents, wets and drys alike. Crook County at the time encompassed all of Central Oregon: Prineville, Bend, Redmond, Sisters, Madras and more. Local prohibition was in force as of June 30, 1908, and all of the saloons in the county were forced to look for other, legal avenues of business or close their doors.

However, by 1910, many residents had had enough of the dry spell, and petitions were filed “by the liquor people” for a new vote on Crook County’s local option measure for the fall election. In November, the county (and the state) voted itself wet again, as did nearly all of the cities under the home rule measure—all but Warm Springs, which voted to remain dry.

With women [acquiring the right to] vote [in 1912], prohibitionists renewed their efforts in Oregon, and in 1914, a state prohibition measure was once again placed on the ballot. [It] was the pivotal role of Oregon’s enfranchised women that carried state prohibition—an estimated three out of every four women who voted chose prohibition—and the law went into effect on January 1, 1916. Oregon became a bone-dry state.

On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, and it officially took effect on January 17, 1920.

Overall, the arrival of national Prohibition had little impact on Oregon, largely due to the fact that the state’s moonshiners and bootleggers already had nearly four years’ head start. The High Desert was full of ideal hiding places for the moonshiners’ stills: the openings of lava caves, abandoned homestead shacks, sheltered coves and gullies—all spread out over hundreds of square miles.

Central Oregon still, during Prohibition
Courtesy Deschutes Historical Society

American became fed up with Prohibition as it had exactly the opposite effect its proponents had promoted: violent crime had risen dramatically, enforcement was ineffectual, and corruption among the upper class and law enforcement was rampant. Hence Congress fast-tracked the necessary constitutional amendment needed to repeal the 18th Amendment.

Congress put forward the Twenty-first Amendment in February 1933, but it would still take time for the ratification process, so in the interim, an immediate solution sponsored by New York representative Thomas Cullen and Mississippi senator Pat Harrison proposed legalizing the manufacture and sale of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent by weight (4.0 percent by volume). The Cullen-Harrison Act was enacted by Congress on March 21, 1933, and signed into law by President Roosevelt on April 7.

Meanwhile, ratification sped through the state conventions. Oregon was the seventeenth state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment on August 7, 1933, and on December 5, Utah became the thirty-sixth and final state needed to ratify the amendment. Prohibition was finally over.

The Bulletin, December 5, 1933, the City Prepares