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On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson called for a temporary prohibition on the manufacture of liquor to ensure enough wartime grain production for food. At the stroke of midnight on Aug. 1, 1917 18 months before the 18th Amendment was ratified Utah became a "booze-less desert of dryness."
Long-time commercial breweries, such as Wagener Beer, turned from water, hops, yeast and barley to producing sodas, selling ice, and waiting for signs of repeal. Pharmacies with license to handle liquor sold their stock to the family trade while package dealers emptied their shelves by offering deeply discounted prices.
"For weeks past, citizens have been laying in supplies in conservation preparation for the dry season now at hand," reported The Salt Lake Tribune on July 1, 1917. "They have carried it home by arms full, had it delivered by carload, and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of liquor is now stored in the cellars of the homes of people in Salt Lake."
At the midnight hour, after thousands of revelers chanted a "requiem for booze" and liquor flowed like water, more than 120 Salt Lake saloons shuttered and hotel cabarets locked their doors. By morning, broken whiskey barrels lined the streets, "for rent" signs were plastered on doors and windows, and hundreds of bartenders were out of work.
Among temperance societies, Prohibition was seen as a godsend in the home, effective in the workforce, and a cure for crime.
"The man who can control himself needs no help, but for the benefit of those unfortunates who have inherited appetites for liquor it will be an invaluable boon," Utah Gov. Simon Bamberger wrote in an Aug. 1, 1917, Salt Lake Tribune editorial. "It will make men more efficient in business and protect those who need protection."
Instead, Prohibition gave birth to an era of speakeasies, padded suitcases, "cocktails in teacups," bathtub gin, smuggling, bootlegging and temptation to otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Utah's dry laws were simply stated the manufacture, distribution and sale of liquor was illegal and punishable with fines from $50 to $299, one to six months in the county jail, or up to two years of hard labor in the state penitentiary and difficult for state and federal liquor agents to enforce.
According to historian Helen Papanikolas in "Bootlegging in Zion," Utah's canyons and mountain draws from Burch Creek and Mount Olympus to Johnsons Pass and Crandall Canyon were ideal for shielding stills.
"To allay suspicion, bootleggers in Nine Mile Canyon kept a few old ewes grazing outside the shacks," she wrote, "[as if] they were left behind when trailing their flock into high country for summer grazing."
Distillation proliferated in rural farmhouses, attached sheds, urban basements, vacant warehouses and anywhere else exhaust pipes extended to chimneys "to disperse potentially betraying fumes."
In I.J. "Izzi" Wagner's biography "Bags to Riches" by Don Gale, the struggling immigrant family discovered local bellmen were selling bootleg liquor to hotel guests. Purchasing the empties left behind, the Wagners washed and resold the bottles back to the bootleggers. They sold wooden barrels that could be taken apart for conveyance. They repaired for resale copper stills presumably rendered unusable by ax-toting federal agents.
"People went crazy over whiskey," Papanikolas' mother once said. "Looking for it, getting it, hiding it."
Deputy sheriffs, federal officers, and undercover agents, some honest, others not, raided a whiskey manufacturing plant in Murray; confiscated a truck transporting moonshine in Bingham; found 1,200 gallons of whiskey mash, two stills, and one pint of whiskey under a chicken coop in Salt Lake City; and brought to trial a notorious bootlegging Beryl postmistress known for "dispensing intoxicants" along with selling stamps.
With decent liquor expensive, dirty liquor deadly, cases unending, law enforcement costs spiraling and no apparent stemming of the tide, something had to give.
In 1933, Utah delivered the 36th and decisive vote, and Prohibition ended.
Eileen Hallet Stone, author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her "Living History" columns in the Salt Lake Tribune, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources: Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 1, 1917; Nov. 28, 1923; Dec. 13, 1923; Jan. 19, 1924.