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Prohibition: Smashing Saloons and Breaking Barriers

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 1, 2024 3:02 am

Prohibition: Smashing Saloons and Breaking Barriers

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 1, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, while in modern times, we often view prohibition as a failure and even a misstep by fanatics, it’s far more complex than that. Travis Spangenburg, Creative and Production Manager for the American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, GA tells the story of this complex time in America’s past.

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See website for details. And we continue with our American stories. While in modern times we often view prohibition as a failure and even a misstep by fanatics, it's a more complicated tale. Today, Travis Spengenberg, creative and production manager for the American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia, tells us the complicated story behind prohibition as well as humanizing it all through the story of Carrie Nation. And she was famous for smashing illegal saloons up with an X.

From the streets of Savannah, here's Travis. It's so easy to approach history really academically, even with things I'm very interested in, like U.S. presidents. And it's very easy to say, well, you know, John F. Kelly was the 35th president. He served from then to then until his assassination.

But I always got really into, kind of hooked by the human stories behind people. I just read the other day, I do a series on our Facebook called Presidential Drinking, where I look into the drinking habits of the presidents. And, you know, all your life you hear Franklin Pierce precipitated civil war. He kind of failed to.

These were his policy failures, regarded as one of our worst presidents. But then you look at the man was a heavy drinker, alcoholic. On the way to Washington to get inaugurated, he gets in a train accident. His son is the only casualty from his family. His wife and him are present.

They see their little boy decapitated. And then he has to go be president, already having a drinking problem, and he essentially drinks himself to death. So, you know, we still can't absolve him of what the presidency, what his failures in the presidency were. But it really fits with what we do in the museum when you start to realize, oh, there were real human cost problems driving this man into this. And maybe he shouldn't have been.

It was the worst possible time in his life to be president. So those human stories behind history. So I've always tried to look deeper and see what is the story we're not telling. It's not the best, you know, it doesn't give you the widest scale of information from just an academic history perspective.

But as a storyteller, as somebody interested in creation and enlightening stuff, I think it's the stuff that connects to people the best. When I do guided tours of the museum, which is when I take people kind of from the beginning of the movement through prohibition, through the end of it, the first thing I have to lay down is don't view this through your modern drinking. This is even looking at alcoholism as a problem. We still have problems with it today, but there's an entire infrastructure and understanding of alcoholism and a way to get people help.

Back then, you were basically on your own. If you were a drunk, it was your own moral failing and treatment. There were a few thinkers who were starting to go, hey, maybe this is something that we need to treat instead of punish them for some of the early temperance propaganda. It was specifically like lock out the saloon keepers, lock them up, but don't lock up the drunks. They can be productive members of society if not for this negative influence. So the Industrial Revolution essentially creates a situation where a lot of alcohol is you're able to make it easier.

You're able to move it around easier. People are just able to acquire stronger liquor easier up until that point. It's easiest to just make your own beers, your own ciders.

But the strong stuff gets really easy. And 1830 by 1830, the average American is drinking seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. That amounts to about 90 bottles of whiskey across the entire year. That's the average American. That's not the average American drinker. So there's plenty of teetotalers, totally sober people that never drink anything factored into that number, skewing it downwards. The average American drinker is drinking more than that, maybe four or five bottles of whiskey a week. And so you basically have this blind drunk population of men who are supposed to be the sole breadwinner.

Not only are they spending all their money on this alcohol, but they're also spending their health. And when they die, you have a whole family network that was depending on them. You know, best case scenario, he had plenty of sons that are older that can take his place. But if he's just got a bunch of girls or a bunch of young kids and his wife, they're done for. Women have no way to get their own income. That equals the men that they've just lost.

They have no property. They can't divorce their husbands and they can't vote to change how any of it works. So at a certain point, the only option is a massive cultural movement to change the way America views alcohol. And, you know, we all regard prohibition as kind of a failure today. There are things that did well. It did eliminate, it did change our drinking culture for the better, I think. But I think generally, historically, it's seen as a failure.

