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Billings ushered in Prohibition with a funeral for 'John Barleycorn'

Billings ushered in Prohibition with a funeral for 'John Barleycorn'

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Front page of The Billings Gazette, January 17, 1920

The front page of The Billings Gazette from Jan. 17, 1920 -- the day that the entire nation went dry. The banner headline that stretches across six columns of the paper reads: "Sahara is flood-ridden compared to U.S."

Though today marks the 100th anniversary of a national prohibition, and the enforcement of the 18th Amendment, by the time the rest of the nation went dry, Montana had already been (legally speaking) dry for more than a year.

It may be hard to believe in a state like Montana, known for its outrageous characters and rough-and-tumble cowboys and miners, that nearly four years before Prohibition became the law of the land that almost six out of every 10 Montanans voted to go liquor-free.

The ballot measure, known as R-10 in 1916, passed with more than 58% of the vote. The measure took effect nearly two years later at midnight, Dec. 30, 1918.

In Billings on that date, The Northern Hotel served as the epicenter for the farewell to booze. The venerable landmark built by Billings pioneer Preston B. Moss, reported that tables had been reserved for the night months in advance. 

Northern Hotel lobby

The “Old” Northern Hotel lobby, circa 1910s. The hotel hosted a funeral memorial to "John Barleycorn," a popular reference to alcohol at the time, the night before Prohibition took effect.

Northern Hotel

The first Northern Hotel was built between 1902 and 1904. The Northern Hotel served as the epicenter for the farewell to booze. The landmark built by Billings pioneer Preston B. Moss reported that tables had been reserved for the night months in advance. 

The event was billed as funeral memorial to "John Barleycorn," a popular reference to alcohol at the time.

The Billings Gazette reported that many of the city's leaders turned up in formal wear and evening gowns, and that the event spilled from the dining room into the hallways. The large lobby was cleared of furniture and used as a dance floor as party-goers drank and danced toward midnight. 

"While the revelers paused from gliding and pirouetting across the mosiac tiled expanse, the last of the barflies filed out of the narrow door of the Northern Hotel dispensary and the door was closed and locked," The Gazette reported. "And crape was draped from the bronze knob."

Meanwhile, a reporter just up the street looked on downtown and recorded the scene under the heading, "John Barleycorn Gone."

"Quietly and decently, as becomes attendance upon the last rights of one departed, was J. Barleycorn, ushered into the great Hereafter. For the first time since Billings was established in 1882, the city today is bone dry. The term is used advisedly. It is possible — just possible — that a few may have laid in limited private stores, not to say that any such stores have been laid in. But they may have been.

"Only a strident yell here and there as the courthouse clock boomed out the midnight hour served to indicate that the last stroke of clock meant anything in particular in the lives of the inhabitants. Shortly thereafter, midnight revelers filed out of the swinging doors and paused outside to take a last farewell look up on familiar scenes. Tomorrow all would be changed."

The Gazette spent nearly a half page of newsprint recounting Billings' glory days of drinking and the watering holes that served it. It also recounted the number of saloons where people, bartenders, patrons and police had met their end.

In 1918, nearly everyone agreed that the father of Billings' bars was Lew Fenske. 

"In former days, when Billings was a regular frontier cow town, the saloons were public forms throughout the year and served as polling places at election times; as public dance halls on occasion, and as rendezvous for cowpunchers and ranchers who made the city their mecca periodically," The Gazette said.

Fenske's originally building was described as a "rough board shack" at the intersection of North 27th and Montana Avenue. That burned in a fire, and he set up shop again in a tent. In 1918, it had changed owners, but not names — Fenske Wholesale Liquors. The Gazette reported that in 1919 it would become a soda counter and serve light lunches.

Already the newspaper took a wistful tone as it recounted Matt Rademaker's Blue Grass saloon or Billy Eiler's Blue Ribbon. The article ticked off the closings, including the Gold Dust, The Owl, Vale and Potter's, the Stockman, the Capitol and the Little Terrace.

It passed along stories of the bars, including those which had seen murders. And some lesser serious tales like Yee Sam Lee's Blue Front Bar. Yee had kept his liquor under a trapdoor in the bar where he could watch it. Yet every morning, his stocks would be depleted. It took Yee a while to figure out that several bartenders had tunneled behind the bar to the cache of liquor, and kept drinking after closing time. 

More Minnesota Avenue bars

Minnesota Avenue was home to a number of Billings drinking establishments since around the time the town was founded. Sam Lee, a Chinese Immigrant, ran a liquor store and restaurant that served libations in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The strip dried up during Prohibition, but soon after became home again to bars, clubs and gambling houses. 

The paper also listed the "white apron boys" (bartenders) who were beloved by the town, with great names like "Long Mike" Hanahan and the tale of Joe Ryan and his bar partner, listed only as Flannagan — both of whom died just hours within one another.

"How is my old friend Joe," the Gazette reporter recounted Flannagan asking.

"Joe is dead."

"Well," the sick man muttered, "if Joe stops on the road to hell to get a drink, I'll catch up to him."

A few moments later, Flannagan started his journey on that road. 

The Rex announced that it was being refashioned into a soft drink and lunch parlor. The Buffalo Bar was turning into the Yellowstone Candy Company. And Evenson & Jackson announced they were going into the oil business. The Bismarck was closing for good, and Frank Vanek as well as Vale and Potter's had closed earlier in the week when they had run out of liquor.

