Vot­ers re­jected statewide pro­hi­bi­tion 100 years ago

So. Md. was al­ready dry, but not for much longer

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JA­SON BAB­COCK jbab­cock@somd­news.com

South­ern Mary­land vot­ers elected to go dry more than a cen­tury ago, ban­ning the sale of al­co­hol.

But when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­sti­tuted na­tion­wide Pro­hi­bi­tion in 1920, the re­gion went into the boot­leg­ging busi­ness. South­ern Mary­land be­came na­tion­ally in­fa­mous, but was re­warded by brisk busi­ness for its whiskey and spir­its.

It was 100 years ago this year that Mary­land’s pop­u­la­tion re­jected statewide pro­hi­bi­tion, though sev­eral coun­ties, in­clud­ing St. Mary’s, through lo­cal elec­tions were al­ready dry. On Nov. 7, 1916, Mary­land vot­ers re­jected statewide pro­hi­bi­tion by a vote of 114,674 to 60,440 — 65 per­cent to 35 per­cent.

St. Mary’s County of­fi­cially went dry on May 1, 1916, clos­ing down 55 sa­loons, fol­low­ing the re­sults of a spe­cial elec­tion held Aug. 3, 1915.

Charles County voted to go dry on May 16, 1914, which went into ef­fect in 1915. Calvert County had been dry for decades at that point, since at least 1880.

Though pro­hi­bi­tion was in place through­out South­ern Mary­land 100

years ago, those lo­cal laws started to erode, well be­fore the 18th Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion ush­ered in the era known as Pro­hi­bi­tion na­tion­wide.

“A mother of boys,” who lived in Solomons in a let­ter dated Aug. 19, 1917, to The Bal­ti­more Sun said, “Calvert County has had lo­cal op­tion [pro­hi­bi­tion] for years and yet I doubt if there is a place in Mary­land more wet. If the pub­lic of­fi­cials would look around in Prince Fred­er­ick and fight with as much zeal in the war against whisky as they do the war against Ger­many it would have never been sold in the shadow of the court­house, as has un­doubt­edly been done for years.”

An­other woman call­ing her­self “Me­bari,” wrote to the pa­per in a let­ter dated April 20, 1918. “For many years Calvert County has had lo­cal op­tion, but at times it seems a farce,” she wrote.

The 18th Amend­ment was rat­i­fied by the nec­es­sary num­ber of states on Jan. 16, 1919, and went into ef­fect on Jan. 17, 1920. Pro­hi­bi­tion was re­pealed Dec. 5, 1933.

St. Mary’s County made the news in Fe­bru­ary 1922 when a 500-gal­lon still was seized by fed­eral agents near Leonard­town. The Sun said the still “was the largest seized in Mary­land and per­haps the United States, since pro­hi­bi­tion went into ef­fect.”

Many more and larger stills would soon be found through­out the woods in South­ern Mary­land on a reg­u­lar ba­sis well into the 1930s.

The Methodist Board of Tem­per­ance, Pro­hi­bi­tion and Pub­lic Morals of the Methodist Epis­co­pal Church wrote in Oc­to­ber 1925, “The United States would be jus­ti­fied in tak­ing ef­fec­tive mea­sures to sup­press, by con­sti­tu­tional method, the crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties of St. Mary’s County.”

The group said of Mary­land, “that beau­ti­ful and mis­gov­erned com­mon­wealth is to­day shamed be­fore its sis­ter states by con­di­tions in such coun­ties as St. Mary’s. Large stills ex­ist in this county and from them trains of au­to­mo­biles run vile liquors into com­mu­ni­ties where ef­forts are made to en­force the law.”

Na­tional Pro­hi­bi­tion Di­rec­tor Amos Wood­cock in Novem­ber of 1930 called South­ern Mary­land “one of the sore spots of the United States,” be­fore start­ing a month-long en­force­ment raid on the il­licit stills in the area.

More than 30 stills were seized and nu­mer­ous ar­rests were made.

So what caused this about face from self-im­posed pro­hi­bi­tion to a fla­grant flaunt­ing of the fed­eral law?

