What the days of Prohibition were like in Southern California
By Mark Landis
July 9, 2018
Like most of the nation, the cities and counties of Southern California were immersed in a heated battle for “dry” or “wet” status from the mid-1800s, to the early 1930s.
The drys advocated for laws that restricted the use of alcohol, and they were backed by fiery activist groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The wets were backed in large part by the alcohol industry, and they were generally outflanked by the morality issues raised by the drys.
San Bernardino maintained a reputation as a “wild west” town through the late 1800s by having an abundance of drinking establishments in the downtown district. With a saloon at each corner, the intersection of Third and D streets earned the infamous nickname “Whiskey Point.”
Many of the new towns established in the 1880s during California’s great land boom were determined to take the moral high road, and they banned or heavily regulated alcohol from their earliest years. Towns like Redlands, Riverside, Pasadena, and Long Beach, became known for their strict anti-alcohol laws.
The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1895, and it quickly became the most powerful grass roots lobbying organization in the United States. The Anti-Saloon League systematically applied pressure to politicians and influential organizations, and it was largely responsible for driving support for prohibition to a fever pitch in the early 1900s.
Across the U.S., states, counties, and towns began to adopt strict prohibition laws through referendums. In November 1914, California’s Amendment 47 would have dramatically restricted the number and locations of saloons, and prohibited any “wet or dry” votes for 8 years. The amendment was defeated by a 54 percent no vote. In that same election, San Bernardino County residents voted down a dry measure for the county.
By 1916, 19 states had adopted prohibition laws, and Seattle became the country’s largest “dry city.”
The passing of the 18th Amendment on Jan. 6, 1919, finalized the battle for the prohibition of alcohol that had been dividing the nation for years. California voted to ratify the amendment on Jan. 13, 1919, after the required three-quarters of the states had given approval.
The simplicity of the amendment’s 111-word text immediately created burning questions, like what defines “intoxicating liquor”? Could alcohol be used for medicinal or religious reasons? What were the punishments for violations?
The questions were formally answered by the National Prohibition Act of 1919, otherwise known as “The Volstead Act.” This piece of legislation named for Congressman Andrew J. Volstead, was notoriously complex and difficult to interpret. Inconsistent application of the law was widespread across the country.
The ink on the amendment hadn’t dried before entrepreneurs, criminals, and lovers of the spirits began to devise ways to continue making and drinking alcohol. The large commercial producers of beer and liquor were put out of business almost immediately, but untold thousands small producers began making alcohol.
To avoid detection, many prohibition-era distillers produced their “bootleg” alcohol in rural locations. In November 1920, two men in a rural section of Etiwanda had their homes raided, and hundreds of gallons of bootleg liquor was confiscated.
In August 1921, gas station owner T.A. Davis and his son were the first to be jailed under San Bernardino County’s “Volstead ordinance” for operating a still at their home in the Cajon Pass. The still was hidden under the Davis home.
In most places, saloons had to be concealed behind a legitimate business, and they became known as “speakeasys” or “blind pigs.” The High Desert became one of the most notorious areas for open sales of alcohol and operation of saloons.
State Sen. Edwin E. Grant was president of the State Enforcement League. The following is an excerpt from a letter he sent to the San Bernardino County Grand Jury in 1925, following his investigation of the county’s prohibition enforcement:
“Then our party of investigators went out in the desert and investigated the town of Victorville. This town we found to be wide open with no visible effort to enforce the law. Booze, redlight houses, nickle-in-the-slot machines, everything goes in Victorville.”
Many California vineyards survived prohibition by exploiting twists of the law, and through ingenious marketing. The Volstead Act had a surprising provision that allowed for each head of household to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for home use. There were also provisions in the law for “medicinal” alcohol products, and for wine used for religious purposes.
The Virginia Dare Winery in Rancho Cucamonga thrived through the prohibition years. Like many other California vintners, they stayed in business by making sacramental wine, and by selling grapes to home distillers, and producers of medicinal alcohol products.
Within a few years of its implementation, Americans became disillusioned with the consequences of prohibition. Many large cities in the U.S. fell under the rule of mobsters like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegal, and Meyer Lansky. Throughout prohibition, corruption within the legal system was rampant.
After 13 tumultuous years, the 18th Amendment was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, by the ratification of the 21st Amendment. This amendment allowed the states to set their own laws for the control of alcohol.
After passage of the 21st Amendment, the nation remained deeply divided on prohibition, and today there are still hundreds of “dry counties” across the country.