The date was Jan. 16, 1920, and it was a long time coming.
It was on that date that America’s war with alcohol seemed to meet its end. Prohibition would cause an earthquake of debate across the country, with strong sentiments of support outweighing detractors on the national stage.
How did America’s love affair with alcohol turn into hatred? For that story, we must venture back to the days of the British colonies. It was there that “booze” originally cemented itself into American lore.
For better or for worse, alcohol had been a major part of the American experience since the colonial period. Early taverns, known as “public houses,” were not just places to drink and be merry, they were the de facto center of society for influential men. Everyone from farmers to lawyers found solace in the village tavern.
You could argue that these crude buildings of stone and log were as vital to the idea of revolution as gun powder or muskets. It was over simple wooden tables filled with mugs of molasses-infused porter that whispered conversations about revolutionary ideas took place. Lookouts were positioned in quiet corners of the building to watch out for Tories, British sympathizers, who may try to infiltrate the gatherings. Smoke-filled air from corn-cob pipes wafted about as the term “taxation without representation” was coined.
According to U.S. Postal Service records, taverns were designated as the central drop-off for all village mail. The North American Postal Service rider would deliver the mail every few weeks, which the tavern owner would then redistribute. This was how literature such as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” found its way into the hands of colonials. Newspapers and letters from other towns only further stoked revolutionary fervor.
Some individual taverns even ingrained their names into American history. New Hampshire’s Wyman Tavern, Connecticut’s Keeler Tavern and the Concord Inn of Concord, Mass., also played important roles.
Two of our nation’s significant institutions also found their origins in one of Philadelphia’s public houses.
The Tun Tavern was famously the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps. It was George Washington and the First Continental Congress that tasked tavern owner Samuel Nicholas with recruiting the first two battalions of Marines on Nov. 10, 1775. Marines everywhere continue to raise a glass in honor of the Tun Tavern on this date each year.
Additionally, the first meetings of the Freemasons (St. John’s Lodge No. 1) also were held in the Tun Tavern in 1732.
Once the American Revolution ended, the idea of freedom got a bit more complicated. By 1791, southwestern Pennsylvania’s counties, which were yet to include Beaver County, became embroiled in the famous Whiskey Rebellion.
Grain was the main cash crop of the region, and farmers found themselves in the position of having more harvested grain than they could sell at market. Due to this, much of the excess grain was used in manufacturing distilled spirits. When Congress passed a tax on distilled spirits in 1791, the people of our region felt that it unfairly targeted them. When the tax man came to collect, farmers began to refuse payment. The result was an armed uprising, a “whiskey” rebellion.
The rebellion lasted until 1794, and ultimately required President George Washington to call up the militia. The messy situation resulted in several armed conflicts and saw a federal army march into western Pennsylvania to finally quell it.
The beginning of the 19th century saw the temperance movement begin. The evils of alcohol abuse were first discussed during this time, with religious denominations such as the Methodists taking the lead.
Locally, it was the Quakers who worked toward the abolishment of alcohol, mainly from New Brighton.
There was some momentum toward Prohibition until the Civil War shifted attention to more pressing matters.
After the Civil War, the temperance movement kicked into high gear. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1873, while some states even added laws into their state constitutions banning the sale of alcohol. The Prohibition Party, which still exists today, gained power in politics. In 1892, the party drew more than 50,000 people to its convention in Cincinnati.
The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1895, and it would be this powerful organization that finally pushed the idea of national prohibition into the public consciousness. In 1917, a Constitutional amendment on prohibition was passed by both houses of Congress. By 1919, it was ratified by 36 of the 48 states, making it law. The Volstead Act followed, giving the government the power to enforce the new ban, and on Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution went into effect.
Prohibition had begun.
Cat and Mouse
Beaver County was the perfect location for those wishing to circumvent this new law. Bootleggers used the back roads of the county to avoid the authorities and deliver their illegal product. Farms were turned into liquor manufacturing plants, with moonshine as the main fare. It seemed that every day the newspapers were reporting of the “dry forces” raiding a house or hotel that was acting as an illegal speakeasy or still location.
