Talking with Josh Christie about Repeal Day and Maine in the dark era of hyper-prohibition

treeoftemperance

Happy Repeal Day! Did you know that while the country suffered a measly decade or so under prohibition, Maine suffered 70 years? I did not. 

Today, December 5th, is the 79th anniversary of when America pulled its head out of its ass regarding the prohibition of alcohol and I had the great pleasure of talking with Josh Christie, author of Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland, about Maine in the age of prohibition.


What is Maine’s relationship to repeal, and to the overall era of prohibition.

Maine was the earliest adopter of prohibition. The earliest attempts at prohibition were in the 1830s and 1840s and then in 1851 Maine passed the first statewide prohibition in the country, so we were 70 years ahead of the curve in terms of having prohibition. It was a big deal for us when prohibition ended because it ended not just a decade plus of national prohibition but also decades and decades before that of statewide prohibition.

What did those seven decades of prohibition look like here in the state?

The thing that was really important for Maine with regard to the national movement was that Neal Dow, the Mayor of Portland, was the father of prohibition in Maine and because of that was an architect of prohibition around the country. A lot of other places looked at Maine as a utopia after the law was passed, and even though it really wasn’t many people were happy to feel that it was.

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Maine kind of wrestled with prohibition after the law was passed in 1851. It was repealed in 1855 and then kind of strengthened and weakened in the decades after that. In the 1880s there was a law passed to amend the Maine state constitution to prohibit alcohol. That really put Maine in an odd position when national repeal came because the fact that national prohibition was repealed did not mean that all of a sudden everyone could have alcohol again. It meant it was back to the states to govern it however they’d like to.

It’s like the inverse problem that marijuana legalization is facing in that states are now legalizing it, but the there is still prohibition at the national level.

Exactly. So when the repeal came along, it didn’t mean that everyone was suddenly able to have at it. So even though the national repeal took place in 1933, it wasn’t until 1934 that Maine got into the constitution to accommodate the repeal. Even beyond that, Friendship, Maine was a dry town until I think 2010.

So what was going on culturally here in Maine where the concept of prohibition became a viable option decades before the country bought into the idea.

Drink was a common part of the Colonial experience. The average Colonial adult man in the 1770s drank an average of the equivalent of seven shots of hard alcohol every day. There were a couple of reasons for that. Alcohol was just safer to drink than water and milk, which weren’t sanitized. Alcohol was. It wasn’t really binge drinking because they drank it throughout the day.

By the 1800s, Maine had some sort of unique geographical and sociological reasons that drinking became such a problem. With Maine being in the Northeast, as states in the South and West started taking their grain and finding it more profitable to turn into whiskey, all of that product would flow up the Eastern Seaboard before it went across the Atlantic where the last port before it went overseas was in Maine. The same was true of rum, which would come from the Caribbean, go up the coast, out of Portland, and across the Atlantic. There was a lot of alcohol flowing into the state and not all of it was making it across the pond.

And then everyone in Maine at that time was really working in hard labor, either on the seacoast in the fishery business or they were felling timber up in the Maine woods and this meant that the guys who came here came without any families to come home to at the end of the day. Instead of going home when they were done working, they ended up going to the bar. The bar was a cultural center for a lot of immigrants. It was where a lot of mail came and where their paychecks went. It made sense as a place for them to be at the end of the day.

This easy access to alcohol combined with the fact that Colonial soldiers were given liquor as rations made it so the taste for alcohol shifted from cider and ale to hard liquor. Maine had the distinction at the turn of that century to being the drunkest state in the country. Portland had less than 10,000 residents and more than 600 bars so you know, people drinking wouldn’t normally be a problem but all the things that came with that like truancy and spousal abuse and drunk and disorderly conduct started to emerge as well. It is not a surprise that the first temperance societies sprung up in Maine as an early response to that.

This really explains why the climate was such that made way for early prohibition. The members of these societies made their ways into Maine politics and rather than trying the social and moral recourse they had been going after for decades, they moved to just make it illegal—to legislate morality which, as we know, always works so well. [Laughs]

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So was this where Dow was coming from, or did he have an open ear to it and was responding accordingly?