“The Catholic Church lined up against drink­ing,” and Catholics voted to go dry in St. Mary’s County, said Pat Wood­burn, a board mem­ber of the St. Mary’s County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. “But the real feel­ing wasn’t there.”

Then fed­eral Pro­hi­bi­tion turned off the spigot on legally avail­able al­co­hol. “When there’s a de­mand for some­thing, some­body’s going to come up with a so­lu­tion. There sud­denly be­came a huge de­mand in the cities. We had the ca­pa­bil­ity and the knowl­edge” to make al­co­hol, he said.

“Peo­ple sold it and it was a mat­ter of sur­vival,” Wood­burn said. “It was cash in peo­ple’s pock­ets. Peo­ple had noth­ing. This put a few bucks in their pocket and it was worth the risk.”

Boot­leg­ging al­co­hol “brought in ex­tra in­come for many, es­pe­cially dur­ing the De­pres­sion,” said Leila Boyer, di­rec­tor of the Calvert County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

Sen. J. Al­lan Coad, a Demo­crat rep­re­sent­ing St. Mary’s County, wrote in a let­ter to The Sun on May 13, 1929, “Mary­land’s at­ti­tude as to pro­hi­bi­tion is sim­ply this: that inas­much as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has forced pro­hi­bi­tion upon us, then let the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­vide the en­force­ment thereof.”

Start­ing in De­cem­ber 1930, about 100 fed­eral agents were sent to St. Mary’s, Prince Ge­orge’s, Charles and Calvert coun­ties to break up the flow of booze. It took some time be­fore the fed­eral rev­enue agents could find a place in Leonard­town to rent as its head­quar­ters. They fi­nally found a place in Fe­bru­ary 1931.

“The raiders seized ap­prox­i­mately 100 stills dur­ing the drive and sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand gal­lons of mash, as well as a num­ber of au­to­mo­biles and trucks. About 20 men were ar­rested and charged with vi­o­lat­ing liquor laws,” The Sun re­ported of the en­force­ment ef­forts.

The Sun re­ported on March 2, 1933, “Prison terms ag­gre­gat­ing 16 years and fines to­tal­ing $24,000 were im­posed yes­ter­day on 15 res­i­dents of Charles County who were found guilty Tues­day by a jury in the United States District Court of con­spir­acy to vi­o­late the dry laws.”

The U.S. district at­tor­ney, Si­mon So­beloff, said the group “fur­nished the cap­i­tal for the man­u­fac­ture and sale of large quan­ti­ties of liquor at var­i­ous stills in Charles County and that Groves’ store in Wal­dorf was used as a sort of head­quar­ters by the con­spir­a­tors.”

Pro­hi­bi­tion was re­pealed by the 21st Amend­ment on Dec. 5, 1933, but even so it was still il­le­gal for in­di­vid­u­als to make and sell moon­shine or whiskey with­out the ap­pro­pri­ate li­censes.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported in Novem­ber 1940 that boot­leg­gers were again busy in Charles and St. Mary’s coun­ties. “Back in the 1920s, when boot­leg­gers hid­den away in the thickly wooded ar­eas of the two coun­ties pro­duced what lo­cal res­i­dents praised as the finest ‘il­le­gal brand’ of rye whisky in Amer­ica, the ‘revenoo­ers’ were kept on the hop day and night,” the wire ser­vice re­ported.

“And to­day, what with high taxes, de­fense le­vies, and so forth, on le­gal brands, the old ket­tles and once-used pint, quart and larger bot­tles are be­ing pol­ished anew for re­sump­tion of the il­licit trade.”

Going dry in the first place

In 1876, a law was passed to al­low the vot­ers of Charles and Calvert coun­ties to de­cide if they wanted to cast al­co­hol out of their com­mu­ni­ties.

The vot­ers of Charles kept their drinks, but Calvert did not.

In 1880, Judge Ma­gruder of Calvert County re­ported to the Cecil Whig that the lo­cal dry op­tion was work­ing well in the county’s three dis­tricts.

“In the lower district there was, for a time, some show of per­sis­tent ef­fort to evade the law, but that is pretty well over now,” the judge wrote. “It was sup­posed that a great many would cross the [Patux­ent] river to other coun­ties to get liquor, but that is not an easy mat­ter, and I hear is much less prac­ticed, than was sup­posed to be...”