Early efforts to combat illicit liquor were centered on the rural areas of the county. The first raid to gain prominent newspaper coverage occurred March 22, 1920. Federal deputies raided a property off of Monaca Road near Woodlawn, where Peter Cowatz and Todor Popratina, two J&L Steel employees, were manufacturing moonshine.
Three days later, the same officials raided a farmhouse approximately two miles back of Freedom.
There, they found Marco Belsh, a Pittsburgh man, who was accused of manufacturing more than 20 gallons of “raisin mash” per day. Officials called Belsh’s still operation “the most sophisticated machinery uncovered yet.” He eventually found himself serving six months in the county jail for his crimes.
The thriving American brewing industry was devastated by Prohibition. Larger companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and Pittsburgh Brewing, turned to making new products. These included ice cream, soft drinks and “near beer.” Pabst Brewing Co. even started making cheese, called “Pabst-ett.” The cheese was such a hit that it was sold to Kraft in 1933 and produced under their label until 1951.
The Mutual Union Brewery of Aliquippa began producing “near beer” in 1920 in an attempt to stay afloat. According to federal dry officials, the product was too “near” to real beer, containing 0.5 percent alcohol per volume. On Sept. 17, 1921, the Mutual Union Brewery was one of three local companies to be raided and seized by the federal government. The business never recovered, ending 13 years of brewing in Aliquippa.
As the net tightened on illegal liquor, some local people went to great lengths to conceal their operations. In December 1928, county detectives raided the Roll Inn Hotel, near Darlington, where it was believed that owner Angelo Papetti was manufacturing wine and moonshine. Under the hotel, officials found a four-room cave that had been dug out by hand, equipped with electricity, stills and wine barrels. The hotel was shuttered, and Papetti was arrested.
One of the most interesting prohibition stories from our region occurred Aug. 14, 1928. Two men were driving a truck full of illegal Canadian beer from Detroit to Pittsburgh. Traveling along Brodhead Road and unfamiliar with the area, the men made a wrong turn and ended up on the dirt roads of Raccoon Township. Their day only got worse from that point.
As they came down a hill toward what was known as Poor House Road, the truck’s brakes went out.
Careening down the hill at a high speed, the driver attempted to take a sharp right turn and the truck overturned into a hollow, spilling its contents. Another car saw the accident and helped the two men, taking both of them to Rochester Hospital and leaving nearly 300 cases of the tasty alcoholic beverage unattended.
While the men were having their injuries tended to in Rochester, enterprising locals made a mad dash for the beer. By the time police connected the dots and arrested the rum runners, all but a few bottles of their beer had found its way into the hands of Beaver County’s thirsty citizens.
Prohibition was ultimately a failure on a grand scale. Once the Great Depression set in, states began clamoring for the tax revenue that alcohol sales could provide. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he did so with a mandate to end Prohibition quickly. On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed, officially ending the Prohibition era in the United States.
Beaver County emerged from Prohibition minus its once-robust brewing industry. Newly minted “state stores” became a hot topic, as towns battled to secure one of the valuable locations. The first five state stores to be approved in Beaver County were in Rochester, Beaver Falls, Aliquippa, Ambridge and Midland.
The biggest change, however, came with the re-emergence of taverns. Between January 1934 and December 1935, more than 300 new taverns opened in Beaver County, many of which are still in business today. Steel workers, dirty with the grit and grime of the mills, would find their way to the local tavern after each shift to discuss sports and politics. The labor movement would gain traction through hushed conversations in these local establishments.
Just as they had in the 18th century, taverns had once again become America’s meeting place.
Jeffrey Snedden is a local historian and researcher. If you have any subjects, questions or comments for Histories & Mysteries, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each week, Snedden will choose a few new topics and update past ones with readers notes and questions.