Voters rejected statewide prohibition 100 years ago
So. Md. was already dry, but not for much longer
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 Prohibition was repealed Dec. 5, 1933.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.