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North Dakota’s decision to ban alcohol was very good for Moorhead’s saloon industry

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society and the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
Interior of Fred Ambs’s saloon in Moorhead, ca. 1890s. From the Moody Family Collection, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

For twenty-five years, between 1890 and 1915, Moorhead, Minnesota, was infamous for being a rough and rowdy saloon town. The reputation was well deserved, as alcohol sales were the city’s number one industry.

Since the arrival of the first settler-colonists in the Red River Valley in the 1870s, there had been a moral, political, and economic fight in Moorhead between the “Drys,” who wanted alcohol restricted or banned, and the “Wets,” who advocated for alcohol. Their argument echoed a concurrent national debate over the proper place of alcohol in American social life.

In 1890, the Drys scored a major victory when North Dakota outlawed alcohol sales. Thirsty North Dakotans simply went across the Red River to Minnesota border towns, where alcohol was still legal. “Let the saloons come,” said Moorhead mayor and brewer John Erickson in 1888. “The more the better it will be for us. They pay more in taxes than anyone else. How many temperance people…pay $500 a year in taxes?”

By 1900, Moorhead, had forty-seven saloons and a brewery to serve its population of 3,732 people. One in ten Moorhead families gained its income from the alcohol industry, and saloons were clustered along the two bridges over the river. While most of them were simple places with wooden bars and spittoons on the floor, the North Bridge district became famous for its over-the-top “beer palaces.” John Haas’ Midway boasted 400 electric lights. The Rathskeller over the Rhine had polka bands on an arcaded porch and an international reading room downstairs. The Three Orphans’ Saloon boasted that its forty-eight-foot bar was the longest in the country. A few saloons had their own “jag wagons,” horse-drawn taxis that transported people from Fargo to Moorhead.

Many of the saloons were “tied houses” — bars owned by a brewery that served only that brewery’s beer. Duluth Brewing and Malting Company’s saloon was the Rex Hotel. There were enough saloons owned by Theo Hamm’s Brewing Company of St. Paul that part of the South Bridge saloon district was known as Hamm’s Row. With a few exceptions (notably, Anheuser-Busch from St. Louis), most beers sold in Moorhead were made by the regional beer giants of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Saloon owners bought whiskey in bulk and rebottled it under their own labels, such as Pederson Mercantile’s Black Buffalo Rye and Detroit Lake Rye, Jacob Keifer’s Metropolitan, and W. H. Diemert’s 31.

While selling alcohol was illegal within North Dakota, North Dakotans could legally purchase alcohol by mail order from Minnesota. Moorhead quickly became one of the largest alcohol distribution centers for North Dakotans, including many who were operating illegal saloons called “Blind Pigs.” Moorhead businesses such as W. H. Diemert & Co. and Pederson Mercantile were primarily liquor wholesalers who shipped much of their product to Dry North Dakota.

There was a downside to Moorhead’s saloon industry. According to Moorhead Police records, nearly 75 percent of the arrests in the early 1900s were alcohol related. Arrests spiked during harvest season as thousands of farm hands descended upon the city to spend their paychecks; while in town, they sometimes also fought and were mugged by local gangs. Like crime, political corruption was widespread in 1890s Moorhead. Local business and political leader Solomon Comstock observed, “There were always many Moorhead citizens who were against the liquor traffic, but on the other hand if they took the forty-seven saloons out of Moorhead, what was left? Why[,] liquor was the principal business of Moorhead…Moorhead’s greatest problem was whether to be pure or prosperous.”

By 1914, all of Clay County had voted to ban alcohol sales under local option laws except the cities of Moorhead and Barnesville. In 1915, Minnesota State Senator F. H. Peterson of Moorhead introduced “county option” legislation that allowed the whole county to vote on the alcohol issue. On May 17, 1915, the voters of Clay County voted to outlaw alcohol. Moorhead saloons closed with much pomp and fireworks on June 30, 1915, twenty-five years to the day after Fargo’s saloons closed in 1890. Many Moorhead bartenders and saloon owners continued to sell alcohol illegally during Prohibition, and reopened the city’s first legal bars as soon as Prohibition was repealed.

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

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