The Battle over Booze

1919 The Volstead Amendment banning sale of alcohol in the United ratified by the states

Prohibition is an interesting topic and we have written about it extensively in the past. Maine’s is known as “The Pine Tree State,” but for many decades Maine had an unofficial and to some degree disparaging nickname— “The Prohibition State.” Maine’s reputation was certainly deserved for in 1846 Maine became the first state in the nation to pass a prohibition law and in 1885 Maine actually amended its constitution to “Prohibit Forever the Manufacture, Sale and Keeping for Sale of Intoxicating Liquors.”  While “Forever” was a bit of an exaggeration, Prohibition, in one form or the other, remained the law in Maine until 1933.

 Maine became the brunt of many jokes and was, as we say today, trolled in national publications. Downeast Maine was often cited as an example of the folly of any attempt to criminalize the use and possession of alcohol. Of the nation’s 38 states in 1885, Maine was probably in the worst geographic position to enforce Prohibition given its long land border with “wet” New Brunswick and the hundreds of bays, islands and inlets which were often within spitting distance of our Atlantic neighbors. Like air being sucked into a vacuum, alcohol in all its forms filled the void for thirsty Mainers. Still, Maine tried valiantly and failed miserably to keep Mainers sober for nearly ninety years.

Some attempts were made to rescind the Prohibition amendment in Maine; in 1911 one very nearly passed. The Machias Republican editorialized with a comparison between Calais and St. Stephen:

The vote on September 11th will be for the purpose of getting the opinion of the voters as to whether the prohibitory law is to remain in the constitution or not. This is all the special election means. What is to follow is an altogether different matter. We can’t help comparing, however, the little city of St. Stephen and the city of Calais, separated only by an international bridge. St. Stephen is licensed and Calais is prohibition. All the good people of this section are at liberty to make the comparison and say if they think the morals of the people of St. Stephen are any worse than those of Calais. Which place has the most drunkenness? And when it comes to prosperity are the people of Calais any better off than their neighbors across the bridge. Quite the contrary, unless we are misinformed.

In 1917 the nation unwisely elected to join Maine in this “Noble Experiment” with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in the country. It became law in January 1919 when it was ratified by the requisite number of states. Maine officially ratified the amendment on January 6th, 1919. The results were completely predictable.

 From the official U.S. Senate history of Prohibition:

The Eighteenth Amendment provided that the “Congress and the several states” would have power to enforce Prohibition by legislation, but the sweeping Volstead Act left the states no room for local option or any other flexibility. Ironically, the law called for a vast increase in the federal government’s intervention in society just as “limited government” advocates were coming into office. Prohibition corresponded with the presidencies of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, and with a parsimonious Congress that was reluctant to appropriate sufficient funds for effective enforcement of the Volstead Act.

The result was a decade of lawlessness, with citizens flouting the law at speakeasies and bootleggers corrupting public officials. On Capitol Hill, a rumrunner known as “The Man in the Green Hat” operated freely out of the Senate office building. By 1932, polls showed that the great majority of Americans believed that Prohibition had failed. The repeal of Prohibition became a popular campaign theme for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Twenty-First Amendment, which was approved soon after he swept into the presidency, finally nullified the misguided Volstead Act.

The history also pointed out that many in Congress who had voted for the amendment in 1917 were led to believe it applied only to hard liquor, not beer and wine but the religious organizations leading the charge managed to convince  Senator Volstead, drafter of the enabling legislation, to allow a maximum of .05 alcohol content in any beverage. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the legislation, but the veto was overridden, and the era of Prohibition began.

December 5, 1933 National Prohibition ends, Maine legislature repeals Maine’s Prohibition amendment

For all the reasons cited in the official Senate history of Prohibition its end in 1933 was celebrated throughout the country but the Prohibitionists, the “drys” as they were called didn’t give up the fight as the repeal allowed a local option. Many Downeast communities went “wet” in 1933 but not without stiff resistance from the “drys”. Bertha Woods, wife of the Baptist minister Henry Woods of Calais, went so far as to praise Hitler who, she claimed in an article in the Calais Advertiser, had convinced younger Germans swear off beer. Where she got this remarkable idea we can’t say as many of Hitler’s most venomous speeches were given in German beer halls to rowdy, drunken crowds of supporters. Nonetheless she concludes her article by writing:

“Whatever Hitler may have done that deserves censure at least give him credit for this.”

