How Dry Was It? Prohibition in Stillwater

Story and images provided by Amy Loch, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director

When you hear the word prohibition, most people imagine the roaring 20s filled with bootleg liquor and social excess, but not all parts of the US reacted in the same manner.  In Oklahoma, we were a dry state well before 1919, and we stayed dry long after the rest of the country repealed Prohibition in 1933. But what did all this really mean?   

On September 21st, 2017 the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History will present an exciting new exhibit entitled “How Dry Was It? Prohibition in Stillwater.” This exhibit will guide visitors from the Territorial period through today, as they explore Oklahoma’s prohibition past and what new laws could mean for the future.

Prior to statehood, like many other territorial towns, Stillwater’s downtown area had a number of saloons lining the town’s main streets. By 1891, the Agricultural Experiment Station at A&M had begun planting wine and table grapes. There were 840 grape vines, with over 200 varieties by prohibition when vineyards across the state were burned. Saloons were transformed into restaurants and social halls, with liquor sales moving underground.  

Payne County, like many agricultural counties in Oklahoma, was a strong base for prohibition groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti Saloon League.  These groups successfully campaigned to have prohibition added to the new state constitution that passed on September 17, 1907. Carrie Nation, one of the most famous temperance leaders, made her way to Oklahoma to help lead the prohibition fight. Locals such as Abbie Hillerman, President of the WCTU from 1903-1907 and founder of the first WCTU in Stillwater, were integral in bringing prohibition to Oklahoma.   

Abbie Hillerman

Next, prohibitionists pushed for prohibition on the national scale, citing health, family, economy, and morality. Resistance was strong, but the voices of temperance leaders were loud and convincing. National prohibition was referred to as “The Great Experiment,” with hopes of making the nation a more moral society. Prohibition ideals quickly backfired as it became clear that enforcement of the 18th Amendment was an uphill battle. In 1930, after 11 years of national prohibition, Oklahoma had only 18 prohibition officers to police 43 counties.  With few resources to enforce prohibition and a reversal of public opinion, especially in larger cities, liquor became easy to access and crime increased.  

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President, he made it clear that he would fight for national prohibition repeal. The Volstead Act was revised to legalize 3.2 beer, which was classified as non-intoxicating due to its low alcohol volume content. On the national scale, prohibition was considered a failure. Thirty-six states voted to approve the passage of the 21st amendment in 1933, repealing prohibition. The Amendment passed before Oklahoma’s legislature even met to discuss the issue.  

Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical college faculty member, C. L. Kezer believed that “we must invest in the character of this generation…the best work done in education of our youth has been done since prohibition.”

In Oklahoma, the “non-intoxicating” loophole was used to help get 3.2 beer to the voters, with more than half of the voters approving 3.2 beer. The liquor debate lived on for the next twenty-six years, as both sides rallied to get their point of view heard. Wets believed that liquor would increase revenue, while drys continued to fight on moral grounds.  As the years passed, people became more indifferent to prohibition, with many feeling the issue simply did not matter, and most liquor activity went unpunished. Even long held prohibition support groups started to question if prohibition actually solved anything.  

In December of 1957, voters had the opportunity to make liquor a county issue, but citizens showed that they were ready for a more definitive answer with a “no” vote. When J. Howard Edmondson was elected Governor in 1958, one of his goals was to “repeal by enforcement”. He promised to push strict enforcement of the state’s many restrictive liquor laws, with the intent of making Oklahoma as dry as possible. Two years later, voters went to the polls again and statewide repeal of prohibition was finally passed, with Payne County in favor of repeal.  The irony of the situation was that it took the enforcement of liquor laws, which drys had long supported, to get people to the polls for repeal. Many people celebrated, but it would be many years before Oklahoma would catch up to the rest of the country. Oklahoma continued to have some of the strictest liquor laws in the country, with liquor by the glass remaining illegal until 1984.

After the votes were tallied, J. R. Muncaster, local repeal campaign leader said, “we did it for Oklahoma…it’s a privilege to have legal liquor and it is a lousy thing to have to break the law to have a simple thing like a quiet, social highball.”  

Today alcohol continues to be the center of a controversial debate, resulting in some long established businesses, such as Brown’s Bottle Shop, wondering “what is next?”  With the new liquor laws going in effect across Oklahoma on October 1, 2018, businesses will once again have to adjust to new ways of doing business. Consumers will have more options on where, when and how they can acquire a drink in Oklahoma, while other businesses, such as Iron Monk Brewery, can now operate and thrive in our local community.

The prohibition exhibit at the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History will open on Thursday, September 21st, with an anti-prohibition premier from 5-7pm.  The exhibit will remain on display until August of 2018.  The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is open to the public free of charge Tuesdays through Fridays from 11-5 and Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4.