And people tend to look at the temperance movement and deride them and scold them and condescend to them for doing it, for making it happen. And while I agree that maybe it wasn't the right solution, there was a problem worth solving. And at that point, I ask you, what solution is there? What solution, other than getting rid of the nefarious influence, is there? They had tried moderation laws. They had tried laws to kind of limit serving. But the power of the saloon was just so much so that people were drinking themselves regardless. So at a certain point, I understand them. You know, you don't have to condone every bit of the temperance movement.

But I think it's unfair to say, ah, prohibition ruined certain parts of the country and it's all these ladies' fault. Faced with the destruction of their family, what else? I am a noted Carrie Nation apologist.

That is one of my strongest missions when I'm working the floor, when I'm telling stories in the museum. I always say there's three stages of learning about Carrie Nation. First, you think she's a nutcase because she's a woman with a hatchet destroying bars.

It seems insane. The second, you understand her even if you don't condone her. And the third, you admire her and I'm way past admiration at this point. But really, it's, you know, because at first glance, it's a woman running into bars that you think are perfectly legal. You know, if you're just learning about her, it seems like they're perfectly legal and she's smashing them up. And she's insane and she's ruining people's property.

It's vandalism. But then you learn that Kansas, where she was doing most of her smashing, had been dry for 20 years before she finally snapped off. From 1881 to 1948, it was illegal to sell alcohol in Kansas.

67 years. And then she helped get this stuff passed. She was instrumental in the movement. I'm not sure if she was in Kansas yet when it passed. But basically, her like-minded friends had gotten this, had worked very hard to get the constitution of Kansas changed to include prohibition.

Good, work is done. 19 years go by and there's still bars everywhere operating with impunity. The first one she smashes up is owned by the brother of her county sheriff. So it's definitely this situation where, yeah, there's laws on the books, but nobody's enforcing it.

Well, if they're not going to do the job, who is? Any attempt to paint Carrie as this crazy person, you look at her, everything she did was completely rational. She wasn't indiscriminate, she wasn't smashing up bars that were obeying the law, she was destroying bars that were in dry areas.

She was methodical, she was smart, she was funny, she knew how to control a crowd. She'd get this huge army. By the time she marched on Topeka in the early parts of her smashings, she had, it was reported as 2,000 people were marching in the streets of the capital of Kansas protesting. Not all smashing bars, but they were basically following her around.

Nobody gets hurt. She controls this entire army. They're all on her side. And then they take her to jail, finally, because they're sick of her wreaking havoc. After she goes to jail, she goes to jail and immediately fights start breaking out and a guy's shot and killed without her influence around. So she was this very smart, everybody who ever, this is kind of what changed me on her, is like, you know, we can all look back and go, ah, this crazy woman. But as soon as you look at anything anybody who actually knew her said about her, they never said she was unhinged. They talked about her being motherly and funny and kind. She was kind to a fault.

She'd give you the shirt off her back. A lot of the money that she was making off of her celebrity was put right back into helping people from a temperance perspective. And just she wanted her last big venture in life. She purchased a home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, called, she named it Hatchet Hall. And it was, her dream was to make it into a, like a boarding house with a shelter for specifically abused women, widows of alcoholics, a church on staff, a school where she could teach kids. So essentially she wanted this entire complex to help communities.

And she was throwing all her own money at that. And you're listening to Travis Banjenburg tell the story of Carrie Nation and the story of Prohibition. And when we come back, more from this passionate man. And by the way, he also happens to be the creative and production manager for the American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia. And we love taking into these kinds of museums across this great country.

More on the story of Prohibition and Carrie Nation here on Our American Stories. Hey guys, it is Ryan. I'm not sure if you know this about me, but I'm a bit of a fun fanatic when I can. I like to work, but I like fun too. It's a thing.

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And each day brings a new chance to collect daily bonuses. So join me in the fun. Sign up now at And we're back with Our American Stories and the story of Prohibition as told by Travis Spengenberg, creative and production manager for the American Prohibition Museum. And that's in Savannah if you're ever in that part of Georgia. Pay Travis a visit. Travis was just telling us about the notorious prohibitionist Carrie Nation, a woman famous for smashing illegal saloons up with an axe.