Over the objections of Mrs. Woods, all the local churches and perhaps even Hitler Calais and many other local communities voted to go “wet” in 1933.

For the Prohibitionists , the “Drys” the choice was between milk and beer

The “drys” were nothing if not persistent  and during the rest of decade the issue of sale of alcoholic beverages locally was often on the ballot. We don’t believe a vote was held in Calais in 1937 but if a vote was held it did not satisfy the temperance folks. In 1938, however, the issue of alcohol sales was again put to the voters locally and statewide. Lobbying was fierce.

Calais Advertiser August 31, 1938

The “drys” also placed ads in The Calais Advertiser warning locals of the consequences of allowing the sale of alcohol to continue in Calais but the “wets” also waged a well-funded campaign in The Calais Advertiser.

By 1938 there were many bars in Calais including a strip along “Rum Row” as Main Street leading to the bridge was then known.

Charles Bernardini, leader of the pro alcohol lobby, the “wets”.

The ’wet” faction was no less active. Charles Bernardini, son of Louis Bernardini, the patriarch of the Calais Bernardinis and owner of a successful beer parlor in the lower part of the Bernardini Block on Main Street countered with an appeal to the pocketbook and assurances that the well-regulated sale of alcohol presented no danger to the community. A yes vote was for the continued sale of alcohol locally.

 Calais Advertiser August 31st, 1938:


On September 12 the voters of Calais will be asked for the second time to decide by referendum whether or not they desire the sale of liquor to continue in the city. Before you cast your ballot we ask each and every one of you to consider the question carefully and think how the result of this election is going to affect Calais socially and financially.

By retaining the liquor store, beer parlors and cocktail room you are keeping an aggregate payroll amounting to $30,000 annually. You are attracting the trade of a great majority of tourists, who, if the city went dry, would either pass right through Calais or spend their money in Canada or stop before reaching here in a town where they could purchase liquor along with other articles.

You are helping to supply funds with which to pay the old age pension, build roads and carry on other state enterprises which will have to be continued by increased taxation if Prohibition came back to Maine.

You are making it impossible for the bootleggers, racketeers, and proprietors of speakeasies to flourish as they did in the time of Prohibition and as they would again if the liquor system were abolished. These men would dig down now and pay a pretty penny for the return of prohibition.

You are supporting a system of dispensing alcoholic beverages in the most practical and sensible fashion that can be devised. You have a clean, orderly liquor store that serves a class of people who practice moderation in drinking. Undesirable patrons are discouraged and turned down at the first indication that they have been abusing their privileges. You have decently conducted beer parlors, run by citizens who constantly strive to cooperate with the police and which are frequently inspected by state officials. You have a nicely appointed cocktail room in the fine hotel, well managed and so inoffensive that many of the guests who do not use liquor never know of its existence unless they had occasion to pass by it. Don’t trade these things for blind pigs and speakeasies, the kitchen breweries and bootleggers that accompany Prohibition.

 Prohibition will never be a success in this country, state or city. It was tried once at terrific expense to the government and left behind it a memory of an era of incredible crime, of vice and gang wars, of billionaire racketeers and of bootleggers. Even the greatest enemies of alcohol in any of its forms admitted the noble experiment was a complete failure.

However, temperance can’t be taught and this is the end for which everyone should strive, not by prohibiting the legalized sale of liquor but by educating those who use it to do so intelligently.

Situated as it is, Calais should be the last city in the state to go dry. That would simply mean diverting funds that now go to the state, to more than 20 people now employed in Calais at reasonable wages, the owners of buildings which must be closed if liquor is banished, into the treasury of the Canadian government or agencies such as have already been described above. For people will drink and no “must not” is going to stop them from getting what they want when they want it. Why not let them get it in Calais. They’ll leave many thousands of dollars in the other stores while they are patronizing the liquor store, cocktail room and beer parlors.

The profits accruing to the state treasurer from sales of beer and liquor since the retail system was established to have exceeded $6 million. Calais has contributed a proportionate share of those profits. But Calais is trading center and the bulk of its businesses come from surrounding towns and from New Brunswick. Our own citizens don’t buy enough goods to support the fine stores that attract thousands of shoppers here every year. Neither do the liquor store, beer parlors and cocktail lounge look to Calais patrons for more than a fair part of their receipts. In fact, more money finds its way into the tills from outside sources than from Calais proper. Beer and liquor are of as much importance to this city as of the natural advantages and commercial assets that have been its life for years.

