Dec. 10 2008 12:00 AM

It’s been legal to drink for 75 years, but we still can’t remember how we woke up on this park bench in our underwear.

In 1937, the leaders of the village of Shelby complained, according to a Michigan Municipal League report on liquor control from that year, that “excessive sale of liquor to people who are working in the summer and on welfare in the winter should be regulated.”

Boyne City and Cadillac complained in the same report that women were being spotted in bars and taverns; the city fathers in Birmingham, Buchanan and Plymouth complained of a burgeoning drunk driving problem.

The Municipal League’s report was published 71 years ago, which is four years after Michigan became the first state to vote to repeal Prohibition. This past Friday was Repeal Day: the 75th anniversary of legally allowing our butts back on the barstools.

Michigan can claim a couple of firsts when it comes to Prohibition. According to “Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State,” in 1916 it became the first state to vote for what eventually became the 18th Amendment, which created Prohibition in 1920 (two years after Michigan went dry itself). Then in 1933, Michigan reversed course by becoming the first state to vote to repeal Prohibition, which ended Dec. 5 of that year.

Besides being the first in, first out of alcohol bans, Michigan has a dark history of dealing with the drink.

According to various history books, Detroit was a clearinghouse for spirits during Prohibition. The liquor was smuggled across the Detroit River from Ontario and was controlled by the Purple and Licavoli gangs. (During Prohibition, liquor would be served from a “blind pig,” or speakeasy, which came into being during Michigan’s other prohibition era between 1855 and 1875. The blind pigs were named as such because proprietors would advertise a blind pig show; customers would pay 10 cents to “see” the blind pig, but instead would be handed a cup of whiskey.)

And it was the founder of Detroit, Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac, who gave alcohol to Canadian and American Indians to … lubricate … the price of furs. When de La Mothe was on trial in 1705 for illegal fur and alcohol running, a witness testified that the pelt hunter kept 400 bottles of brandy handy to “corrupt red men.”

Some 300 years later, we have, at least, stopped using alcohol to bargain the price of a pelt — unless you count college campuses or bars on a Friday night.

Last Friday afternoon at Tavern on the Square in downtown Lansing, just a few minutes after the onset of happy hour, bartender Kim Benda was standing behind the bar talking about drinking.

“It would be kind of depressing,” she said, when asked what she would do — professionally and socially — if alcohol were still illegal. “There would be a lot of bootlegging going on.”

It’s a drink called the Irish car bomb that Benda has, recently, been most surprised by. The drink, quite ridiculous in its glorification of terrorism and its contents, is a pint of Guinness with a shot each of Bailey’s Irish Crème and Jameson whiskey dropped in; the drinker then chugs the drink as soon as the shots are in.

“If you don’t drink it fast enough, it curdles,” Benda said, seeming amazed by the properties of the concoction.

Farther down the bar, Eryka Sawyer, Forrest Bouyer and Mark Webster were enjoying happy hour drinks, although Sawyer was the only one who was aware of Prohibition’s anniversary.

“I don’t think Prohibition had anything to do with alcohol,” Bouyer, holding a Heineken, said. “I think it was just a thing of the time.”
Webster, when asked if there was anything about alcohol he didn’t like, said he wishes that alcohol couldn’t be so easily gotten by minors. This led to a debate between Bouyer and Webster over whether lowering the drinking age would allow minors to more mature about drinking — you know, like they do it Europe.

“When I was younger, I was told I couldn’t drink,” Bouyer said. “If we could drink at 16, it would be a lot less tempting.”
Sawyer, who said she was only aware of Prohibition’s anniversary after hearing about it on National Public Radio, said that she was at the bar not to celebrate, but simply because it was Friday and it was happy hour.

“But personally, drinking is not something I’d want my kids doing at 3 p.m. on a Friday,” she said.