We're back to Travis on the streets of Savannah, Georgia, to tell us more of the story. The biggest way I can get people on her side, so to speak, is you look into her past. She fell in love young. She was 20, 20, 21 years old. She fell in love with a man named Dr. Gloyd. She fell in love with him. And it was this storybook romance against the wishes of her parents.

They had somebody else in mind for her to marry. She does it anyway and quickly finds out that he's got a problem with alcohol. Over the course of their year or so of being married, she gets pregnant.

But before the kid's even born, it's clear to her that this isn't sustainable. She leaves him, goes back to live with her parents. And when she finally decides to separate from him entirely, she goes back to get her things and he says, he looks her in the eye and says, Pet, if you leave me, I'll be a dead man in six months. She left.

He was right. Almost six months to her leaving him, he died, drank himself to death. Charlene, her daughter, was born throughout Charlene's life. She had a whole host of physical and mental illnesses. Carrie blamed herself for procreating with a drunkard. She said that it was hereditary, that she essentially, the quote is, Charlene was the product of a drunken father and a distracted mother. That she wasn't able to properly parent her because she was grieving and she blamed herself. She spent the next years of her life going through their old love letters and reading and thinking about what could have been. She even named her daughter Charlene after her husband, Charlie.

And it's deeply sad. And she eventually marries David Nation, not out of love. She had that once, she had her chance at that, she lost it. She marries David Nation because a woman can't get by in Frontier, Kansas on teaching jobs and on hotel jobs. She doesn't like him. She says in her autobiography, I shall speak very little of my time with Mr. Nation.

He and I agreed on a few things. She's very short about it. She calls him at times like bad at his faith, like not really good at things. She boasts herself as a better preacher than him. She talks about how bad they were at ranching.

They tried to start a farm in Texas. They moved back to Kansas and she's in this unhappy marriage. He belittles her when she starts having religious visions. He basically mocks her. By the time she starts smashing up bars, she's embraced this. But in 1880 or so, when it starts 20 years prior, she hears this voice in her head and it scares her. And she goes to her husband for comfort and he goes, oh, what's God saying to you now, Carrie? Making fun of her. And eventually he divorces her.

He divorces her in 1901, about a year into her bar smashings. And at that point, she's making all this money on the road doing these sermons in the temperance movement. And her reaction is basically, see you later.

Fine. She got what she needed out of him. So she had this chance at a love life, at a real fulfilling marriage that was ruined by drinking.

And then she spent, so he dies in the late 1870s, she spends 20 years musing on what could have been and who took it from him. The saloon and the, what do you call them, she blamed Mason Lodge. He would go off to the Mason Lodge and just get blitzed drunk. Saloons didn't have a, there was no incentive to stop serving somebody. There were no laws in the books where you would get in trouble for anything they did or anything that happened to them because of what they drank. So you just served them until they were out of money or they couldn't literally ingest it anymore. So saloons were making a boatload of money at the expense of the local citizens.

And they knew what they were doing and they made themselves the center of communities. You could get your mail at the saloon, you could vote at the saloon, you could sleep in the saloons. So essentially they made men come there not, they weren't just targeting men who were coming in expressly for a drink. That would almost be fine if it was a case where it's like, okay, these guys were coming for drink and they gave them drink. They may be coming to pick up their mail and they get tempted into the bar or into the brothel section of some saloons. And they were seen as a real societal ill by this temper, it wasn't just the alcohol problem, that was the worst thing.

But it was the control that they had and what they did with that control in the eyes of the temperance movement. It's complicated, you know, I'm a drinker, I drink cocktails, like I'm going to go home and make one today. But, and I get it, but I live in 2021. I get to be a guy who, if I did develop a problem, I have people who would support me, I have methods to get better.

