This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Through a fluke of history, Utah 75 years ago this week became the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing liquor to flow legally across the country.
"Prohibition Is Dead! Mormons Killed It! Whoopee! Happy Days Are Here Again!" trumpeted the headline in the London Evening News.
Prohibition, "the Noble Experiment" to rid the nation of booze, was for Utah a 16-year odyssey that changed the state in ways we still feel -- by turning liquor sales into a state-run monopoly, and by demonstrating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't always hold sway over Utah voters.
Coming of age » When Utah became a state in 1896, drafters of the constitution -- with the help of LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith -- beat back a move to abolish alcohol.
"Everybody thought Utah would have entered the Union as a 'dry' state, because obviously the Mormons had an issue with alcohol," said Del Vance, author of Beer in the Beehive, a history of brewing in Utah.
Smith's opposition to Prohibition was purely political. "[The Mormons] wanted to show they would enter the Union as a normal state," Vance said. Besides, Utah needed the money, from alcohol taxes and from industry -- particularly mining. "The miners liked to drink lots of alcohol."
Regional brewers such as Becker Brewing Co. and A. Fisher Brewing thrived in the early 1900s as Prohibition became a national issue. Anti-alcohol crusader Carrie Nation barged into the Salt Lake Tabernacle to speak at LDS General Conference in 1903.
The Utah Legislature voted in 1911 to allow alcohol regulation at the community level, and many towns abolished booze. In 1916, both gubernatorial candidates backed prohibition. The winner, Democrat Simon Bamberger, was a German-born Jew who voluntarily stopped alcohol sales at Lagoon.
On Aug. 1, 1917 -- seven months after Utah's 21st birthday -- the Legislature banned alcohol statewide, the 21st state to do so. Utah brewers were forced to switch to nonalcoholic beer, Vance said, or to soda pop. The Becker brewery in Ogden opened a second brewery in Evanston, Wyo., to cater to Utahns seeking illegal beer -- a tradition that continues today.
Within three years, though, the nation had joined Utah in the temperance crusade. On Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect -- banning the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol nationwide.
Skirting the law » Armed with a flashlight, Heidi Harwood cleared away the twine-thick cobwebs in the basement of her bar, Brewskis, on Ogden's historic 25th Street. At the far end of the basement, under the sidewalk, are the frames of the storefronts of the original 25th Street -- where, according to lore, speakeasies served smuggled beer and bathtub gin.
"Steampipes were the big hiding place" for illegal booze, Harwood explained, as she explored for evidence of tunnels that supposedly were used to transport illegal alcohol. Renovations have hidden such evidence in many 25th Street basements behind concrete.
Harwood's other bar, The City Club, also on 25th Street, once had a speakeasy upstairs. The holes for the alarm wires are still there, under the carpeting, she said. The wires were set into the first, third and fifth stairs. Savvy customers would step only on the second, fourth and sixth stairs. If anyone else -- such as the cops -- stepped on the odd-numbered stairs, an alarm would sound and a large barrier door would drop into place.
According to the Utah State Historical Society, Prohibition did little to stop alcohol in Utah. From 1925 to 1932, federal agents in Utah seized more than 400 distilleries, 25,000 gallons of spirits, 8,000 gallons of malt liquors and 13,000 gallons of wine.
While Prohibition prompted the rise of gangsters such as Al Capone and Dutch Schultz in other cities, Utah's bootlegging was more homegrown. "Home brewing became the popular hobby," Vance said.
In Milford, officials said the city marshal's sister was the town's chief bootlegger. A Salt Lake City mother kept the still going in the basement while her husband served an 18-month bootlegging sentence. When speakeasies were raided, the clientele often included off-duty police officers.
Prohibition and the Great Depression combined to hit Salt Lake City's venerable Alta Club hard, said Ceri Jones, the club's current president. Alcohol sales helped balance the social club's budget, and even then the club would run at a deficit of $1,000 to $3,000 a year. "In the first year of Prohibition, all of a sudden it was $14,000 in the red," Jones said.
