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Minnesota’s gift to America: The Volstead Act

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A group of people dismantling a still at Pillsbury and Charles Streets in St. Paul, c.1925.

Writers of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution took a little more than one hundred words to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. It fell to Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead to write the regulations and rules for enforcement. The twelve-thousand-word Volstead Act remained in effect for thirteen years, from 1920 until Prohibition was repealed in December 1933.

The Eighteenth Amendment required one year between ratification by the states and the beginning of enforcement. Congress needed that time to create the new law’s specific regulations. Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was responsible for writing the National Prohibition Act, a law that became known as the Volstead Act. The stern-faced congressman from Granite Falls set out to moderate the strict philosophy of the amendment’s primary promoting group, the Anti-Saloon League. They and other unwavering prohibitionists had sought to prevent even one drop of alcohol from being sold.

Volstead struck a balanced approach between the spirit of the law and practical realities. His legislation continued the existing prescription of alcohol for medicinal purposes. It also allowed the brewing and sale of “near beer” with an alcoholic content of no more than one half of one percent, and the home manufacture of alcoholic, but “non-intoxicating,” fruit juice and cider. Volstead said that he put in as much alcohol as the Congress would stand for.

Prohibition as enforced by the Volstead Act transformed American streets, businesses, and social life. In Minnesota the streetscape had changed seven months earlier when the state legislature voted for full compliance with the War Prohibition Act that went into effect on July 1, 1919. In Little Falls, the town’s fourteen saloons closed overnight, with some of the dealers now selling soft drinks. In the Twin Cities, the Salvation Army turned some closed beer parlors into canteens for the entertainment of returned soldiers and sailors.

Go-getter businessmen quickly recognized the business opportunities in non-alcoholic beverages, ice cream sundaes, and sodas. In Willmar, ground was broken for a new inn in April 1920 with the owners promising a first-class refreshment parlor. C. B. Nelson of Turtle Lake added a soda fountain and ice cream stand to his pool hall in May 1920. Popular treats described in soda fountain trade journals included the Prohibition Sour, the Flapper Frappe, and the Independence Day Sundae. To take advantage of increasing sales of soft drinks, companies including the Minneapolis-based Brazilla created new fruit and cola flavors.

Minnesota breweries were significantly impacted. Many, such as the Kiewel Brewery in Little Falls, accommodated a variety of new enterprises while keeping their plants ready to convert back into active beer making should Prohibition be repealed. Kiewel used its former cold beer rooms to churn and keep ice cream. They also made legal, non-alcoholic malt beverages.

Not everyone in the general public supported the Volstead Act’s restrictions. Minnesota newspapers reported on local raids and the arrests of traveling bootleggers. One raid at the Preiss brewery in St. Cloud resulted in five arrests for brewing beer of more than 2.5 percent alcohol. At the Remmler plant in Red Wing, beer as high as 3 percent alcohol was found. Those tempted to make or consume home-brewed moonshine were confronted with front-page stories about people who had died from drinking bad booze with the empty bottles by their side.

Newspaper editorials in the Bemidji Daily Pioneer urged their readers to follow the Volstead Act laws. People who bought illegal alcoholic beverages or went to speakeasies, they warned, were as guilty as the bootleggers or moonshiners in promoting a destructive atmosphere of lawlessness.

Volstead’s mail reflected both approval and disapproval of the law that took his name. Letters praising the effects of saloon-free streets were counterbalanced by those that accused the congressman of taking bribes and overreaching. He received death threats. Volstead was narrowly reelected in the first election after Prohibition went into effect. He lost his bid for an eleventh term two years later in November 1922.

The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act were overturned when the states ratified the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution, which made alcoholic beverage policy a matter for each state.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Vick on 11/17/2015 - 11:09 am.

    Gift to America?

    A gift to America? The Volstead act gave rise to the largest organized crime syndicate to ever exist in this country. It was a cataclysmic failure.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/17/2015 - 12:19 pm.

    Criminalizing commonplace behaviors…

    …never seems to have paid off in any public benefit.

    “By 1929 over 500,000 federal arrests had been made under the Volstead Act. Overall, the annual volume of federal criminal cases had quadrupled since 1916, and nearly two-thirds of new prosecutions involved Volstead Act violations.” (Encyclopedia.com)

    Of these, there were approximately 300,000 convictions during Prohibition. The population of the U.S. was 115 million in 1925, so that 300,000 is a pretty big number for its time.

    The known costs – of all the prosecutions and imprisonments – were huge. But there were also incalculable costs to the individuals and families of the targets of prosecution.

    It is hard to see any public value which the Volstead Act delivered.

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