Library Of Virginia Exhibit Explores Virginia’s Prohibition, Its Long-Lasting Effects On The Commonwealth And How Much Times Have Changed
“I do love this industry,”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gushed after signing into law a bill earlier this year giving beer producers and wine growers in the commonwealth greater freedom to sell their wares. The governor’s attention to spirits is reflected in the hundreds of wineries, distilleries and craft breweries now scattered across the state.
What a difference 100 years can make.
“When you consider the landscape today, it’s interesting to remember how it used to be,” says Gregg Kimball, the director of Public Services and Outreach at the Library of Virginia. “Essentially, we were criminalizing people who weren’t really criminals.”
In 1914, when Virginians voted to completely ban alcohol—the law went into effect on Halloween 1916, three years ahead of national Prohibition—it was the start of an ambitious social experiment that seems worlds away from our experience today. According to Kimball, the curator of the Library’s intoxicating (and, considering the changing times, ironic) exhibit, Teetotalers and Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled, much of the state was already dry before the question came up for a vote. Seventy one of Virginia’s 100 counties had already rejected hootch by 1909, thanks to laws that gave jurisdictions local options to ban it.
“The temperance movement was built up over time,” Kimball says. “At the end of the 19th century you start to see county after county have much stricter alcohol laws due largely to the work of the movement.” When the referendum happened, four cities—Richmond, Norfolk, Williamsburg and Alexandria—voted to keep things wet. “There was a real rural/urban dynamic going on,” he says. “And Norfolk, because of shipping and its status as a naval base, was the hotbed.” The Coastal Virginia area not only lead the pack in Virginia drunkenness arrests during Prohibition, the exhibit shows, Norfolk ran second to Franklin County in number of illegal stills.
“It’s a fun exhibit on a serious topic,” says Barbara Batson, the library’s exhibition manager. Teetotalers and Moonshiners showcases early anti-saloon propaganda—like the iconic illustrated series, The Bottle, chronicling alcohol’s destructive effects on a family—as well as archival newsreel clips, musical selections and the testimony of ordinary Virginians. Thanks to unseen records, letters and accounts from the files of Virginia’s long-defunct Prohibition Commission, the historical triptych takes us through the 18 years of Virginia’s ban, detailing the human after-effects—such as a bloody shootout over moonshine on the Dickenson County courthouse steps, or the story of a Norfolk rabbi arrested for serving sacramental wine at Passover.
Interesting period remnants enhance the tale: a walking stick with a hidden flask compartment, the last bottle of Rye sold in Roanoke before Virginia’s law took effect, a jug of confiscated moonshine, a yellowed copy of Anti-Liquor, a temperance newspaper published by a Danville minister who was later murdered for his views, and a scolding photograph of the disapproving Bishop James Cannon Jr., the father of the Virginia temperance movement. “There was a big religious influence behind prohibition,” Kimball says. “Cannon was a national figure, and not just here in Virginia. Virginius Dabney, the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, called him “the dry messiah.”
As the exhibit shows, the vote to ban alcohol in Virginia wasn’t even close: 94,251 for prohibition to 63,886 against. Kimball says that changes in state politics at the time may offer up clues as to why. “By the time of the 1914 referendum, a lot of people had been disqualified from voting because of [changes in] the 1902 constitution. A lot of lower-class whites were disenfranchised and most African-Americans had been removed from the voter rolls, so a relatively small number of people were voting.”
Many of the well-to-do (as shown via records on display) stockpiled big-time before state and federal Prohibition took hold.”We have the story of an African-American WWI veteran who writes to the governor in jail,” Kimball says. “He’s asking, ‘Is this law only for poor people? Because my boss gets all the booze he wants.’ And you can see from the records that there is clearly a class and race bias as to who was arrested and prosecuted.”
“In the 1910s, it was part of a progressive idea that you could legislate people’s morals and the people would be healthier and happier,” says Batson. “They just didn’t think it through. They created this kind of underground industry in moonshine.”
Moonshine liquor goes all the way back to the earliest days of our Republic—anyone remember the Whisky Rebellion? —but the idea of illegal liquor as an industry didn’t really start until after the Civil War, and after the U.S. Congress passed an onerous whiskey tax.
“Prohibition was enforced nationwide in 1920, and not surprisingly in hindsight, the market for moonshine, which had been growing steadily over the years, exploded,” reports the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, which has published much research on the historical import of moonshine (it contributed parts of a vintage still to the Library of Virginia exhibit). “These kinds of prohibitions always cause things to go underground,” Kimball echoes. “It becomes more dangerous. In Chicago, we think of mobsters like Al Capone, but here it was mainly moonshine runners having shoot outs with agents or law enforcement.” (All told, there were 131, 930 gallons of Virginia liquor seized, and 2,543 stills destroyed during Prohibition.)
