By 1916 Oregonians began to live with prohibition when a state law took effect three years before the ratification of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned liquor nationally. But soon enterprising individuals—and organized crime—filled the void with illegal stills, bootlegging, rum-running and speakeasies. Oregon law enforcement geared up to respond but couldn't match the challenge. Eventually, Oregon and the rest of the nation tired of the exercise and voters conceded that the "noble experiment" was a failure. In 1933 they repealed both the state law and the national constitutional amendment related to Prohibition.
A Growth Industry
Oregonians liberally slaked their collective thirst with local brews and spirits in the decades before prohibition. Local breweries and drinking establishments abounded. Drinkers could also choose from a variety of concoctions imported from other states and countries. The freewheeling capitalism of this period created a need for liquor manufacturers to differentiate their products from those of competitors. To do this they turned to artists who designed colorful bottle labels meant to evoke the beauty of the location or the romance of an imagined time or place. The tired and thirsty were thus enticed to leave troubles of the day behind.
Most early laws relating to liquor control were intended to prevent Native Americans from possessing liquor. In June 1844, Oregon's provisional government passed a prohibition law designed to "prevent the introduction, sale and distillation of ardent spirits in Oregon." While later repealed, the law has been described as the first prohibition in the United States.
Instead of total prohibition, Oregon later passed laws to regulate liquor sales. These tended to specify licensing criteria for the selling of liquor, and in some cases banned the sale of alcohol in areas near construction projects and churches, or to minors and the intoxicated. However, public drunkenness and sensational stories of brawls and domestic abuse fueled by alcohol outraged many reformers.
As a result, the temperance movement gain attention in the United States in the late 1800s. Led by the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League, public protests against saloons became commonplace. The fame of such figures as the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation, who entered saloons and smashed liquor containers and other paraphernalia, brought the temperance movement to the attention of the nation, including the citizens of Oregon.
The temperance movement was joined by the women's suffrage movement in an attempt to enact both as needed social reforms. But the two movements were unable to work together effectively. In Oregon, prominent women's suffrage advocate Abigail Scott Duniway blamed the prohibitionists for many of suffrage's defeats at the polls. By 1912, when voters finally approved women's suffrage in Oregon, the movements had split.
Supporters of prohibition envisioned a society with less crime, domestic abuse, neglect and accidents. They believed people whose lives had revolved around saloons and drinking would be transformed into better spouses, parents and workers. Freed from the debilitating effects of alcohol, these people would rise to a higher moral plane and become more productive citizens. As a result, the nation would grow stronger.
Oregon voters approved the local option act in 1904. This law established that a successful county-wide vote for prohibition would make each precinct in the county subject to the ban on alcohol. In 1905 the Legislative Assembly enacted statutes enabling the implementation of the local option law. That same year the city of Hood River enacted prohibition by local option election. Subsequent challenges to the local option law during 1905-1907 resulted in local option being upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. During the following years, various counties and cities enacted prohibition via use of the local option.
Owners and employees of breweries, distilleries, saloons and related businesses warned of the negative unintended consequences of expanding to statewide prohibition, including the prediction that a criminal element would fill the void left by the loss of legitimate businesses related to liquor.
But despite the warnings, on Nov. 3, 1914, five years prior to national prohibition, the voters of Oregon passed an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale or advertisement of intoxicating liquor. In 1915 the Legislative Assembly, via the Anderson Act, enacted legislation implementing statewide prohibition. The law became effective Jan. 1, 1916. Less than a year later, in November 1916, voters defeated a proposed state constitutional amendment to permit the sale of beer. In 1917 the Oregon Supreme Court upheld prohibition in a challenge to the new law's constitutionality.
In 1919, following the passage of the federal Volstead Act, the Oregon Legislative Assembly ratified the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution; this helped pave the way for national prohibition. Local officials, along with federal revenue agents, sought out and prosecuted violators. Among other provisions, the act declared that "no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act."
However, the new law did not specifically prohibit the consumption of intoxicating liquors, which were defined as more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. In a perfect display of human nature, people across the country stocked up on their favorite alcoholic beverages in the period leading up to enforcement of the act. Others took advantage of a provision allowing up to 200 gallons of "non-intoxicating cider and fruit juice" to be made each year at home. Soon people could buy large blocks of grape concentrate known as "wine bricks." Instructions admonished people to avoid dissolving the concentrate in water and putting the mix in jugs for 20 days because the resulting fermentation would create wine. Other creative examples of skirting the law circulated around Oregon and the nation.
Prohibition also created other new entirely legal possibilities for those with good imaginations. For the enterprising, determined to stay within the bounds of the law, there were commercial opportunities. Many attempted to evoke fond memories of the period before prohibition. They formulated non-alcoholic drinks that included words associated with liquor.
Businesses that had been active in the liquor industry scrambled to find new ways to stay afloat. Henry Weinhard's, a Portland brewery, bought out Puritan Manufacturing Company and thereby gained the rights to manufacture such non-alcoholic beverages as Ras-Porter, Graport, Loganport, and Cherriport. Others simply let their frustration show in the period just after prohibition took effect. Jesse Day of Prineville was apparently so disgusted that he registered a trademark with the title "Nothing." In what must have been a biting commentary on the times, the trademark was to apply to a "temperance beverage."
Laws and Lawbreakers
In 1923 the Legislative Assembly established the Prohibition Commission to enforce the state's liquor laws. In later years it passed laws to assist public officials in the prosecution of crimes stemming from the prohibition of liquor, particularly the granting of greater powers to the police with regard to search and seizure. In 1931 the Legislative Assembly abolished the Prohibition Commission, transferring all enforcement to the State Police.
However, opportunities continued to exist for those willing to break the law. Some of these people were caught by law enforcement. While not able to locate every illegal still, officials carefully tracked those used for legal purposes. Police reports documented extensive surveillance by state prohibition officers, sheriff's deputies and others. These often led to arrests and fines.
Officials were assisted in their efforts to "stamp out bootlegging" by informants who provided details about illegal organizations in Oregon. For example, an informant's tip landed Richard Sargent in the county jail, $500 poorer. His partner, who later escaped, told deputies they couldn't go upstairs because there was a sick person there. Instead, they found Sargent with an elaborate still. However, his partner may not have been lying—Sargent was released early from the county jail because he was suffering from tuberculosis.
The Repeal of Prohibition
In 1925 and 1931 the Oregon Legislative Assembly refused to pass bills that would have sent to the voters a call to reconsider statewide prohibition. "Wet" interests finally used the initiative petition to put the question before voters in November 1932. Voters passed this initiative, effectively eliminating the state's machinery for penalizing infringements of the prohibition laws. In the summer of 1933, voters repealed Oregon's constitutional prohibition amendment, and shortly after Oregon ratified the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution, repealing national prohibition.
This did not mark the end of liquor control in the State of Oregon. Almost immediately following the repeal of national prohibition, Governor Julius Meier began efforts resulting in the formation of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, or OLCC, which continues selective regulation of liquor manufacture and sales in the state.