BUFFALO, NY DURING THE DRY YEARS

By Stephen R. Powell

For Americans, alcohol Prohibition meant that one couldn’t legally go to the local saloon or tavern to have a drink. Citizens were allowed to keep what was stockpiled prior to the enactment of the Prohibition amendment, but when supplies ran out there was no more to be had. For the brewer, distiller, and saloon owner alike, Prohibition meant ruin (at least on the outside). Before Prohibition there were approximently 1,400 breweries in the U.S. and 20 in Buffalo. After Prohibition was repealed 13 years later, only 700 reopened nationally, and only seven in Buffalo.7

At first everyone thought the alcohol industry was dead, but it soon became apparent that this was not the case. Prohibition had sparked "The Second Wave" of microbreweries as wall as a lively black market trade in alcohol. Alcohol had become a form of currency for the second time in American history, being traded for money and favors. These traders, who were the manufacturers and transporters of the illegal alcohol, were called "bootleggers." The term came from smugglers and Indian traders who hid liquor inside their tall boots and dates back to colonial times in the South. In 1733, the Georgia Colony had enacted a prohibitive law regarding alcohol, making it the first dry colony. General James Ogelthorpe was charged with enforcing this new law, but his efforts were thwarted by bootleggers from the Carolinas.8

One estimate states that the illicit alcohol (or bootleg) industry during Prohibition totaled 100 million gallons per year.9 The City of Buffalo, like many other American cities, had its share of smuggling stories and speakeasies, perhaps more than its share. According to Buffalo mayor F.X. Schwab in his 1922 annual state of the city adress there were 8,000 "soft drink" places where illegal liquor and beer could be obtained and consumed.With the city’s unique geographic position along the Canadian border, the temptation for smuggling was great. Unlike the rest of the country Buffalonians could cross the border to Canada, where liquor was still legal, for a drink if they wanted to. If they were brave and clever they could smuggle some back home with them.

Those who chose to smuggle booze came to be known as "rumrunners," the couriers of the black market trade. Locally, they sometimes used secret liquor storage depots along the lakeshore just outside Buffalo to distribute the booty. These beer dumps were exchange or drop-off points for the next courier to continue the relay of illicit liquors to the many "speakeasies" in the area. A "speakeasy" was an illegal bar, tavern, or any place that secretly served alcohol during Prohibition. It seemed like every day brought another exciting chase or seizure of illegal alcohol in the news. In the Buffalo Courier-Express the following article appeared on November 1, 1928.

 

Runner Leaps From Boat, Swims Ashore; Craft Seized

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Customs men chase unmanned vessel half mile before overtaking it

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Customs border patrolmen chased a motorboat a half mile in the little Niagara River in the La Salle section yesterday before catching it. The boat was unmanned, an unidentified rumrunner having leaped overboard, leaving the engine running, and swam to safety when he realized the boat was being pursued. Sixty cases of ale, smuggled from the Canadian side of the river, were recovered from the boat. the ale and boat were confiscated.

Two other seizures were made by the border patrolmen on the upper river yesterday. one was halfway between Buffalo and Tonawanda where a motorboat with twenty cases of ale and twenty case of whisky was seized and two men arrested. The other seizure was off Riverside Park in the Niagara River, where a motorboat and 65 cases of ale were seized and one man arrested.

 

Most of this smuggled liquor and beer was destined for the speakeasies. In Buffalo a bar presently known as "Ray Flynn's" (located on Main St. near Goodell St.) was reputed to have been one. The speakeasies later developed an image as a hangout for gangsters. During these times, one drank whatever the speakeasies and bootleggers had to offer, good or bad.

Beer was not as readily available as moonshine because beer was harder to make. Despite this fact, people still managed to produce beer, and although it was not of the same quality as before Prohibition, it still did the job. Some people in Erie County even managed to make their own beer at home. These home-brewers weren’t experts in chemistry, they were just average people with a desire for beer.

I was told a story by longtime Buffalo resident Ed Zdanowski about how on Saturday nights in the 1920's at their house near Niagara and Amherst Streets his father would brew beer in their bathtub. He said you couldn't take baths on that night because his dad had the room all to himself. The beer made by Ed’s father probably wasn’t like that made by the big brewers did prior to prohibition, but it was better than no beer at all.

The onset of Prohibition had sparked "The Second Wave" of the mini or "micro" brewery (called "wildcat" breweries by the press). All it took to make beer was some imagination and a little skill to build a brewery big enough to do the trick. Some of the newly-unemployed brewers that still lived in the area built them and produced what was then called "alley beer." These microbreweries may not have been very sophisticated, but they were springing up all across the United States nonetheless. Many were hidden in old warehouses run by ex-brewers. The quality of the beers produced was not as high as prior to Prohibition but people happily put up with it.

