The true stories and lasting injustices of ‘the noble experiment’

Confiscated whiskey in 1921. (PHOTO: Library of Congress)

United States history remembers the period between 1920 and 1933 as Prohibition. During these years the U.S. Constitution barred the production and sale of alcohol. 

Historically speaking, thirteen years is neither a short time nor a long time. It’s an aberrant generation, frozen in time. Prohibition became the only constitutional amendment to be repealed. This anomaly rose from the unintended consequences of a law borne of widespread popular demand.

Today, most of the people who lived through Prohibition are gone. None responsible for implementing, enforcing or repealing the law remain with us. And so it’s easy to fall back on a gauzy sort of nostalgia for the era while forgetting how it happened in the first place.

We remember the gangsters who supposedly all worked for Al Capone. We watch movies that celebrate but also seem to resent the strait-laced enforcers like Eliot Ness, who followed the law even when they or their own colleagues took an occasional drink. Maybe one of our ancestors had something to do with something, way back when. Of course, no one talks much about that anymore.

Maybe now is the best time to start.

Earlier this month, a year-long temporary exhibit “Never Dry: The Rise of Prohibition on the Iron Range” opened at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. Organized by curator Allyse Freeman, researcher Jason Scorich, and the staff of the MDC, this exhibit deserves your attention. Just be prepared for a few surprises as you learn the truth behind those old stories.

I attended the opening on Dec. 8, which drew about 200 people to the MDC auditorium. After learning about early Iron Range breweries from author Tony Dierckins, this robust crowd poured into the exhibit hall. There they saw an authentic wine press from the Tomassoni family and a Prohibition-era Ford car. A replica silo like one used to store sugar at the Iron Range’s largest known moonshining operation towers over the venue.

But I think the real intrigue comes from the assortment of narratives and historical perspectives adorning the walls of the hall. Prohibition wasn’t just about alcohol. Rather, a collision of competing interests caused the movement’s rise during the dawning years of a century that would make the U.S. an economic, cultural and military superpower. 

Sometimes called “the noble experiment,” Prohibition would also reveal the unbelievable cost and inherent injustice of enforcing laws that half the country intends not to follow.

My own research into early Iron Range history for a new book explores many of the same paths that my friends Freeman and Scorch explored for “Never Dry.” It’s important to remember why so many people, including most in Minnesota, wanted Prohibition to begin with. 

Before women could even vote, they banded together to advocate for Prohibition. Though often high-minded, the cause became deeply personal for many women. Married women could be abused and starved by their husbands with no meaningful recourse. If they worked, their spouses could seize their wages and assets. Any attempt to escape would mean leaving the children behind. Even battered women would refuse to run for fear of what might happen to their kids. Since so many of these cads were drunks, one obvious solution would be to choke off their booze supply.

Meantime, the medical community believed that simply closing bars would show alcoholics the error of their ways. They would abandon the bottle and throw themselves into lives of thrifty productivity. The country’s largest companies — U.S. Steel the largest of them all — became staunch advocates of Prohibition for the same reason. By paternalistically controlling the lives of their workers, they’d be helping those poor wretches. And making profits, too, of course. 

All of these points of view deserved consideration, but using prohibition as the solution demonstrated a lack of understanding of how addiction worked and a lack of equality and legal agency for women to escape abusive relationships. Women still suffered. Men still missed work with hangovers. Only now a massive underworld of criminals had a booming industry on their hands.

But even here we fall back on generalization. Prohibition was big business on the Iron Range, but it wasn’t like the movies. Most moonshiners (producers of alcohol) and bootleggers (distributors) were recent immigrants who worked not in one big organization, but in a confederation of many small operations. At a time when the mines paid dismal wages and laid off half the year, thousands of Range families survived the winter not by chewing on shoe leather, but by bottling moonshine and homemade wine. 

Many expensive boats and houses on the shores of Lake Vermilion, the Sturgeon Lake chain and Swan Lake came from generational wealth produced mysteriously during Prohibition. Lawyers, bankers and police officers were in on the schemes, even if most managed to escape being caught in the act. My research brought me into million dollar homes of completely legitimate American success stories. Their ancestors broke many laws to make the opportunities available to their parents and them.

That’s a reminder of the power of class in the American story; how even our most cherished myths tend to gloss over the factors that actually determine human success or failure.

It also demands we inspect our own family’s past before casting too much judgement on people in our own time. History is long. Memories are short. That’s why a good recounting of the past is worth more than even a 112-year-old bottle of whiskey, something else you’ll see in the “Never Dry” exhibit at Chisholm.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


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