Aug. 23 2006 12:00 AM
Dry leader: In the late 19th century, Lansing Mayor Arthur O. Bement, who was also an industrialist, angered saloonkeepers with his anti-alcohol policies. (Courtesy of the Archives of Michigan)

In February 1893, Lansing saloonkeepers held a secret meeting at the Senate saloon. Only those with the proper password were admitted. {mosimage}

Their mission, according to the Lansing Republican, was “to unite in order to defeat the present city officers” in the next election.

Their prime targets: Mayor A.O. Bement and the town marshal.

The two men had become more aggressive in enforcing liquor laws, particularly one mandating that saloons had to be closed on Sundays, holidays and election days.

Saloon owners were often the target of temperance advocates, who resented saloons based on moral grounds. But as the United States approached the 20th century, the dry movement began to change. Rather than just a moral question, prohibition also became an economic one. In an age of burgeoning industry, religious leaders and social reformers gained new allies from successful capitalists.

As the owner of the Bement Co., a manufacturer of agricultural tools, the mayor fit this profile. In the 1890s, it was Lansing's largest industrial firm, with its factory occupying two full blocks along the Grand River, between Shiawassee and Ottawa streets. Bement was concerned about his employees' drinking habits.

In 1895, a new national organization appeared, the Anti-Saloon League, which reflected the character of this renewed prohibition movement. The Anti-Saloon League was in essence a well-organized political action committee, cooperating with (and receiving a large portion of its funding from) local church organizations. The League took that money and it into dry campaigns and candidates and anti-saloon publicity. A 1907 issue of the “wet” publication Bonfort's Wine and Spirit Circular described the League as “officered by men with unusual ability, financial capitalists with very long purses.”            

In its war on saloons, the Anti-Saloon League used some traditional 19th Century anti-liquor arguments about health, family stability and personality development.  It presented these terms in moderation, however, and placed greater emphasis on perceived economic benefits of prohibition. 

This emphasis on economic prosperity through temperance grew as the nation entered a new industrial age, in large part spurred by Henry Ford's initialization of his assembly line in 1903. In this environment, speed and precision were deemed essential. Workers who imbibed were potentially harmful to both employers and co-workers. 

Many “Captains of Industry”  openly endorsed prohibition. The rise of industry brought the passage of workers' compensation laws, making employers even more determined to curb employees' bad behavior.     

Some employed bold tactics to do just that. Ford, for example, established the Ford Sociological Department within his company. Staff visited the homes of Ford employees and evaluated their lifestyles; those who drank heavily or otherwise failed to meet Ford's moral standards could be denied raises or fired.  Ford argued that such standards resulted in more productive workers and in turn allowed him to keep wages high. (The arguments are eerily similar to those of the recent Weyco case, where Weyco employees were fired for smoking on their own time.) 

Ford wasn't alone in taking such measures. Here in Lansing, Ransom Olds' Reo Motor Co. hired private detectives to monitor its workers. The detectives reported on any employees who drank, smoked or even voted against proposed Prohibition laws.    

Reo management publicly supported prohibition, and dry rallies were held at the Reo plant. Olds even refused to allow alcohol sales at his Olds Hotel. 

The most ardent prohibitionist of all, however, was factory supervisor Richard H. Scott, who was also president of the Michigan Anti-Saloon League. He was so steadfast in his views that he refused to sell Reo trucks to brewers — even after national prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Scott's anti-saloon activities included a stint as chairman of the Ingham County Local Option Committee. In the early 20th century, local option elections, in which citizens voted whether to enact Prohibition within their counties, became increasingly common in Michigan.

Ingham County residents wavered on the Prohibition question. Voters enacted Prohibition in 1910, then opted to lift it in 1912. Citizens reinstated the ban two years later, and stayed dry when the question was reconsidered in 1916.

During this time, local economic concerns were hotly debated. One day prior to the county's April 3, 1916, local option election, the Lansing Press published an editorial on the issue. The author noted that the “wet” side was funded largely by liquor manufacturers. He then stated that  “the manufacturers of other things except liquor have likewise been spending thousands of dollars in the last few weeks to keep Ingham County dry. Their motive is mercenary, too.” 

“Lansing workmen are among the best paid in the state because they are among the best producers in the state,” the editorial read, “and they are among the best producers, because it is inconvenient to get drunk.”  

Three days after the 1916 election, the Anti-Saloon League began to mobilize an effort to enact a statewide ban at the Nov. 7 election. They succeeded, and Michigan voters passed a statewide Prohibition law. The law went into effect on May 1, 1918, two years before national Prohibition was enacted.

Michigan led the way in the national battle for dryness. Many industrialists couldn't have been more pleased with the results.

(Robert Garrett is an archivist for the Archives of Michigan.)