Maine's Prohibition: 82 Years In The Making

Text by Kellianne Dolan

Images from Maine Historical Society and Maine Today Media.

Temperance before Prohibition

Alcohol has played a key role in some of this country's most important moments in history. Liquor used to be shared between men in professional settings, and drinking was seen as bonding amongst men, instead of taboo, like it would be today. Although alcohol is legal, during a time in American history alcohol was illegal and the subject of great disgust, but that made it all the more enticing for many.

Critique of Prohibition post card

Critique of Prohibition post card

Prohibition appeared to take hold state wide prior to federal prohibition, but Maine residents would beg to differ as to it's success.

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Maine's history with prohibition is complex. U.S. Federal prohibition officially went into effect on January 16th, 1920, with the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919, which declared that it was illegal for all states in the nation to buy, sell, or consume alcohol. However, Maine's dance with the dry mistress started nearly 70 years before that. Neal Dow, war general and two-time mayor of Portland, Maine, was the spearhead of the temperance movement that took hold in 1851. In the beginning, the movement mainly consisted of organizations banding together against the consumption of alcohol, such as the Christian Civic League and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. It was such groups that saw alcohol consumption with contempt and sought to erect laws against it. In these beginning stages, their efforts were not taken as seriously as they would have liked.

Despite Maine already having passed a law making the sale of alcohol illegal, many saloons and rum shops stayed open and continued their business in secret. In fact some businessmen were even brave enough to start up new saloons in the midst of the state's prohibition. According to the book Woodsmen and Whigs: Historic Images of Bangor, Maine by Abigail Ewing Zelz and Marilyn Zoidis, the eleven saloons listed in Bangor in 1871 increased to an incredible sixty-seven by 1904. Men were able to keep their saloons and bars open either by finding ways to advertise in a low profile way or by just being defiant. Due to this blatant disregard for the law, at least in Bangor, public drunkenness accounted for more than half of annual arrests through those 30 years between the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. It was at the turn of the twentieth century that major events and changes began to take place, and the true rebellion set in.

The lack of respect for the law was faced with its first true challenge in 1905 with the creation of the Liquor Enforcement Commission, a group that was given the power of search and seizure without warrant. In the following years of liquor confiscation a rousing disagreement in politics ensued between the Democrats, firmly wets, and Republicans, distinctly drys, pressuring the public from both sides to vote against prohibition or for it, respectively. It wasn't until September of 1911 that the Democrats attempted a legal repeal of prohibition, known as The Big Recant, in the face of the Republicans. An effort that was decidedly futile.

Federal Prohibition Sweeps the Nation

Prohibition became more rooted into Maine Society in 1920 when Federal Prohibition was passed. Between the years of 1920 and 1933, the chaos of prohibition increased significantly all over the country as people became more rebellious. The younger generation latched onto the secret illegal activity of drinking as the latest trend to glorify. Also, crime increased, nightlife leisure activities drastically changed, and immigrants significantly influenced drinking statistics. The rate of alcoholism may have dropped after Prohibition went into effect (a rate that would not rise again to high levels until half a century later), but people were still finding ways to get their fix. With heavy restrictions people were more creative in their ways of drinking, rather than excessive. Underground speakeasies for entertainment and illegal consumption became popular, as well as the import of bootlegged alcohol into Maine ports and the methods of secrecy developed to carry out these illegal jobs.

From Rum Runners to Rum Rooms

Cache of liquor, Portland, 1920

Cache of liquor, Portland, 1920

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Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

Bootleggers bringing liquor shipments into Maine ports or over the Canadian border were known as rum runners. Maine Ports were used as a conduit to distribute illegal booze all across the country. These men brought alcohol into the country in a variety of disguises. Two of the more favored ones were hiding it in bales of cotton, in boxes labeled as bibles, or imitating other legal beverages. In Maine in particular, alcohol shipments could be found carted around in boxes of Moxie, which was a popular local soda pop, that would many years later become the official soft drink of Maine.

The rum runners had specially made rum running boats that could travel at a much faster speed than any of the boats the coast guard had in their fleets. This allowed them to avoid being raided, arrested, and having their shipment confiscated by law officials amidst a run. Rum Row was set up not long after federal prohibition was past, which was a line of Canadian fishing vessels set up along the Canadian coast line north of Maine. They positioned themselves just outside the three mile limit of the country and just far enough from the coat guard patrol boats. The rum runners would buy their shipments off of the Canadian fishermen and still be able to outrun the coast guard.