I have disposable income. People, you can't view it as you are today and as you drink today and the problems that you have. You have to view it through history, history happens when it happened. I may very well have voted for prohibition. You know, I wouldn't today, but you know, 1915, if I knew a bunch of men in my community who had been ruined by it, if I'd watch women struggle and I don't want to heap too bad on the men for becoming drunks like it was all their choice. They had been off to any messes of wars, we'd all just been through the Civil War.

Economic panics, economic problems, back-breaking factory jobs. You know, when I talk about prohibition as a complex issue, there's no heroes here, there's no villains. For every good thing that the temperance people went after, they got crazy things done. Labor laws, they got the age of consent rates to 16 from 10.

They were legitimately honest about protecting the people that they wanted to protect. However, it also meant throwing other people down the bus. And in the late 19th century, it's Italians and it's Germans and it's the Irish coming to town, and it's really easy for the temperance people to go, oh look, they're bringing all their whiskey and their wines and their beers, and they're going to fundamentally change. You think the temperance problem is bad now, imagine what it's going to be like when all these guys show up. So we need to get to Ellis Island, we need to Americanize them as soon as they come in, get them to give up these drinking habits, and then yeah. Prohibition was already, the work was already being done by the time we entered World War I, that I think it probably would have happened anyway, but that is the last home run in the game.

That's a silver platter. All these Germans that they'd spent decades demonizing, and that's what it is, they demonized them, they suddenly were in a war with them and it's really easy to say, oh well you, if you give your money to the brewers, they're going to send it home to their family, and they're going to use it to kill your sons, your uncles, your brothers, your dads. And it didn't matter that these German-American brewers like Adolphus Busch were fiercely American, especially in their capitalism, they were real innovators, and they were donating to American causes, they were building infrastructure in American society, they were innovating new technology, they had definitely been paying their way in this country. It didn't matter.

Their names were Busch and Pabst and all these German names, and it was really easy to say, hey look, they will ultimately, they will side with Germany every time, despite there being not really any evidence. You know, so much gets made of the gangsters killing each other, the poisoned alcohol, the racism of it all, all definitely, you know, you can't tell the story without all that would be nonsense. But it is very easy to lose sight of what changed about culture. You know, women get the right to vote right at the beginning of prohibition, less than seven months in. Seven months into prohibition, women get the right to vote, and suddenly it's like a switch being flipped. Life changes for women overnight, so women become journalists and lawyers, and they're working in speakeasies.

You know, this whole thing started like we talked about, because women couldn't contribute to their household income. Now they're lawyers. Now they're journalists. They work in speakeasies as bartenders, as shaker girls, as waitresses, as performers. Not to mention, black performers in America finally have a time where they can say, oh, we work for ourselves. You know, back in the Jim Crow era, they were basically carted around and made to perform for people the things that white people told them to. During prohibition, these jazz performers, one, get to create their own genre that's born out of African American influences and traditions, and they get to perform it themselves. They get to write their own music, and they get to tell club promoters, I'm not playing for your segregated clubs anymore. This is people like Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver. Duke Ellington does play for the segregated club, but he's making a bunch of money as his own band leader. He is the most famous band leader in America at the time. Bessie Smith has her own private train car when she travels. And essentially, they can muscle promoters around rather than the other way around and say, oh, okay, you want me in your club?

Integrate it. And if they don't do it, they don't get to perform, and they don't get all those ticket sales. And a lot of club promoters, they immediately bow. And the music is so good. So yeah, it's this wild time where I like to say that it is freer for more Americans than any decade in American history prior, and actually for several decades after. A lot of it tightens up after the 30s, through the Great Depression, through World War II.

But it is a time where you start to see those glimmers of people getting to have their own influence in society and their own say about who they are and what they do and what they don't do. And a special thanks to Robbie for his work on the story, and a special thanks to Travis Spangenberg. Travis is the creative and production manager for the American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia. And by the way, go to Our American Stories on the website and listen to our Duke Ellington story. That story is available on The story of Prohibition and the people behind the movement, including Carrie Nation, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-08 10:22:15 / 2024-02-08 10:31:17 / 9

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