Montana Avenue - McCormick Hotel and Billings Brewing Company, 1930s

The McCormick Hotel was built in 1905 along a portion of Montana Avenue that would be home to several early Billings hotels, including the nearby Rex Hotel, built in 1910, and the Oxford, built in 1912. The Billings Brewing Company operated out of the tall building down the street, although its trademark Old Fashion beer sign had been taken down due to Prohibition before this photo was taken.

The City of Billings, it was reported, would be losing $17,600 in annual revenue — the equivalent of around $300,000 now.

One unnamed "city official" didn't seem worried, though.

"There are many ways in which the loss of revenue may be made up. I do not believe the closing of the saloons will affect business, excepting to make conditions better," he told The Gazette. "When one considers the evils attendant upon the retail liquor business, such as providing breeding places for crime and the drain upon the paychecks of those who can least afford to spend their money for non-essentials, I believe a great benefit to the whole state will result. Poverty and crime go hand-in-hand with the saloon. The saloon produces more criminals and more paupers which the state is compelled to pay for. The money thus spent I believe more than offsets the revenue the city receives through licenses."

When Prohibition took place across the nation, more than a year after it took hold in Montana, the six-column headline across The Gazette blared, "Sahara is flood-ridden compared to U.S."

The national story said that more than 200 distilleries and 177,790 saloons were done for business.

"Old John B. is solemnly buried," it declared.

New York City was threatening to challenge the constitutionality of the measure, saying voters had approved only "intoxicating liquors" but the federal government had gone to far banning cider, wine and beer. 

Old bottles tell history

Old bottles trace the history of the Billings Brewing Co. During its early years, prior to Prohibition, the company also marketed a non-alcoholic strawberry soda. The illustration of the woman sipping beer in this 2011 photo's background embellishes a serving tray in antique dealer Mike Gregory's collection.

The last liquor vessel left United States water in Baltimore a century ago, carrying an estimated $5.5 million in whiskey as it started out for Nassau. City officials there said residents had purchased a record $12 million of liquor in the last two days. In Pennsylvania, six armed bandits had stopped a train and robbed it of $100,000 in liquor.

The threat of alcohol, at least on the pages of The Billings Gazette, was less of a problem than the threat of influenza or communists.

On those same pages, it was announced that several motion picture companies had been allowed to film the United States Constitution so that it could be shown in every movie theater. 

"Theaters from Maine to California and from the gulf to Canada will exhibit the films in an effort to 'remove from the public mind in every city, town and village and possible effects of recent "red" activities,'" The Gazette said.

Meanwhile, residents were plenty aware of the effects of a statewide, now a nationwide, prohibition.

On the same day the new law went into effect, a butcher in Helena was arrested for having "moonshine" and other alcohol.

The newspaper's national account of Prohibition going into effect was flooded with story after story of the miracles that had happened because the nation's supply of alcohol had been cut off.

For example, William Anderson of the National Anti-Saloon league reported that previously in the Big Apple's Bowery mission more than 1,000 people needed lodging when the temperature dipped to zero, but since Prohibition, that had changed.

"So far, this winter less than a dozen have appeared on any cold night," he told the Associated Press. 

The Philadelphia morgue reported, "Prohibition has almost closed us up. We had as many bodies in two weeks in 1918 as we had all together in 1919. Sixty percent of them came here through 'booze.'"

The Gazette sent out a warning that the state would expand its enforcement of the law, searching out more than just "moonshiners." 

"Punishment, which before this time has been confined to fines and in some instances limited to jail sentences, now becomes a penitentiary offense," it warned.

While Billings had celebrated with a booze-filled dinner at the Northern Hotel, those who had helped pass the Eighteenth Amendment gathered in Washington, D.C., for a late-night prayer meeting. 

"Hip liquor is now relegated to the dim past, along with the hoop skirt, sideburns and gun-toting," The Gazette declared. 

Just as those words were being printed, The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office was raiding a local "club."

William Laurelle had been one of the suspects who had been caught in that raid. He was the first to plead guilty to trafficking intoxicating liquor. His sentence was $150 fine and 40 days in jail. 

Billings Bottlers' Supply Co. — 1930

This 1930 ad from the Billings Bottlers' Supply Co. gave a wink to those who were longing for the end of Prohibition.

In Great Falls, 20 "proprietors" had been rounded up on bootlegging charges by federal officials with the help of local lawmen.

"This is the first activity on the part of officers looking to put down the lid for many weeks," the paper reported.

The Gazette reported that the Treasury Department had produced one of the largest documents ever issued to local and state authorities regarding the Volstead Act. 

"Its pages are replete with methods for application of the amendment," it said. "the department's interpretation of all provisions is set out plainly and no room is considered left for doubt as to what can and cannot be done."

The Treasury Department, through their "T-men," meant business.

Later in May 1920, those agents came to Billings, made raids and confiscated illegal "hooch." To show the public how serious they were, they smashed the bottles in front of a "sad-eyed" public. 

"Mourners" as the newspaper called spectators were allowed to smell the contents of the bottles before the booze was dumped down the sewer.

All they could do was watch.

"Not content with contaminating the city sewers with 40 gallons of flue cure, officers proceeded to make way with the last vestige of the recent raid by smashing the bottles and jugs against the brick wall of an adjoining building."

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