In “Pro­hi­bi­tion does Pro­hibit,” an 1882 pub­li­ca­tion by The Na­tional Tem­per­ance So­ci­ety, B.D. Bond of Calvert County tes­ti­fied, “If any man should now pro­pose to re­peal the [dry] law he would be re­garded by the peo­ple of Calvert as ei­ther in­sane or pos­sessed with the devil. I am glad to say that I know of no man who is bold enough to de­clare in fa­vor of its re­peal.”

The book stated that 10 Mary­land coun­ties were dry by 1881.

By a huge ma­jor­ity, vot­ers turned down pro­hi­bi­tion in St. Mary’s County in an elec­tion on Aug. 16, 1884 — 2,107 voted for the sale of liquor and 498 against.

By 1908, 12 coun­ties in Mary­land were dry: Caro­line, Calvert, Cecil, Dorch­ester, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Som­er­set, Wi­comico, Mont­gomery, Anne Arun­del, Howard and Worces­ter, which joined the list on April 1 of that year. An­napo­lis in Anne Arun­del County was still “wet,” though.

With the ad­di­tion of Worces­ter County, the en­tire East­ern Shore was dry.

The vot­ers of St. Mary’s County had an­other chance to sober up in a spe­cial elec­tion on Aug. 3, 1912, that would have made a mer­chant’s liquor li­cense much more ex­pen­sive.

“A high li­cense law will re­duce the num­ber of sa­loons and di­min­ish the source of temp­ta­tion,” Car­di­nal James Gib­bons wrote to the Rev. Lawrence Kelly that year. St. Mary’s vot­ers re­jected the high li­cense fee, 860 votes to 611.

In March 1914, a 40-mem­ber del­e­ga­tion from Charles County brought a pe­ti­tion signed by 1,500 vot­ers for a bill to al­low a vote on pro­hi­bi­tion there.

“Charles has for years been con­sid­ered one of the ‘wettest’ coun­ties in the state, and sev­eral elec­tions have been held in the ef­fort to make it ‘dry,’ ev­ery such ef­fort prov­ing fu­tile,” The Sun wrote on May 16, 1914. “The ma­jor­ity has grown less, how­ever, at each elec­tion un­til at the last one sev­eral years ago it was only about 250, so that the ‘drys’ have great hopes of win­ning this time.”

On May 16, 1915, Charles County vot­ers chose to go dry, with a win­ning mar­gin of about 374 votes.

In elec­tions that same year in 1914, Car­roll County and Gar­rett County voted to go dry, while Cecil County vot­ers elected to stay dry.

The Sun re­ported on Oct. 30, 1914, “There is al­ready a strong sen­ti­ment in fa­vor of lo­cal op­tion in St. Mary’s, where al­most ev­ery cross­roads store is a grog shop. Many of those who sell liquor are anx­ious to have the traf­fic for­bid­den, but say they can­not stop sell­ing it with­out los­ing their trade in other goods un­less the sale of liquor is stopped


“There is a shift­less­ness in our county that I be­lieve can only be the re­sult of the sa­loon,” El­bert Wake­man of Sandgates wrote to the St. Mary’s Bea­con in a March 17, 1915, let­ter.

When it came time for St. Mary’s vot­ers to choose be­tween wet and dry in the Aug. 3, 1915 elec­tion, only the Leonard­town and Chap­tico dis­tricts chose by slight ma­jori­ties to hang onto their jugs. Coun­ty­wide, the dry side won by 558 votes (1,669 to 1,111), clos­ing 55 sa­loons the next year in the county of less than 17,000 peo­ple.

“The re­sult of the elec­tion is highly grat­i­fy­ing to our peo­ple be­cause we know it means much for the ad­vance­ment of our sis­ter county across the Patux­ent,” the Calvert Gazette wrote.


Amos Wood­cock, left, was ap­pointed as the di­rec­tor of the fed­eral Pro­hi­bi­tion Bu­reau in 1930. That same year, he called South­ern Mary­land “one of the sore spots of the United States,” for its sup­ply and dis­tri­bu­tion of il­le­gal al­co­hol. Wood­cock died on Jan. 17, 1964 in Sal­is­bury at the age of 80.

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