During the 19th century, the temperance movement in the United States, organized by groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), attempted to curb or ban the consumption of alcohol.

These groups were motivated by racial and religious intolerance and targeted many German, Italian and Catholic immigrants and the communities they lived in.

The temperance movement considered the consumption of alcohol to be the catalyst for the cause of major societal issues including family violence, saloon-based political corruption and a variety of national health problems. They achieved success during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as many communities began to limit and ban the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Prohibition supporters were called “drys” and its opponents were called “wets.” Quite expectedly, the beer industry mobilized supporters from Roman Catholic, German Lutheran, and other alcohol-friendly organizations and communities in an attempt to prevent the outlawing of alcoholic beverages. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the temperance movement’s popularity and power around the nation began growing stronger than ever.

The Volstead Act, formally known as the National Prohibition Act, was passed by Congress in 1919 by overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. It was the law enacted to provide enforcement for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which took effect on Jan. 16, 1920, and started Prohibition in the U.S.

‘United States is Dry Today – Prohibition Went into Effect at Midnight’ reads the frontpage headline of The Sentinel in Carlisle, PA, on Jan. 17, 1920.

Prohibition outlawed the production, importation, transportation and the sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide. The alcoholic beverage industry was the fifth largest industry in the nation until Prohibition made it illegal. The government did allow limited quantities of alcoholic beverages to be manufactured for medicinal purposes. Physicians could prescribe limited quantities of alcoholic beverages, usually whiskey or brandy, which could be purchased by their patients at a pharmacy.

Prohibition’s initial intents seemed honorable to some, and included the reduction of crime, improvement of health and the protection of women and young people. At its start it was acclaimed as a “noble experiment” but it soon proved to be a huge mistake as it caused widespread political corruption, reduced tax revenues, unemployment, and major health issues, and it bankrolled organized crime. Prohibition was, on all accounts, an abysmal failure as millions of Americans simply ignored the law and drank alcoholic beverages. A new term was coined called “scofflaw,” which means a person who blatantly disregards the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is challenging to effectively enforce.

The insatiable national demand for alcohol was satisfied with a number of illegal methods which included moonshining (the illicit production of high-proof distilled alcoholic beverages), bootlegging (the illicit production, selling and smuggling of alcoholic beverages over land), and rum running (the illicit transportation and smuggling of alcoholic beverages over water).

Lebanon County and Prohibition

Prior to Prohibition, Lebanon County had a long tradition of breweries. More than 30 breweries — including the David Behny Brewery, Lebanon Brewing Co., Samuel Light Brewery and the Union Brewing Co. — called Lebanon County home over the years. These breweries accounted for a once important local industry.

Read More: The history behind the Lebanon Valley Craft Brewery, which survived a century of ownership changes – and Prohibition

Former Lebanon Brewing Co. buildings on North 7th Street in Lebanon, PA. (Author’s collection)

By the time Prohibition arrived in 1920, there were still some breweries operating in Lebanon County, including the Iron City and the New Lebanon brewing companies. Prohibition legally forced these breweries out of business and there was no compensation offered for the losses of their property.

Light’s Fort, Lebanon’s oldest standing building, was utilized as a distillery around the turn of the 19th century. (Photograph ca. 1900). (Lebanon County Historical Society)

If a person wanted an alcoholic beverage in Lebanon County during Prohibition, it was usually not hard to find a local citizen who made and sold wine, beer or bathtub gin (homemade poor-quality alcoholic beverages made from cheap grain alcohol, water and various flavoring agents), a farmer operating a moonshine still, or a neighborhood speakeasy (very profitable illicit liquor shops and drinking clubs that became cultural icons during Prohibition).

There were speakeasies scattered about Lebanon County, many nestled in private homes, and others hidden behind legitimate business fronts. One particular speakeasy, located on south Eighth Street in downtown Lebanon, was reportedly a hangout for off-duty city police officers and local politicians.

Alley entrance to the Krazy Kat speakeasy in Washington, D.C., around 1921. (Public Domain)

There were many arrests and raids by federal agents in Lebanon County during Prohibition. Major Basil H. Minnich, federal agent in charge of liquor law enforcement in the Harrisburg district, found himself in Lebanon County on several occasions, none as an invited guest, raiding illegal breweries and moonshine still operations.