The Alta Club made cutbacks and raised dues, and installed slot machines in the basement -- which were subject to police raids. Jones said some Alta Club members would "brown-bag" booze, meeting a bootlegger across the street in the lobby of the Hotel Utah (now the LDS Church-owned Joseph Smith Memorial Building).
The move to repeal » Before the stock market crashed in 1929, Utah's economy was hurting.
"Utah had really been in a depression since 1920, when agricultural prices really plunged," said Brent Thompson, director of records preservation for the LDS Church's Family and Church History Department.
In 1932, at the depths of the Great Depression, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president with 57 percent of the national vote -- running, in part, on a pledge to end Prohibition. Utah voters overwhelmingly voted for FDR over the incumbent, Republican Herbert Hoover.
In 1933, before FDR's inauguration in March, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment. Ratification by the states was swift, with 33 of the 36 states required voting for repeal before November -- when six states, including Utah, had the issue on the ballot.
LDS Church President Heber J. Grant fought Prohibition's repeal. "I am not asking any man to vote against his conscience, but I am urging that before he votes for repeal he gets down on his knees and asks God if he is doing right," Grant told followers.
Utah voters said no to Grant and yes to repeal. The vote wasn't even close: 102,224 for repeal, 65,898 against.
On Dec. 5, 1933, the Utah Legislature convened a constitutional convention to ratify officially the 21st Amendment -- just as legislators in Pennsylvania and Ohio had done earlier that day. Delegate S.R. Thurman cast the decisive "aye" vote at 3:31 ½ p.m., and the 21st Amendment took effect instantly. The news was telegraphed across the country.
The LDS leadership's political stature took another hit in 1936, after the church-owned Deseret News endorsed FDR's Republican opponent, Alf Landon. Roosevelt won in a landslide, backed by nearly 70 percent of Utah voters. Church leaders stayed invisible in national politics for a couple of decades, though Thompson believes there just weren't many issues that "fit the church's profile" during the Depression and World War II.
Even after Prohibition ended in 1933, it was still another month until one could buy booze legally in Utah. In 1935, the Utah Legislature passed the Liquor Control Act, which put the government permanently in the business of selling anything stronger than 3.2 beer.
"Ninety-nine percent of the guys who make the laws don't drink," said Vance, who sees echoes of Prohibition in Utah's goofier liquor laws. "How many times do we learn from our mistakes? Never."
1934 » Beer again legal to buy in Utah.
1935 »Liquor Control Act enacted, forming the state's three-member liquor commission, requiring the commission to set prices, prohibiting all but state liquor stores and package stores from selling liquor (anything over 3.2 percent alcohol).
1937 » Drinking in public buildings, parks or stadiums, or being intoxicated in public outlawed.
1955 » Nonprofit private "locker clubs" established so people could drink at recreation and social resorts.
1959 » "Brownbagging" written officially into statute.
1969 » New law allowed state-run liquor outlets to open in restaurants, to sell 2-ounce "mini-bottles" directly to customers.
1974 » Liquor commission probed, investigating whether commissioners received free "samples" of booze that unduly influenced them to stock certain brands of liquor.
1975 » Commission's director fired, and two liquor commissioners indicted on charges ranging from embezzlement to perjury. The commissioners were cleared on all charges.
1977 » Advertising for private clubs banned.
1985 » New Alcoholic Beverage Control Act enacted, allowing restaurants licenses to sell mini-bottles, and the use of alcoholic "flavorings" was allowed.
1988 » A law to allow restaurants to serve unopened mini-bottles directly to customers at their table was passed.
1990 » The end of "brownbagging" and the mini-bottle, as metered pouring devices were allowed to dispense one-ounce drinks in clubs. Keg sales and advertising visible from the street were banned.
1995 » Utah liquor stores accept credit cards.
1996 » A U.S. Supreme Court ruling clears the way for alcohol advertising.
2001 » The liquor commission allows drink lists on restaurant tables.
2008 » Flavored malt beverages, or "alcopops," could only be sold in state stores -- but, because of restrictive labeling rules, the law effectively banned the drinks. Metered pouring increased to 1.5 ounces per drink, though the amount of alcoholic "flavorings" is reduced.
Source: Earl F. Dorius, Utah Alcohol Beverage Control Commission; Salt Lake Tribune archives