Jan. 27 2016 11:41 AM

Historical Society uncorks exhibit on Prohibition in Lansing

Lansing-area hunters enjoy moonshine on the porch after a hunt, circa 1920s.

Courtesy Historical Society of Greater Lansing

Last week, as a frigid January passed its midpoint, a curious scene took place inside the front window of Lansing City Hall. The lobby Christmas tree was half-undressed. In its place, a couple of suspicious characters were assembling a still. As in “moonshine.”

They refused to explain where the still came from and couldn’t produce a license.

What, exactly, is going on at City Hall?

The Historical Society of Greater Lansing has pulled out the stoppers and mounted an eye-opening, 30-proof exhibit on the Prohibition era in Lansing.

The ax-shaped brooch honoring Carrie (Carry) Nation was probably handed out at a Lansing temperance party. The "Vote Dry" button dates from 1918.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

The collection of photos, memorabilia, objects and documents commemorates the start of national Prohibition, Jan. 17, 1920, and kicks off a 12-month, cumulative exhibit, “Lansing Has Fun.” Next month, to mark Valentine’s Day, new items will delve into the theme of love and marriage. The exhibit will change each month, exploring different aspects of recreation in Lansing.

Of course, not everyone had fun during Prohibition. Some people went to prison.

“People’s lives were ruined. They went to jail; families broke up,” said Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing and co-organizer of the exhibit. “It wasn’t all flappers, parties, speakeasies and jazz.”

The story of Prohibition in Lansing, as told in the City Hall exhibit, may surprise some people. Ingham County was a hotbed of the temperance movement and an early adopter of prohibition laws, beginning in 1910. The origins, lore and unintended consequences of the “noble experiment” are all on view at City Hall.

Just don’t ask too many questions. One of the aforementioned suspicious characters said the still is from a private citizen who used it in the 1970s and 1980s and asked not to be named.

Petite ax

The crown jewel of the City Hall exhibit is a tiny mother-of-pearl broadax, distributed as a brooch pin at a Lansing temperance rally. The ax handle reads “Carry A Nation,” a play on the name of the most famous anti-booze crusader, Carrie Nation, famous for breaking up saloons with a hatchet.

When Nation stormed into Lansing for a May 1902 rally, 17 years before national Prohibition, public zeal to shutter saloons was already reaching its zenith in Ingham County.

A petite, bejeweled ax is the perfect emblem for the unlikely alliances and contradictions of Prohibition, a time of extreme moralizing — and extreme im-moralizing. The City Hall exhibit takes pains to show that women were on the leading edge of a two-sided ax.

“It’s the first time women were breaking the mold, going out and eating and drinking publicly,” Marvin said. “They were cutting their hair short, wearing scandalous clothes. People found out that they had knees.”

Photos of women and men together, swilling booze and dancing the night away, offer a glimpse into a world very different from the Victorian era that came before.

On the other hand, the temperance movement gathered steam in Ingham County, and across the nation, largely thanks to Victorian-era women whose knees seldom felt the breeze.

By the 1890s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the leading organization of “dry” advocates, was a major political force in Lansing. The movement’s oomph came from women who wanted their husbands at home, providing for their families, not hanging around in saloons, drinking their paychecks.

The exhibit includes a photo of one of Lansing’s lesser known monuments: an ornate concrete water fountain honoring Frances Willard, head of the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It was first placed at the corner of Washington and Michigan avenues but was later moved to the Potter Park Zoo and then to Old Town. The fountain now sits in an arbor next to the Turner-Dodge House.

Temperance rhetoric was often tuned to the pitch of melodrama. The City Hall exhibit includes an advertisement for a “Golden Remedy” for alcoholism that can be slipped secretly into tea, coffee or food. The ad features a drawing of a man punching a woman in the face, holding a bottle in the other hand, with the caption “Gone mad from whiskey.”

The early, female-driven temperance movement had its share of self-righteous prudery, but the ax-wielding fanatic was only a part of the picture. A century ago, women had no right to vote, little chance at a meaningful job and all-but-nonexistent legal status. They were largely dependent on the intermittent tender mercies of men — sober or drunk. To many women, temperance was a wedge strategy for punching through the walls around them into a better life, using the tools at hand.

