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Resisting Prohibition in Upper Peninsula

Herman Nelson is seen posing with a still in the Upper Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

National Prohibition came about through two main acts of government. The first was the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the commercial manufacture, transportation and sale, but not possession, consumption or home manufacture of intoxicating beverages. The amendment was ratified Jan. 16, 1919 and went into effect Jan. 16, 1920.

The 18th Amendment was followed by the National Prohibition Act, which gave the federal government power to enforce anti-alcohol laws. House Representative Andrew Volstead, a Republican from Minnesota, introduced the legislation to enforce the ban against the production, transport and sale of intoxicating beverages on June 27, 1919.

The law, which came to be known as the Volstead Act, passed in the House of Representatives on July 22. It passed a Senate vote on Sept. 5. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act on Oct. 27, 1919, but his veto was overridden by Congress. The Volstead Act went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920.

When alcohol was banned in the United States in early 1920, it had already been illegal in Michigan for nearly three years. Michigan citizens voted 353,378 to 284,754 on Nov. 7, 1916 for a state constitutional amendment prohibiting intoxicating beverages. The state ban went into effect May 1, 1917.

State Prohibition had largely been ineffectual. Michigan borders Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Ontario. People simply imported alcohol into Michigan by ship and train from places where trafficking in intoxicating beverages wasn’t yet banned. Enforcement was lax and social attitudes were permissive towards drinking.

This was particularly true in the Upper Peninsula, where remote communities were heavily populated by immigrants from places with proud drinking traditions.

Clashes between law enforcement agencies and Upper Peninsula citizens erupted once federal Prohibition went into effect. One of the first conflicts was in Iron River. Brothers John, Joseph and Stephen Scalcucci operated a three-story grocery store with living quarters above the commercial part of the building. Due to vague language in the Volstead Act allowing the home production of juice, the production of up to 200 gallons of wine was systematically ignored by law enforcement officials. To use up an over-abundance of grapes in stock, however, the Scalcucci brothers made more red wine than officers deemed possible to overlook.

On Feb. 14, 1920, Michigan law enforcement officials raided the store and two homes and confiscated the barrels of wine. However, a local prosecuting attorney named Martin McDonough asserted that the police did not have the correct warrants and should give back the wine. Days after the frustrated initial raid, state authorities returned, backed by federal Prohibition enforcement agents, and once again confiscated the red wine made in this Italian community.

Local lawyer McDonough again protested the heavy-handed enforcement and allegedly threatened Leo Grove, the agent in charge of the U.P. law enforcement officials called in another senior agent, Alfred Vernon Dalrymple, who later became director of all federal Prohibition efforts. Major Dalrymple came to Iron River with 16 armed men, ready to forcefully put down what he was explicitly calling a rebellion against Prohibition.

Dalrymple’s agents entered a town festooned with white flags, as Iron River’s citizens sought to avoid bloodshed. Reportedly, most of the town’s alcohol was hidden in the nearby forest before agents arrived. When agents raided the home of a local priest, McDonough threatened to have them arrested by local police for executing unfair searches without warrants.

The resistance to federal Prohibition enforcement in Iron River made national news for ten days. The attention drew important government officials to the Upper Peninsula. The Assistant Chief of Prohibition Enforcement from Washington, D.C., the United States District Attorney from Grand Rapids and the Assistant Attorney General of Michigan sought a solution to the standoff. In a move that surprised observers, Major Dalrymple suddenly remembered that he had urgent business in Washington, D.C. and left, abruptly ending the crisis.

The conflict over the right to make homemade wine at Iron River was a very public resistance to Prohibition in the U.P. More commonly, people resisted the ban on alcohol in private. Home production of alcoholic beverages was common. Local stores sold malted barley, corn, yeast, and hops, allowing people to brew their own beer. America’s largest brewing companies, including Anheuser-Busch and Pabst, sold malt extract. Train cars of grapes from California reached the Upper Peninsula, and homemade wine remained a staple on many tables.

Throughout Prohibition, Canadian whiskey poured into America across the Great Lakes, often landing in the U.P. before being transported to larger markets. This smuggled liquor was quite expensive for ordinary people in the U.P., where a weak economy meant meager incomes for most workers.

Many took to distilling their own booze. The process of manufacturing liquor was straightforward. Cornmeal, sugar, and yeast were fermented, and the resulting low-alcohol liquid was run through stills to create a high-content final product.

Clandestine stills were hidden around the woods of the Upper Peninsula. Law enforcement agents occasionally raided larger distilling operations. In one such raid in 1923, in the forest near Rapid River, federal officers busted an operation that made 75 gallons of hard alcohol per day. Despite such law enforcement efforts, plenty of high-alcohol product, often called white lightning, flowed from illicit stills.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of federal Prohibition, lift a glass to the hearty people who lived our local history. And raise another to this special place, rich in wilderness, where personal freedom endures as a core value.

Join us at the Marquette Regional History Center the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 4, for Brewing History. Local experts Jim Koski, Russ Magnaghi and Bill Van Kosky will speak about breweries, bars, and Prohibition in the Upper Peninsula. Visit www.marquettehistory.org or come to the History Center at 145 W. Spring St., to get your tickets.

Thank you to our sponsors, Iron Bay Restaurant and History Center Board Member Jim LaJoie, for helping to make this event possible.

Local history matters.