It is the duty of every citizen who has the moral and financial welfare of Calais at heart to vote yes on all of the three sections of the referendum September 12th.

United Temperance League of Calais

 Charles Bernardini. Secretary 

While it is odd Charles describes his organization as the “United Temperance League of Calais” his appeal to the locals to vote YES to alcohol was successful.

The prohibitionists had more success in other parts of Washington County in 1938 as the county voted overall, 6047 to 5789, to go dry but the State overwhelmingly rejected a return to Prohibition.  

The Portland Press Herald reported:

The total vote in Washington was 6047 against and 5789 for. Calais of course was yes by a good majority 1142 to 824. Eastport also voted yes 832 to 381. Milbridge was another yes town, the vote being 283 to 140.

From the Advertiser -1938 vote on allowing continued sale of alcohol locally

After their defeat in 1938, temperance advocates were quiet for nearly a decade before they saw an opportunity during the Second World War. Many who opposed Prohibition had complained that the original vote in 1917 for Prohibition was tainted by the temporary absence of a large pro-alcohol interest group-young men. In 1917 millions of men were overseas fighting and in 1944 the same was true. Temperance organizations in 1944 managed to get the issue on the ballot in many states once again, including Maine. Arthur Kallenberg, a columnist for The Calais Advertiser, expressed the opinion of most Americans who thought a vote while 11 million men were fighting overseas was a “dirty trick to play on our boys”.

September 6, 1944, Calais Advertiser:

By Arthur Kallenberg

The outcome of the wet-dry vote in Monday’s election will be watched for with great interest. Those who should know predict a wet victory but by no overwhelming margin. Sale of liquor and ales without question draws a great many people into town who might not come here otherwise. This is especially true in the case of servicemen. The greater the number of visitors to the city the greater the amount of money spent in local business places.

Gainful employment is given to nearly a score of local people in those places where alcoholic beverages are sold. The strict regulations placed upon the liquor store and the beer parlors are carefully followed by those in charge and while conditions are not perfect, they are admittedly far better than they would be if the city goes dry for the simple reason that voting a town dry doesn’t necessarily make it so. A dry vote Monday would merely transfer the sale of intoxicants from the places where it is now sold legally under strict supervision and regulation to the alleys, doorways and back kitchens of the town.

Other angles of the question are handled very nicely in the following editorial which appeared in a recent issue of Colliers magazine:

Cheat the Boys Again?

One of the major complaints against federal prohibition and, a thoroughly just complaint, was that the foundations for the 18th amendment in the Volstead Act were laid while a lot of young men were in service in World War One and consequently couldn’t register opposition to the drys. It was a dirty trick on the boys and one which in due time boomerang to back on the prohibitionists.

Comes World War 2 and the same trick is being tried again, with variations. In addition to trying to deprive our warriors of the alcoholic refreshment which many warriors frequently need, the drys are putting a great deal of steam behind a creeping local option drive – drying up a county here and a municipal district there. They are now so far along with this campaign that about 1/3 of the nation’s 3000 counties are dry and about 19 per cent, 35 million, of the nation’s local total population lives in areas that are legally dry.

 Local option seems to be the most nearly fair way to handle the undoubtedly communities that want the wet versus dry question. There are towns where liquor is legally forbidden inside their borders whether for righteous reasons or to keep deserving bootleggers in the money. Such communities are entitled to vote for local prohibition- if the whole community votes.

With more than 11 million men in the service this time however as against a bare 5 million last time it is obvious that a fair vote on this question can be had in almost no community. The war has rigged local option elections in favor of the dries as effectively as crooked politicians could rig them.

The defeat for the forces of temperance was overwhelming. For instance, Calais voted 1022-383 to allow the sale of beer/malt beverages in stores, one of the more contentious issues. The battle was truly over although there were local communities who stayed “dry” for decades. Princeton and Grand Lake Stream were dry until the 70s we believe and the Town Line Store on the town line between Woodland and Princeton was a goldmine until Princeton went “wet”. As Arthur Kallenberg noted in his 1944 article “Voting a town dry does not necessarily make it so” was as true in 1944 as it was in the 1800s when alcohol flowed freely across our border with Canada.

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