On April 24, 1925, Lebanon resident Metro Sutko was arrested by federal agents after they fired three shots at him as he drove a truck loaded with 80 barrels of high-powered illicit beer from the New Lebanon Brewery, which was officially closed. Only 40 of these barrels made it to Harrisburg for the court hearing. Federal agents said that they were forced to pour half of the seized barrels along a road in Hummelstown because one of their trucks broke down.

On June 11, 1928, the Lebanon Daily News reported that a big Prohibition raid occurred in Lebanon: “Grim and determined, swooping down on the city like hawks on their prey, thirty-three federal revenue agents simultaneously raided eighteen saloons, hotels and speakeasies throughout the city and county and detained twenty-eight men and one woman under $1000 ($17,326 in 2022 dollars) bail each for federal court. All were charged with the sale and possession of alleged intoxicating liquor.”

In April 1930, federal agents and state police raided a farm in East Hanover Township and seized a large, hundred-gallon still operation and two 10-gallon kegs of moonshine whisky. Two men were arrested and placed in jail charged with illegal manufacture and possession of liquor.

In July 1931, federal agents raided the former National Brewing Co. building and discovered 10 men actively at work brewing illicit beer. All 10 men ran from the brewery but agents captured and arrested four of them. The four captured men were held in jail for possession of illegal beer under $2,000 ($38,983 in 2022 dollars) bail each.

One of the more interesting Prohibition stories was the mystery of the underground pipelines at the former Iron City Brewing Co., located at the southwest corner of North 8th and Mechanic streets in North Lebanon Township. Federal Prohibition agents claimed the brewery was using underground pipe-lines to transfer illicit beer to a nearby farmhouse to be bottled or kegged and sold to speakeasies. The agents organized a dig to find the pipelines. They discovered two of them but it was determined these pipes were used for water. The disclosure of other alleged pipelines for beer was not reported.

These and many other documented stories about bootleggers, moonshine and speakeasies attest that many people in Lebanon County were not supporters of Prohibition. In fact, Prohibition made millions of normal law-abiding citizens around the nation into law breakers, which entangled and overwhelmed the court system.

13 Disastrous Years of Prohibition Ends

‘Prohibition Ends After 13 Years of Experiment’ reads the headline on the frontpage of the Delaware County Daily Times on Nov. 8, 1933.

After 13 years of Prohibition it proved to be disastrous to the nation. The consumption of many varieties of moonshine and bathtub gin caused health problems for many of the millions who drank it. Moonshine and bathtub gin was produced by unregulated production processes and much of it contained lead and other harmful toxins. Occasionally, some moonshine and bathtub gin actually caused blindness or paralysis, and it was responsible for many painful deaths. The allure of illegal alcohol also drove many women to drink during Prohibition, which led to some harmful and frequent overconsumption problems. 

On Dec. 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. One of the most ridiculous, harmful and senseless laws in American history finally came to an end.

Breweries that were able to survive during Prohibition made a limited amount of medicinal alcoholic beverages and other products such as ice cream, cheese, soft drinks, yeast and non-alcoholic near beers.

Only two Lebanon County breweries opened after the repeal of Prohibition: P. and H. Brewing Co. (formerly known as Iron City Brewery) which was subsequently sold and closed in 1934, and the Lebanon Valley Brewing Co. who produced beer, ale and porter in Lebanon until 1959 when it was sold to the Eagle Brewing Co. and moved to Catasauqua.

Lebanon Valley Brewing Co. beer bottle labels & signs. (Author’s collection)

Prohibition and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

In 1933, shortly before Prohibition was repealed, Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot wanted the state to maintain authority over the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages so he created the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. This independent agency manages the alcoholic beverage industry in the state (licensing the importation, possession, sale, storage, transportation, and manufacture of wine, spirits and malt or brewed beverages).

Pennsylvania is one of only two states (Utah the other) where liquor is sold in state-managed stores. Even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, these two states have continued to regulate many aspects of the alcoholic beverage industry to this day.

Prohibition’s Legacy

The failure of Prohibition includes the worsening of social, medical, legal and crime problems around the nation. Considering all the negative consequences of Prohibition perhaps the most important lesson learned is the fact that special interest groups cannot legislate their ideas of morality in a free society.

When the votes for the repeal of Prohibition were counted, an astounding 73 percent of the nation’s voters favored its repeal. The 18th Amendment is the only one to be repealed in the history of the United States. 

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Randy Jaye is an historian and Lebanon, PA native. He has recently researched and nominated four properties that have been successfully added onto the National Register of Historic Places. He is the author of three recent history books, and writes articles for historical journals, local newspapers, magazines,...