For much of its existence, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. As soon as cities and towns figured out how to assure clean drinking water supplies, crusades against drinking alcohol intensified, especially against Catholic European immigrants.
In fact, the crusades against alcohol and immigrants were amalgamated allowing usually sane and moral people to begin approving of such hate organizations as the Ku Klux Klan.
As the 20th Century dawned, the campaign against Demon Rum and those who partook of it was gaining considerable political strength.
Here in Kendall County, local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Red Ribbon Society, the Sons of Temperance, and the Anti-Saloon League were growing. At the same time, however, saloons were not only tolerated but were also often even encouraged by local officials because of the taxes they generated. In Oswego, saloon licenses, priced at several hundred dollars per year, were responsible for funding a variety of local improvements from the village water works to sidewalks. In the days before sales and property taxes were permitted, saloon licenses were about the only sources of municipal revenue other than legal fines.
As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent put it so presciently in April 1899:
“As to [saloon] license here, it is the settled belief that the revenue from it is necessary to keep the town from going to decay and that the illegal sale of liquor without license would be more demoralizing than the legal sale under license.”
Not that the community hadn’t experimented with prohibiting saloons. Exactly 10 years earlier, an anti-license majority won a surprising victory, and proceeded to immediately shut down Oswego’s three saloons. The attitude of the reformers was, however, was high-handed and the balance of the board simply stopped going to meetings, denying quorums for several months. In response, a pro-license ticket was reelected in 1891, and the saloons, with their all-important license fees, were back in business.
But as the century turned, anti-saloon feeling grew, boosted by local women’s suffrage and overwhelming support of Protestant churches. By 1914, a majority of Kendall County residents was ready to support temperance. In the April township elections, voters went for prohibition in a big way. The Record reported:
“At the close of the day May 7th, the saloons of Kendall county will go out of business—four in Plano, three in Yorkville, two in Oswego—in conformity to the will of the majority of the voters at the township elections on April 7.”
The nation wasn’t far behind in the popularization of temperance sentiment. While the issue was vigorously pushed by women’s organizations like the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League, other forces were also gathering steam. William J. Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and to the group’s traditional racism, Simmons added a popular mix of anti-immigration, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-drinking to its laundry list of hate. Fueled by the success of D.W. Griffith’s technically brilliant, racially bigoted film, “The Birth of a Nation,” Klan membership exploded, and the organization became a respected leader in the prohibition movement.
On Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment mandating nationwide prohibition was ratified by Congress. With passage of the National Prohibition Act—known as the Volstead Act—to enforce it following in October, prohibition became the law of the land.
Which is right about when the real trouble started. Millions of Americans of German, French, and Italian descent, especially, but not limited to, Catholics, simply didn’t like the law. Millions of others had always defied government “revenuers” from their mountain dells and hollers, and had no intention of toeing this new line, either. Criminal organizations figured that since law-abiding folks couldn’t manufacture or sell the alcohol so many wanted, a new market had been created. The immense profits from bootlegging fueled a murderous crime wave the likes of which the nation had never seen as gangs viciously struggled with each other to corner the market on alcohol.
In January 1923, Record editor H.R. Marshall observed:
“Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [illegal stills] within its boundaries.”
But Marshall spoke too soon. On March 28 the Record reported local and federal agents had raided a restaurant in Plano, seizing 80 cases of beer and 14 quarts of whiskey. But the big haul, that week the Record reported, was on the John Schickler farm just north of Oswego on Ill. Route 31. Schickler was a former Oswego businessman and saloon owner on whose farm authorities found a modern still capable of turning 23 gallons of denatured alcohol a day into drinkable liquor.
“When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning,” the Record reported.
In 1927, Arthur W. Cramer, a well known druggist with stores in Plano and Joliet, was jailed for illegally operating a still after having been previously convicted of illegally selling alcohol.
Federal agents raided a farm a mile east of Plano in October 1930, and seized six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, 4,000 gallons of alcohol; two boilers; and quantity of yeast.
By the early 1930s, it was pretty clear the idea of Prohibition had failed. As the Record commented: “It is up to us to determine whether or not we made a mistake. If so, we should rectify it even though we must sacrifice our pride. A heroic attempt has been made to attain an ideal and is admittedly a failure.”
Lawlessness didn’t immediately end when Prohibition did in 1933, because of efforts to avoid federal alcohol taxes. In April 1936, local and federal agents raided a gas station between Oswego and Yorkville seizing three 3,500 gallon supply tanks and 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol before going to the Baumann farm on Ill. Route 25 between Oswego and Montgomery where they seized a huge modern distilling plant capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day.
But that was the last large seizure in the county’s bootlegging era. By late 1933, taverns had reopened in Kendall County, and people could have a cold beer in peace. As the Record reported from Yorkville in September 1933: “The new proprietors of the Nading Café have installed a bar where they serve Schlitz beer.”
Looking back, it’s difficult to explain how Prohibition, by criminalizing of normally law-abiding citizens and creating a powerful, wealthy criminal underclass, differed very much at all from the effects of today’s ineffective, unsuccessful 40 year-old war on drugs.