Dry county or wet? Devil’s brew was a big issue in Prohibition era

Postcard prohibition webBy Linda Emley

This postcard was mailed from Richmond Jan. 13, 1909 to Miss Ida Bowen, Richmond. It reads,”I hope you are all well over there. My school will be out in two weeks and I will be glad. G.L.P.”

This is the story of “The Dry Years” in Ray County. From 1908 to 1933, alcohol was a hot topic for our nation and our town. Since this postcard was mailed in 1909, we can assume the parade pictured was an early attempt by the local WCTU –Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – to rid Richmond of alcohol once and for all. It’s amusing that 100 years later, it’s still a hot topic.

The handwriting on this postcard looks like it was written by someone who was just learning to write cursive. You have to wonder why a young student sent a postcard about the evils of alcohol to a friend. This was an issue that affected many homes because whiskey was blamed for all the evils of the world.

In this picture, women and children are marching down the south side of Richmond square. There is no doubt it was a parade to support the vote to make Ray County a dry county because the signs read, “Get on the Water Wagon.” “God is With Us,” “Whiskey Must Go” and “Dare To Do Right.”

There was a group of men that sided with the women of Ray County. They were called the Anti-Saloon League. The local ministers and the local newspapers also supported the WCTU’s movement. But there are more men standing around watching the parade than marching with the women.

Many Ray County families were divided on this issue. Since the women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920, they had to rely on their husbands to “Dare to do Right” and vote for prohibition.

The voters of Missouri rejected prohibition in three separate elections in 1910, 1912 and 1918, but the good women of Ray County were more than the local boys could handle. Ray County became one of the dry counties of Missouri with a countywide vote Feb. 7, 1908. The vote was 2,392 for becoming a dry county, and 554 for being a wet county.

I doubt the 554 men that voted for keeping alcohol ever admitted it to their little women at home. Ray County voted in 1911 and 1916 to bring back liquor, but it was defeated so Ray County remained a dry county until it was changed nationwide in 1933.

The saloon doors on the square may not have been swinging open, but our town was far from dry. The citizens of Ray County could go to Lexington or Excelsior Springs to have a drink because those counties did not go dry until passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919.

We’ve all heard of the “Roaring 20s” and now we know why it was called that. There were illegal “speakeasies” in our county and most of them were in Richmond. The back rooms of the bars were as busy as ever.

Somewhere around this time, the bootlegger started making moonshine for their own use and selling it to their thirsty neighbors. Many had come from the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky so there was no lack of experience when it came to making home brew.

The Ray County History Book of 1973 has a two-page story about the bootleggers’ response to being a dry county. It even gives you an example of how to set up a moonshine still. This postcard was used as a picture on one of those pages.

The revenuers came to town and used planes to fly around while looking for smoke from the local stills. There were even Dukes of Hazard style car chases up and down our gravel roads.

Not all the local officials helped enforce the liquor laws like Sheriff Archie Odell. One story tells about a judge who fined an offender $500 and then he leaned forward and quietly said, “I’m sorry, but I have to do it and but you better have my usual when I come down Saturday night.”

A few of the folks of our county remember being told it was not safe to go down to the islands by the river because you might get shot by moonshiners. The stills on these islands could not be raided by the local county sheriff because the river and its islands did not belong to the county. It was up to the “Feds” to catch these moonshiners and they were busy with bigger raids in Kansas City.

The July 6, 1933 Richmond Missourian reads, “HOLIDAY RAIDS NET LIQUOR. Total of 650 quarts of homebrew taken by sheriff in two raids. Probably anticipating a rush of Fourth of July trade, at least two Ray County bootleggers had laid in heavy stocks of homebrew, sometimes called beer.”

One of the bootleggers pleaded guilty and got 30 days in the county jail.

My dad told me a story about a log cabin that was a few miles north of Richmond on Highway 13 that was a dance hall and beer joint in the 1940s. He remembers going there with his parents as a child. It was a rather rowdy place, but it was still a family restaurant.

There is a story about my grandfather Ola, who looked like Harry Truman, getting in a brawl with a guy who made the mistake of sitting down at their table. That’s another story, but you get the idea that this was a place that kept the spirits flowing.

I asked around and a few people had heard of it, but little was known. Linda Hoppock Hugleman grew up on the farm on which the roadhouse was located and she remembers finding pieces of colored glass in the field where the log cabin once stood. There was a concrete slab, but I don’t think it is still there today.

One day I ran across an article in the Richmond Missourian about the cabin. It was dated July 20, 1933. It said, “HIGHWAY CAFE ON NO 13. A roadside cafe of log construction is being erected on State Highway 13 two miles north of Richmond, which will be managed by Frank McQueen.”

I’m sure this little cafe started selling the devil’s brew later that year when it became legal again.

On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution ended national prohibition and Ray County once again became a wet county. The bars reopened and the moonshiners lost most of their business, but the debate still lives on because the WCTU women of 1909 have been replaced by the MADD mothers of today.

Have a story idea for Linda? Send her a note at or see her in person at Ray County Museum.


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