To fight off the temperance movement, saloon keepers handed out "good-fers," mostly good for a free drink or two. This token from the Louis Ehinger Bar in Lansing bears the image of Evelyn Nesbitt, the model, chorus girl, and famous "Girl in the Red Velvet Swing."
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

The City Hall exhibit includes a poster for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s 1907 state convention, one of several held in Lansing. Another rare item is a dog-eared sheaf of hymns (“Pull for the Shore” and “Hold the Fort”) “selected by A. G. Mabee, the temperance reformer of Lansing, Mich.” A bouquet of the once-ubiquitous white ribbons, worn by Women’s Christian Temperance Union members, and red ribbons, worn by “reformed men,” are also on display.

The red ribbons weren’t mere tokens in Lansing. In 1877, a mass meeting and street parade, with Dr. Henry Reynolds of the Red Ribbon Movement as speaker, drew thousands. The New York Times reported a year later that the Lansing Red Ribbon Club had a membership of 1,200 men — in a city with about 1,850 voters.

Backed by big business

The seat of state government and a factory town, Lansing was an ideal epicenter for temperance. As the 19th century came to a close, the growth of industrial workshops and factories gave captains of industry good reason to fear the effects of liquor. Alcohol was blamed for slowing productivity, causing accidents, driving up employee turnover and pushing insurance bills sky high.

The 1890s saw the rise of a new, tightly organized proto-PAC, the Anti-Saloon League, with a paid staff and state headquarters in Lansing.

Robert Garrett, an archivist at the Library of Michigan, has studied the Prohibition era for more than a decade.

“Industrialists didn’t want their employees showing up drunk,” Garrett said. “It was a movement before that, but, by the 1890s, you get more money thrown behind it.”

The combination of Christian zeal, capitalist money and tight political organization was tough to beat.

In Lansing, Ransom Olds’ REO Motor Car Co. snooped on workers’ off-duty drinking and smoking habits. REO management backed Prohibition and hosted dry rallies at the south Lansing plant and clubhouse.

REO plant supervisor Richard H. Scott was the city’s leading prohibitionist, doubling as president of the Michigan Anti-Saloon League. Scott was so zealous that he even let temperance get in the way of profits. He didn’t sell REO trucks to brewers — even after 1933, when national Prohibition was over.

By the mid-1890s, Lansing’s original angry mayor, A.O. Bement, was cracking down on liquor any way he could, including relentless enforcement of ordinances restricting saloon hours.

Bement was a prototype of the new wave of male, industrial-age “dry” advocates. The Bement Co., a manufacturer of agricultural tools, was Lansing’s largest industrial firm in the 1890s with over 700 employees, the most of any firm in the city.

When saloon keepers met secretly to back Bement’s opponents in the next election, Bement got wind of the meeting and shot back that “an accurate tab” would be kept on bar fights and public drunkenness and warned barkeepers to keep order in their establishments or risk losing their licenses.

The leading edge of the league’s statewide — and nationwide — strategy was the “local option,” a referendum by which counties voted to become “dry” or “wet” for two-year periods. The Anti-Saloon League micromanaged a meticulous, precinct-by-precinct campaign. As the contentious 1910s went on, the league tracked individual voters’ likelihood of voting wet or dry.

Ingham County see-sawed over the local option, going dry in 1910, wet in 1912 and dry again in 1914. (Ingham was one of 20 Michigan counties that voted to go dry in 1910.)

By 1916, the red-hot debate drew the biggest voter turnout in Lansing’s history.

Engine maker Clarence Bement (one of A.O. Bement’s sons and industrial heirs) and other business leaders led a dry rally at the Franklin Avenue Presbyterian Church. REO’s Scott headed the Ingham County Local Option Committee.

“I defy anyone to point out one thing the city has lost by being dry,” Bement thundered. On the contrary, he argued, the city was “far more orderly” than it was when the bars were in business.

One of Lansing’s leading citizens, education pioneer and Progressive Party orator Henry R. Pattengill, spoke to a crowd at the REO plant, promising “a larger, livelier and lovelier Lansing.” REO executive Harris E. Thomas told the crowd that going back to a wet county would be “the worst thing that could happen to the large industries of Lansing.”

Liquor manufacturers funded the wet movement, while manufacturers of “other things except liquor” spent thousands to keep Ingham County dry, asserted a Lansing Press editorial. The editorial praised Lansing workers as among the best producers and best paid in the state, “because it is inconvenient to get drunk.”

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