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Remembering prohibition in Petersburg

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition in the United States. But the ban on alcohol lasted longer and started earlier in Alaska.  Then a territory, Alaska got a two-year head start on the rest of the nation outlawing the sale, manufacture and exchange of liquor.  Joe Viechnicki has a look at some of the headlines and history from Prohibition days in Petersburg.
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Almost exactly a century ago, in March of 1913, Alaska’s territorial legislature took its first action, granting women in Alaska the right to vote. Here and across the nation, there were close links between the suffrage movement for women’s rights to vote – and the temperance movement to outlaw liquor.

Local resident Sue Paulsen researched the era for a fundraising event for the city’s centennial in 2010. She found an article from 1913 in an early Petersburg newspaper:

“The Womens Christian Temperance Union is circulating throughout Alaska a petition which is being quite freely signed preying Congress to prohibit the importation and sale of liquor in the territory. This association is made up of splendid womenhood backed by some men throughout our northland supported by the proof of depredations brought on by the traffic.”

Paulsen says another article in 1913 reported that a representative of that Womens Christian Temperance Union visited Petersburg:

“Those who have heard Mrs Lemans speak are agreed, she’s a very convincing speaker. In her short time she has delivered six lectures and organized the Petersburg branch of the Womens Christian Temperance Union.Mrs. Agnes Jorgensen president, Mrs C.A. Swanson secretary, Mrs Larrow treasurer and ms emma swanson corresponding secretary. The new organization assisted by mrs lemans has held a street meeting, to which a large crowd gathered and heard very good singing, as well as an interesting address.”

It was three years later in November of 1916 that Alaskans held an advisory vote on prohibiting sale, manufacture, barter or exchange of liquor in the territory. Statewide, prohibition won by a two to one margin, and the results were similar here. The vote count in the Petersburg Weekly Report had 105 people in favor of a dry state, and 51 against.

It took over a year before Alaska’s bone dry law, as it was called, took effect January 1st, 1918. That a full two years before the 18th Amendment was approved and applied the same prohibition nationwide in 1920.

But the law prohibiting liquor didn’t end it’s manufacture or sale, it drove it underground, or in Alaska’s case, sometimes out into the woods.

In a news items from July of 1920, a deputy marshal located a barrel partially full of whiskey in the woods behind the power house in Scow Bay and arrested three men, charged with owning the whiskey. One of the men plead guilty and was fined $250 and sentenced to 60 days in jail. That was just one small news item during a dynamic time in the history of the nation and the world. The local paper featured headlines of strikes in Seattle, fighting in Europe in the first world war, and local items, like the project to extend a road from Petersburg to Scow Bay.

Newspaper advertisements before prohibition touted Echo Springs and Sliver Brook whiskeys at a place called Brennans while the Dory Bar was serving Ranier Beer. After 1918, ads for Brennans mentioned pool and billiards, cigars and soft drinks, but no mention of illegal liquor. A Competitor called Joes place offered cigars, tobacco, cigarettes, and soft drinks and another pool room advertised card tables, musical instruments and sheet music.

In his book From Fish Camps to Cold Storages, Pat Ellis writes the town’s red light district on Lumber Street was closed in July of 1918, but prostitution houses reopened in other parts of town after that.

Ellis also writes about the story of James Brennan, who owned the bar called Brennans, once been called the Gilt Edge, but was known by many as the Bucket of Blood. Brennan got into some trouble when a Deputy US attorney and a Naval vessel came town. They were there to confiscate a moonshine still in Scow Bay and shut down the red light district, according to a family history in the Pioneers of Alaska book Pioneer Profiles. Sue Paulsen reads about Brennan’s involvement:

“Now when this prosecutor and the naval officers began swilling the evidence and pressuring the ladies for their favors prior to running them out of town, Jim would not tolerate such hypocrisy and burst through the door with a U.S. marshal as a witness. Unfortunately this earned Jim a completely fabricated charge of pro-Germanic sedition, a serious criminal allegation in world war one Alaska.  He had to put everything he owned up to make a bond, hire a lawyer and locate the witnesses the prosecutor had run out of Petersburg.”

The local newspaper published an account of the prosecutor and naval officers and their drinking party. The publisher later told of being pressured to print a subsequent retraction, despite several witnesses who told the same story.

Another local resident Heidi Lee remembers recording some oral histories while she was in high school. One oral history was with Richard Brennan, son of Jim, the original owner of the bar called Brennans:

“He told me some stories about how what happened during prohibition around here and they would have stills down at Beechers Pass, or down south somewhere. And then they’d bring in the booze in suitcases down to poor mans float. And then they’d have people pack em up to some apartments above town that they could look out and see when the marshals were coming.”

Lee also recalls listening to stories from her grandmother Magnhild Lee, who came to Petersburg at the age of 18, around 1910 and told Lee about those early days:

“Yeah she said it was more an issue of, well there were a lot of really drunk people around. And she also was talking about the womans right to vote. Because they had come from Norway where some people couldn’t vote if you hadn’t paid up on your taxes. And then they came here and they were a territory and they just felt like, I don’t think the women had the right to vote then. So they felt a little squelched. Plus there was a cat house out the road. And you can kindof see the women’s angle.”

The 1920s saw an expanding fishing industry in Petersburg. One headline mentions a seiners union forming. Several sawmills were operating and advertising lumber for sale. The fox farming industry blossomed on the remote islands of Southeast and expeditions left Petersburg to prospect for gold in the area. Meanwhile, there were crackdowns on liquor. Sue Paulsen reads more from her research:

“This was an unbelievable article. Citizens call for clean up. A mass meeting was held last Friday night at the Sons of Norway by a number of residents of Petersburg and vicinity to consider ways and means of abating the evils of the city and the alleged sale of liquor in the red light district and to make a quiet investigation. On Monday night this committee met with the city council but no action taken.  The council members are considering securing legal advice. It is the feeling of the council members the houses now in the city be forced to move beyond the city limits.”

And some members of the community also were celebrating prohibition. This is from an advertisement in the local paper.

“A dry celebration. Everyone come to the Sons of Norway Monday evening to rejoice over the dry victory in Petersburg and Alaska. Impromptu program and social time. Refreshments of course.”

While prohibition in Alaska started before the rest of the nation, it also ended here after the nationwide ban was lifted. The 21st amendment was signed into law December 5th, 1933. But it wasn’t until the following April that Alaska’s bone dry law was repealed. A large headline in the Petersburg Press from April 13 1934 reads “Dry Law Repealed”  and the article notes “President Roosevelt signed a bill repealing Alaska’s Bone Dry Law.”

Other sources for this story are an online Alaska history course provided by the Alaska Humanities Forum, local newspaper articles and thanks to Sue Paulsen and Heidi Lee for their help.

KFSK is commemorating the prohibition era with a Speakeasy fundraiser this Friday Night at eight in the Sons of Norway Hall. Tickets are available at Lees clothing and you must be 21.

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