Breweries, History

The Day Beer Returned to Milwaukee

Imagine a Unites States where beer and liquor are illegal. Your favorite brewery has been forced to close down or switch to making sodas, chocolates or other products. The only hard liquor you could wet your whistle with was made in a homemade still and you had to go into a secret bar called a speakeasy to get a drink. That is what the  United States was like from 1920 to 1933, during the duration of the Prohibition. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a city that had a tough time abiding by the 18th amendment. A city predominantly of German citizens and some of the biggest breweries in the nation which included Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz and Miller and thousands of taverns were forced to change products or be shut down.

Drunkards Progress

A temperance movement had been lurking in the U.S. for a number of years. Temperance reformers had been trying to rid society of the so-called evils associated with alcohol for many years. Its successful trial in the 1920s is arguably the result of anti-German sentiment that emerged during World War I. Beer was a symbol of being German and being German from 1914-1918 was a tough time. People argued why grains, that could be made for food for soldiers, were being turned into beer. Some people honestly believed the Germans were slowing the American war effort.

The famous Carrie Nation was a strong figure in the temperance movement. She would thunder into taverns or any establishment that sold alcohol and would proceed to destroy the stock and anything else in her way with a hatchet. The short fused temperance reformer declared in 1902 that  “If there is any place that is hell on earth, it is Milwaukee,” Nation said. ” You say that beer made Milwaukee famous, but I say it made it infamous.” Sadly, for Nation, she never saw lived to see the great attempt to ban alcohol.

On January 16, 1920, the Unites States had officially made it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol. The 18th amendment, however, never addressed the actual consumption of alcohol. It was never illegal to drink alcohol, but some parts of the country interrogated those caught drinking and would demand to know who was manufacturing and selling it. Prohibition was called the “noble experiment” because it was ultimately an attempt that failed. It was nearly impossible to control the manufacture of alcohol, let alone shut down the thousands of illegal taverns where people could wet their whistle. The 1920s were the signature era of crime and rebellion. The famous gangsters made their debut and the Unites States seemed like a lawless place where criminals ran rampant, and what were they making their money off of? Yea, you guessed it, alcohol.

By 1930, the outlook in America was very grim. The stock market had crashed in 1929 and some people had lost everything. The roaring twenties had come to an abrupt end. People lost their jobs, homes and life savings. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt came into the spotlight vowing to uplift the American people from the tought times. FDR was sworn into office in March 1933 and promised to bring prosperity back to the United States and give the American what he called the New Deal. One way to get people jobs and generate revenue was to repeal the 18th amendment and allow alcohol to flow freely again. The same month he was inaugurated, FDR pushed through congress and signed the Beer & Wine Revenue Act that spelled the beginning of the end of Prohibition. It essentially brought an end to the prohibition of beer.  FDR needed to get the country back on its feet and to do that the government would collect revenue from taxed alcohol. The official end to Prohibition came in December 1933, when the 21st amendment was ratified to repeal the 18th amendment.

Thousands Seeking Jobs at Pabst Brewing Co.
(Milwaukee Journal March 22, 1933)

President Roosevelt’s pro-beer agenda was music to the ears of many American that enjoy the drink, but it was a godsend to the breweries and people of Milwaukee. The March 22, 1933, issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel was humming with news of FDR signing the Beer and Wine Revenue Act ,which made anything under 3.2% potency legal. The newspaper was literally counting down the days when the favorite beverage could be brewed and sold in Milwaukee. There was even signs of economic recovery before it was even legal! Milwaukee papers exclaimed that workers were lining up at the breweries for jobs for the first time in 14 years. Breweries had to get a start on the process of brewing and bottling beer for zero hour on April 7.

Schlitz Trains Preparing for April 7th
(Milwaukee Sentinel April 5, 1933)

April 6, 1933, The Milwaukee Sentinel headlined “BEER HERE AT MIDNIGHT!”  and was followed by stories and information of what people were to expect. Something that struck me as very interesting was how a special case of beer was going to be flown out to Washington D.C. for President Roosevelt. The care-package had arrived in Washington at 12:05 am with a message that read: “Here’s to you-President Roosevelt. The first real beer in years!” I guess it was a way for the breweries of Milwaukee to say thank you to the man who put a city’s industry back on tap.

Loading the Trains Before Midnight at Miller
(Milwaukee Journal April 6, 1933)

Friday, April 7, 1933, beer made a triumphant return to the city of Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Journal headlined “Huge Midnight Crowds Hail Beer Here”.

100,000 Give Cheers as Breweries Open

City greets break in 14-year drouth with noisy public demonstrations; factory whistles shriek; downtown district packed; throngs watch rush of first shipments.

Milwaukeeans Celebrate the Return of Beer
(Milwaukee Journal April 7, 1933)

The great return of beer brought in a huge party in Milwaukee, one that I understand dwarfs current Milwaukee festivals. The papers said that people rushed to taverns to get their first taste of real beer (breweries were making near-beer drinks during Prohibition) in 13 years. The streets were pack with people and cars scurrying about in celebration. Reports were that parking spots were hard to come by. When zero hour came, WTMJ radio of Milwaukee was standing by the Blatz Brewing Company as the trucks were running and waiting for the shipments to be loaded and the trucks would be sent out.

First Cases of Blatz Beer Heading to Trucks
(Milwaukee Journal April 7, 1933)

The excited beer patrons rushed to the bars only to find them out of beer. There was a limited supply of beer at the newly opened taverns, which were unable to keep up with demand. Although, the crowd did not find it an inconvenience, they were just happy to be part of the celebration. Whistles from the breweries sounded for 10 minutes after the arrival of beer again, and the roar of the crowds chanting “WE WANT BEER!” kept up for just as long.

It had to be a sight to see that morning. Thousands of people gathering to celebrate the return of a drink, jobs and a city’s symbol. It was a one-of-a-kind celebration, literally. The Milwaukee Sentinel summed up the festivities with amazing visual words of what the mood was like in the great city of Milwaukee.

Gradually, as more and more beer reached the downtown area, bottles began to appear in the hands of the sidewalk throngs. Men and women waved brightly labelled bottles, tilted and drained them as they walked along, hustled and envied by those about them. The Mardi Gras spirit was everywhere apparent.
Beer was King, and received a royal welcome from Milwaukee.

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