The Coast Guard dealt with the embarrassment of not catching rum runners for three years, until in 1923 Congress voted to disperse funds to the coast guard to acquire boats that could keep speed with rum running boats and the illegal activity. This made the job of a Rum Runner a lot more difficult, unless of course they had the police on their side. According to the book Shipwrecks Around Maine by William P. Quinn, for every one bootlegger boat captured and confiscated, a dozen more escaped. Although required to do their job, even the coast guard secretly feared of cutting off the liquor supply. This was also the reason that those bootleggers who did make it to court were given lenient juries and would be back on the ocean running their ships by the next night.

Victrola liquor storage, Portland, ca. 1922

Victrola liquor storage, Portland, ca. 1922

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Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

Once the liquor was in the city and out of the hands of the bootleggers it was up the businesses and consumers to find a way to hide it themselves. In the home people kept booze hidden closets, furniture, in their basements. On the go, people kept flasks concealed on their person, or any other empty container that could hold a liquid without appearing conspicuous. While some people may have been successful in hiding their smuggled alcohol, some were not. On July 11th of 1922 an ex-cop by the name of George Chandler was found guilty of possession of liquor when a cache of moonshine whiskey was found buried in the sand on farmland in Scarborough. Six months jail time was the standard punishment for liquor violations, dependent on the infringement.

As the busts became more frequent and the confiscated liquor began to pile up, authorities had to find a secure place to harbor all the goods. Rum Rooms were established in all sixteen counties in Maine. One of the more prominent Rum Rooms was housed in the basement of Portland's City Hall. Once a month city officials would host "dumping parties" in which they would gather in the basement, often inviting local newspaper reporters to witness and report on the events, and dump more than 500 gallons of confiscated liquor into the sewers.

Portland City Hall Rum Room, ca. 1930

Portland City Hall Rum Room, ca. 1930

Portland Officials sit atop a throne of confiscated liquor.

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

"The Day the Beer Came Back"

While prohibition may have lasted 82 years for the citizens of Maine, it only officially lasted thirteen years for the country. In 1933, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in line with the Democrats, ended federal prohibition. Before being completely repealed, the first step towards the return of legal alcohol was reincorporating beer and wine back into society. It was established by April of 1933 through the "Beer and Wine Revenue Act" that with a 3.2% alcohol content these alcohols were non-intoxicating, and that with a tax on these beverages it would raise revenue for the federal government. However, the passing of this act did not mean that a state had to reconvene the sale of alcohol. Maine, being one of the more reluctant states to let go of their status as a "dry" state, took a full three months longer to allow the business of alcohol to return to the state. Yet, due to the fact that other states were making more on tax revenue from tourism, Maine officials realized their needs to concede their stance. By July 1st Mainers were rejoicing with the rest of the country: the beer was back.

It wouldn’t be until months later on December 5th that the federal repeal would pass the 21st amendment, and the sale and consumption of all alcohols would be legal again.

Life After Prohibition

Despite staunch prohibitionists giving up on their convections and allowing Maine to become a wet state once again, there was still some resistance in the years to follow after federal prohibition came to an end. Up until 1966 the state strictly prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays due to religious reasons. However, that law was also repealed due to, again, the need to compete in tourist business with other states that did not restrict alcohol sales. By 1985, in an effort to further raise revenue from alcohol sales, state legislature passed "An Act Concerning the Licensing of Small Maine Breweries." The following year, in 1986, the first Maine microbrewery was established by David Geary, a brewery known today simply as Geary's.

Early in the turn of the 21st century, there were already 25 breweries established across the state of Maine. Yet, at the same time, there was still 76 dry towns that prohibited the sale of alcohol within city lines. At that point the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, still a banded organization even then, had a total of 26 members. As time has gone on this number has dwindled to a point of almost nonexistence, while brewery count continues on the rise. Maine currently boasts over 70 breweries state wide, a number that is ever increasing year by year. Maine may have legally been a dry state for years, but the citizens of the pine tree state have never stopped indulging in one of America's most influential businesses and pastimes.