Prohibition in Minnesota: Optimism Turned Into Despair

Prohibition in Minnesota was welcomed. The state had a long temperance history. It strongly supported National Prohibition (1920-1933) when it began.


I.   Volstead Act

II.  Bootlegging

III. Other Problems

IV.  Resources

I. Volstead Act

The National Prohibition Act of 1919 is usually called the Volstead Act. That recognizes Minnesotan Andrew Volstead. It was Volstead who introduced the legislation and oversaw its successful passage through Congress. The Volstead Act was important because it was the enabling legislation for the enforcement Prohibition. The Noble Experiment existed between 1920 and 1933.

Volstead was born in Kenyon and went to St. Olaf College. He became mayor of Granite Falls. Then he served in the House of Representatives from 1903 until 1923. He lost the race for re-election. After that he was legal advisor to the national Prohibition Bureau. Following Repeal, he returned to Granite Falls, where he lived the rest of his life.

prohibition in Minnesota
Andrew Volstead

Minnesotans had generally supported Prohibition. They expected it to reduce crime, improve health, and raise morality. They thought it would promote prosperity, reduce violence, and protect young people. As events would soon prove, it did none of these things. It actually created more problems.

II. Bootlegging Widespread

Many Minnesotans believed they had a right to drink. The law made them criminals for doing so. To meet the demand for alcohol, moonshiners and bootleggers quickly became active. Conflicts among these illegal suppliers were often vicious. Conflicts between them and law enforcers were sometimes violent — even deadly. After all, untaxed fortunes were at stake.

Moonshiners made their product quickly and carelessly. It often contained toxic lead compounds, creosote and even embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness or even death.

III. Other Problems

Illegal producers and sellers routinely bribed law enforcement officers and other officials. It was a cost of doing business.

But the public saw it as corrupt immorality. It led to a decreasing respect for both Prohibition and law in general

Prohibition changed drinking patterns for the worse. It became fashionable for women and young people and women to drink. Over-consuming was one way of expressing contempt for the law.

prohibition in MinnesotaProhibition also promoted a pattern of less frequent but heavier drinking. People didn’t go to a speakeasy for a leisurely drink. They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.

Minnesotans saw that Prohibition didn’t reduce crime but increased it. It didn’t improve health but threatened it. Prohibition didn’t raise morality but lowered it. It didn’t protect young people but harmed them.

Prohibition not only failed but was counterproductive. So  over 65% of voters in the state called for Repeal.

IV. Resources for Prohibition in Minnesota

Davis, E. Minnesota 13: Stearns County’s ‘Wet’ Wild Prohibition Days.  St. Cloud, MN: Sweet Grass, 2007.

Johanneck, E. Twin City Prohibition: Minnesota Blind Pigs and Bootleggers.  Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011.

Meyer, S. We are What we Drink: the Temperance Battle in Minnesota.  Urbana: U Illinois Press, 2015.

______. Hopping on or off the Water Wagon? The Temperance Movement in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1848 – 1919. Mainz, Germany: Mainz U, 2010.

Murray, M. Prohibition in Minnesota. MN Hist Soc, 1977.  OCLC No. 5364360.

Pfleger, H. and Rea, G. Volstead and Prohibition: a Roaring ’20’s Memoir.  Ramsey County History, 1975, 12(1), 19-22.

Scovell, B. A Brief History of the Minnesota Women’s Christian Temperance Union from its Organization, 1877 to 1939.  St. Paul: Bruce, 1939.

Volstead, A.J. Prohibition and its Enforcement.  Washington: G.P.O., 1921.