As shown, the roots of today’s NASCAR racing can be traced back to souped-up car modifications made to escape authorities and transport large quantities of bootleg liquor, in places like Franklin County in Southwest Virginia, long known as the Moonshine capital of the world. “Some of the early NASCAR drivers, like Junior Johnson and Wendell Scott, got their start high speed driving while running moonshine,” says Kimball. The NASCAR lineage is a hot topic for debate—the researchers at the Blue Ridge Institute have insisted that it was the mechanics, not the drivers, who were the real links between moonshining and NASCAR’s origins.
The Library of Virginia’s exhibit tells all sides, detailing the cruel fates of bootleggers and the tragic deaths of revenuers. “We hear a lot about the moonshiners, but not so much about the agents.” Batson says. “So we wanted to talk too about the violence behind the moonshining.” One story that stands out is the case of Lump Moore, a farmer and bootlegger from Brunswick County who died in a shootout that also left two injured revenuers.
Because curator Kimball is a musicologist, specializing in old-time, blues and gospel, there are also wonderful examples of contemporaneous songs that comment on Prohibition and its effects. “I couldn’t have done this without including the music, which says so much about the time.” There’s selections like the anti-booze “God Don’t Like It” by sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as the anti-ban “Prohibition is a Failure” by Lowe Stokes and His Pot Lickers—everyone from Tin Pan alley songsters to gospel singers weighed in on the state of things.
It’s no secret why prohibition failed in Virginia. As Batson says, “from an enforcement standpoint, it was a total mess.”
“It’s just like Virginia, right?” Kimball laughs. “They pass a law but fail to fund it. There were never more than 15 agents enforcing the new laws across the state at one time.” Included in the exhibit are frustrated accounts from ordinary people trying to make citizen arrests of illegal liquor makers, and having no luck getting agents to investigate. “Prohibition goes bad fairly quickly in Virginia,” he laughs. “The first commissioner [J. Sidney Peters] is despised, the governor, Westmoreland Davis, hates him, and he’s so obnoxious and rule-bound that after they fire him.”
Virginia’s method of enforcement was also flawed—it was dependent on the cooperation of local officials. “That’s hard to do when the sheriff himself might be involved with local bootlegging. It was a big industry, for everyone, not least the farmer who depends on selling the grain to make the stuff.” Virginia’s ham-handed ban helped to urge on an illegal liquor industry that (some say) thrives today, certainly as a cultural symbol—included in the exhibit is a movie poster for Greased Lightning, a film about African-American runner Wendell Scott starring Richard Pryor.
“In 1933,” Batson says, “when the feds threw up their hands and ended Prohibition, Virginia thought, if we can’t beat them, we can tax them.”
“There was a public health aspect too,” Kimball adds. “There was bad liquor out there and it was killing people.”
Enter Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage and Control, which, even today, contains aspects of its prohibition past. As Kimball points out, the ABC still has enforcement functions, and that’s not the case elsewhere, “In most other states now, there’s no such thing as an ABC agent.”
The Library has been sponsoring side events that speak to the exhibit’s focus. One will be a Sept. 28 roundtable discussion, “Virginia Vice: Legislating Morality,” with authors and experts on censorship and the Temperance movement. And on Nov. 2, there will be a tasting of Last Call Imperial Brown Ale, a collaborative brew concocted by Three Notch’d Brewing Company to commemorate the exhibit. There will also be a story from the brewers about how the stuff was made.
What lessons can be learned from Prohibition? “Well, the obvious modern example for me would be the fight over the legalization of marijuana,” Kimball says, adding that the most dramatic change over time for Virginia’s ABC is that “it now balances enforcement with promotion.”
In 2017, spirits are a multi-billion dollar concern for Virginia. “The beer industry is a significant economic driver that spans several sectors including manufacturing, agriculture and tourism,” said Governor McAuliffe in a June statement that celebrated the fact that Virginia now has 260 breweries, surpassing neighboring North Carolina. The governor vowed to visit each one and sample their wares before his term is up, As Teetotalers and Moonshiners reminds, the times sure have changed.
There’s a mock referendum ballot at the Library of Virginia that visitors can fill out that mirrors the question asked 100 years ago: Should Virginia outlaw alcohol? Not surprisingly, early exit polls show that the hooch may just prevail this time in a landslide.
“Teetotalers and Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled” runs through Dec. 4 at the Library of Virginia, 800 East Broad St., Richmond. The exhibit is free. 804-692-4500. LVA.Virginia.gov.
The roundtable discussion, “Virginia Vice: Legislating Morality,” is on Sept. 28 at the Library of Virginia at 5:30 p.m. (free), and “Last Call,” an Imperial Brown Ale Re-Release and Storytelling Event, will occur at Three Notch’d Brewing Company, 2940 West Broad St., Richmond at 6 p.m. ($5 donation).
Learn more here about the last of Virginia’s old-time moonshiners.