When you think of the first English settlements in the USA, you think of Jamestown and Williamsburg, but the one that really thrived and became a true city is Savannah, Georgia. Since Savannah was around from almost the beginning and stayed a city all that time, it has been through every bright and dark time in American history, including the sad experiment where it became illegal to drink alcohol. You can really soak up the history of this dark period—and have a drink at the end too—at the American Prohibition Museum.
I’ve read plenty about the period of 1920 to 1933 in American history. This was when lots of aggressive Protestant bible thumpers who were a loud minority got their way and managed to get alcohol consumption banned nationwide, instead of in just a few dry counties or states. All kinds of fringe allies joined them, including the “patent medicine” companies that could still put alcohol in their bottles, as well as the KKK.
Most people now know that the unintended consequences of this move had far more dramatic effects than a hoped-for reduction in drinking ever could. Since—big surprise—people were going to find a way to drink anyway, organized crime jumped in to fill the void and their coffers swelled. Powerful gangs vying for territory made big cities more violent. The Coast Guard had to get destroyer ships from the Navy to try to combat the huge swell in rum runner boats bringing booze in from Canada and the Caribbean.
Since the breweries and distilleries had to close, many gainfully employed men went to work for the mafia instead. Many farmers lost everything because the grains or hops they were producing for the breweries suddenly had no market. The early years led to the Roaring ’20s and speakeasies, the latter to the Great Depression.
You can see all of this on display in the American Prohibition Museum, which does a great job of showing the movement and its aftermath from multiple perspectives, in a visual manner with good storytelling. Did you know, for instance, that without Prohibition, there would probably be no NASCAR? It was the bootleggers who started tricking out regular cars to make them fast enough to outrun the police.
The path of the rooms leads you through the religious push and lobbying, as well as colorful characters like Carry Nation, who would smash up saloons with a hatchet while singing hymns. (Her first husband was an alcoholic and died young.) She gets a life-sized wax figure on display.
On a TV screen you get to see an actor putting life into the words of a fiery anti-alcohol preacher of the time who would rally large crowds. Apparently he thought Savannah was especially evil.
The Prohibition Museum does a great job of showing both sides of the story, highlighting the key points from the temperance movement crowd, but also the economic and freedom arguments against it from business leaders and libertarians. Tens of thousands of truck drivers, coopers, warehouse workers lost their jobs, while landlords who rented to bar owners faced empty storefronts.
After the sale of beer, wine, and liquor was banned in 1920, we know what happened next from the movies. We got Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, barely hidden nightclubs with big entertainment acts, Victorian clothing giving way to flapper dresses, and women smoking from elegant cigarette cases. The most iconic images we can picture from 1920 to 1933 were almost all a direct reaction to the initial action. An attempt to make the nation more moral had the opposite effect in almost every region of the country: bars got more popular in cities and the transportation of alcohol in rural areas went from a boring trucking business to a high-speed racing business with much higher stakes.
You don’t hear much about Prohibition’s effect on the U.S. economy, but it was massive. Before 1920, a massive 40% of the U.S. Treasury’s budget came from taxes on brewers and distillers. Revenues declined at the same time we were trying to recover from fighting in WWI.
You see this all play out in the American Prohibition Museum of Savannah, with film clips, newspaper stories, and a wax figure man with a still telling his story about making moonshine in the woods. There’s a display of sheet music for songs that dealt with the changes, such as “Smart Little Feller Who Stocked up His Cellar” and “What’ll We Do on a Saturday Night When the Town Goes Dry?” You can see booze literally running in the streets in old film clips, with kids scooping up buckets of it for their parents as police smash barrels and the liquor heads for the street drains.
We see quotes from wise men like Mark Twain and Abe Lincoln, who predicted exactly what would happen in the aftermath, as well as from hypocrites like Henry Ford, who said he would stop manufacturing cars if booze became legal again.
Ironically, Ford’s introduction of a V-8 engine in 1932 really spurred on the bootleggers. His model became the booze-running vehicle of choice for drivers trying to outrun the police. There’s a model of one on display, with the hood open to see the works and signs showing where the liquor bottles would be stored. His 1939 version became the stock car racing favorite in a Daytona Beach contest that eventually led to NASCAR events and the Daytona 500.
The last section is a happy one, showing celebrations from around the country as buying alcoholic drinks became legal again. As breweries and distilleries cranked back up, they became a huge job creation engine.
There’s a note of melancholy though with tallies of the damage that was done. It took the brewing industry decades to recover and for a very long time all we had to pick from were slight variations on the same style of beer. Our wine industry fell off the map until the 1970s as many vineyards turned into ghost wineries and we ceded the whole hops growing industry to Europe until very recently. It took a very long time to end the police and government corruption that Prohibition gave birth to: “In large cities, the homicide rate per 100,000 people increased by 78% compared to the pre-Prohibition era.”
At the end of the museum’s regular sections, you end up in a reproduction of a speakeasy, where you can order a classic cocktail at the bar. We call them “classic cocktails” now, but mixed drinks were, at the time, just another side effect from Prohibition. Since you couldn’t legally buy commercial liquor anyone, what you got in a bar was of varying quality, sometimes close to undrinkable. So bartenders started inventing ways to make that bathtub gin or moonshine taste better by mixing in other ingredients. Here in Savannah you can end your tour with a Sidecar, Sazerac, Gin Ricky, or Corpse Reviver #2.
The American Prohibition Museum is open daily from 10 to 5. Admission is $15 for adults, though there are some combo packages available. For other things to do in the city—and there are a lot—see the Visit Savannah Tourism site.