Yes, it is where he was coming from. Dow was a Quaker and Quakers were very religious and opposed to alcohol. He decided not to attend Bowdoin after he was accepted because he thought he would be morally corrupted when he was there. One of my favorite tidbits about Dow is that he joined one of the first abstinence societies as a response to this bane of alcohol as they saw it. They had established that they shouldn’t have any alcohol available except for if someone is religious and someone needs to take the sacrament they should be allowed to do so. Dow’s response was to say no, and to go start a teetotalers society as in capital T, total prohibition of alcohol, no matter what.

So prohibition becomes law in 1851. How does the state, namely Portland, respond?

Not well. It’s hard to go back in records and find out how it was in fact. We were being looked at from the outside by places struggling with similar alcohol related problems as a utopian solution. There is an incredible piece I featured in my book that comes from the New York Times that suggests that it is peaceful in the streets in Maine and that we were a “noble spectacle.”

“The Temperance banner is unfurled with new devices blazoned upon it, in some of our cities and throughout our entire State. A remarkable spectacle can be seen in the streets of the city of Portland. Temperate men, and nothing but temperate men, walk her streets. No places are open to sell strong drink, and there are no visible signs of intoxication. A strange quiet prevails. The clamor, and rioting, and fierce turbulence of drunkenness are nowhere seen. It is strange. Probably in no other State can just this condition of things be found. What a noble spectacle, could the eye be gladdened always by the sight of even one city thoroughly redeemed from the curse inflicted by strong drink.”

— Editorial, New York Times. October, 1851

Ha. It’s a rare occasion that the New York Times looks to the state of Maine as a model of advanced culture.

Exactly. It was different that national prohibition would be. When the Maine law was passed, it was passed very quickly. Dow was elected the Mayor of Portland in 1851 and he managed to get a law through the legislature on June second. In other places, people could see prohibition coming and they could prepare for it, but that wasn’t really the case in Portland.

The response in Portland from the locals came on one hand by way of speakeasies. If you go into some places in the Old Port you will find plaques that mark where there drinking was happening during hat time. And Portland then—as now—had a significant Irish population where—and this isn’t rude Irish stereotypes, this is matter of fact—the Irish come from a culture that liquor and ale are an important part of so having alcohol intake legislated didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

So take us forward. You had said that just because there was a Federal law didn’t mean that the state was going to follow. How did we get from federal to state repeal?

It moved pretty quickly. Just as Maine had been trendsetters with repeal before the rest of the country, a lot of the population here had already soured on it before the rest of the country had. Maine was the 37th State to approve ratification of repeal. While they weren’t the last, they were toward the end of states that were approving of the repeal. The Cullen-Harrison Act, which was approved in April of 1933 allowed for the sale of beer. In July of 1934 the constitutional amendment had been repealed, so they were relatively quick to act.

If we basically had a 70 year handicap—60 if you take off the time the rest of the country was under prohibition—on legal drinking compared to everywhere else in the states, how did we get to a point where we are now sort of at the front of the line when it comes to making amazing beers and nationally renowned beverages. Sorry, I realize that’s kind of a dense question.

You’re right that it is a dense question, so I will attack it as well as I can. Part of it is that I think so much of the infrastructure that would make drink—and I am specifically thinking about beer… Things like railroad lines and refrigerated railroad carts and stuff like that that didn’t exist around the rest of the country until the early 1900s. Creating a culture around alcohol and spreading it around wasn’t really possible even in other states where they could drink legally.

I think that, as you know, the Maine state motto has been I Lead (“Dirigo) and Maine, no matter what a lot of publications say, has been friendly too and a lot of ways encouraged entrepreneurs and rusticators and people that are coming to Maine to make their fortune. I think that it makes sense that once you could brew anywhere in the country, why wouldn’t it be in Maine? Maine’s [prowess in this industry], in terms of craft brewing but also in terms of distilling, it goes right back to the immigrants that made up this state. A lot were coming from the British isles, and so ale as a product made a lot of sense to them to make here, just as it makes sense out West, with the German population, came a lot of Lagers. There was a culture and a thirst for alcohol, so they were more than happy to fulfill that.

Photo Credits: The Tree of Intemperance, Neal Dow, and Said prohibition Maine to prohibition Georgia: “Here’s looking at you.” All by way of the Library of Congress.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.