Wet and Dry: Alcohol in Clay County 1871-1937

Wet-and-Dry-LogoThis exhibit explores the spirited debates around the morality of alcohol, from our Wild West birth through the end of Prohibition, encompassing three major periods: Settlement (1871-1890), the Saloon Era (1890-1915) and Prohibition (1915-1937).

People have enjoyed alcoholic beverages for thousands of years. It’s an important part of our culture – and a multi-billion dollar industry – but alcohol is also a dangerous, addictive drug that can lead to irresponsible and violent behavior, destroying lives and families. Efforts by Clay County residents to resolve this disconnect – to give the people what they want but still maintain social order – are marked by extremes.

Settlement

When settlers founded new communities, they debated whether or not alcohol would be part of it. Once the Northern Pacific Railway arrived in 1871, thousands of settlers streamed into Clay County, claiming land for new farms and creating new villages. As each new community formed, a debate began between those who would ban alcohol (the Drys), those who welcomed alcohol (the Wets) and everybody in between.

The Saloon Era

When Fargo went dry in 1890, Moorhead became infamous for its many – and rowdy – saloons – 45 of them in a town of about 3,700. Moorhead’s Prohibition was more wet than dry, with criminal networks keeping Clay County drinking. City officials and voters could have responsibly regulated and limited the influx of saloons, enforced the law and used the liquor license fees paid by the saloons wisely. But they didn’t. Corruption, law breaking and bad financial decisions plagued Moorhead throughout the 1890s.

Prohibition

In 1915 reformers succeeded in outlawing liquor completely. But Prohibition also did not work out. Although legally dry, Clay County had a very wet Prohibition. Residents did not stop drinking. “Rum-runners” smuggled in large shipments of alcohol from Canada or other parts of the USA. “Moonshiners” secretly made hard liquor in home distilleries. “Bootleggers” sold alcohol on the streets or in cafés. Scores of local businesses and private homes were “Blind Pigs” or “Speak Easies,” illegally selling alcohol under the table or even operating as not-so-secret illegal saloons.

Repeal

As soon as the Drys succeeded in making alcohol illegal in America, Wets went to work trying to repeal (or overturn) Prohibition. The Repeal movement gained support as the American public saw that Prohibition was not working. The Repeal Movement gained steam during the Great Depression. With unemployment soaring, many saw that reviving the alcohol industry would put people back to work and bring needed revenue to the government through alcohol taxes. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution completely repealed National Prohibition. Although many Clay County communities allowed 3.2 beer in April of 1933, the county did not legalize hard liquor and strong beer until 1937.

The Wet & Dry exhibit runs until January 8, 2018.