From time to time, the authorities would shut down these clandestine microbreweries. One example was the Federal raid on Stein's Hotel in Orchard Park, NY just prior to New Years Day, 1930. The raid netted an undisclosed quantity of "choice" liquor, and among the catch was Scotch, Rye, Champagnes, ales, etc.9 The frequency of these raids had reached their peak by the late 1920’s, keeping bootleggers on their toes. On October 31, 1928 the Courier-Express reported that a series of raids had occurred on several Buffalo area "drinkeries."

 

AUTHORITIES INVADE FISHER STREET HOME,

SEIZE LIQUOR

Dry agents summon man and wife to appear before federal commissioner

SIX PLACES ARE VISITED

Kensington Inn, Dewey avenue drinkery, Elmwood and Seneca street forays.

 

Federal agents working under the direction of Dpt. Chief R.E. Langhans yesterday continued their onslaught on drinkeries in this district, calling on six places and confiscating quantities of beer, wine, and liquor.

The largest single coup was made at the home of Fred C. Gebhard, 62 Fisher Street. The flying squadron reported to Chief Langhans the seizure of 149 gallons of wine in barrels, 48 quarts of wine in bottles, twenty quarts of brandy, one quart of colored distilled spirits and another quart of white wine. Mr.& Mrs. Gebhard were cited to appear today before Commissioner Timerman to explain.

Visit Aurora Road Drinkery

One squad invaded the county districts and accounted for the seizure of 268 pints and 93 quarts of home brew, twenty gallons of mash and five gallons of malt syrup in a drinkery on the Aurora road. Winchester William Seibert received a summons.

Half a barrel of beer was seized when the raiders dropped into the Kensington Inn, 1016-18 Kensington Avenue. John MacMillan and Edward R. Vone were charged with violating the Prohibition law.

Paul Olah and Albert Gileart were ordered to appear before commissioner Timerman today after a search of the drinkery of 144 Dewey Avenue. Agents reported a seizure of 658 pints of home brew. Margaret Katsmarek also was cited when agents found a small quantity of colored distilled spirits at 1624 Elmwood Avenue. Charles Ganser, 2113 Seneca Street, also received a ticket when the agents discovered half a barrel of beer in his place.

These raids proved to be largely ineffective and the trade in illegal and unlicensed liquor and beer continued on even after the repeal of the 18th amendment.

From Brewer to Soda Maker

Meanwhile, on the other side of the law, brewers had to figure out what they were going to do now that it was illegal to brew beer with more than 1/2 of 1% alcohol by volume. Their options included: "near beer" (a low alcohol beer), non-malt beverages (soda pop), fruit juices, yeast products, vinegar, malt extract, breakfast foods (cereals), commercial feeding stuffs, dairy products and industrial alcohol.

In Buffalo, Lang's Brewery made "Hyan-Dry" brand soda, and produced products under other monikers like "Lang's Dairy" and " Lang's Beverages." The Broadway Brewing Co., bought in the late 1920's by George F. Stein, produced malt extract. Iroquois Brewing Co. produced sodas. The Mangus Beck Brewing Co. produced dairy products. The Lake View Brewing Co. became Lake View Laboratories. The Christian Feginspan Brewery continued on as a bottler. Most of Buffalo’s breweries continued bottling operations under various names during Prohibition, but not all resumed brewing operations after repeal. It has been said that some brewers like Iroquois and Steins had all but one or two of their vats filled with legal product (less the 1/2% alcohol) and that the last two tanks were filled with "hi-test" beer. By doing this they played an odds game with the drys in hopes these two tanks would not be noticed during routine inspections of the breweries.

Whatever the brewers did to survive, legal or illegal, they all had to deal with the developing concept of the packaged product. Most beer before Prohibition was sold in draft form, but because many breweries across the country had switched to soda manufacturing during Prohibition, the soda produced by these brewers was sold in bottles, exposing a whole new generation of Americans to this new "packaged" product. As a result the corner drug store soda fountain was no longer the only place to get a soda; it was now possible to go to the store and bring it home in bottled form. The bottling industry was being developed and improved because of all this new activity, including advancements in the bottling equipment itself. By the end of Prohibition, most of the brewers found that they had obsolete bottling equipment because of the new technology. Prohibition had produced a fledgling giant; soda pop in packaged form. In the decades after Prohibition packaged beer would become the most common form of distribution.

By 1932, all forms of alcohol were still in great demand. The public wanted their booze, and they were determined to have it. The tide of Prohibition was once again at an ebb. Its proponents were tiring from the constant onslaught of various groups fighting for repeal. The "Noble Experiment" as Prohibition was called by some was about to fail. Anti-Prohibition movements such as the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, The Moderation League, and others were beginning to gain momentum toward the repeal of the 18th Amendment by the mid-1920's. Finally, by December 1933 the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified by the Twenty-First Amendment and the brewers could at last return to what they knew best, brewing.

 

ALL MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHT 1996,1997 BY STEPHEN R. POWELL ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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