October 2, 2011

When Maine went dry

Maine's distinction as the birthplace of Prohibition earns it a role in a Ken Burns documentary.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The hard-won legislation was so groundbreaking, so controversial, it was known across the nation and beyond as "the Maine law."

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The Rum Room in Portland City Hall, where confiscated liquor and liquor-making equipment was stored, in an image from a postcard mailed in the early 1900s.

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Officials remove illegal liquor from a ship docked at the Grand Trunk Wharf in Portland Harbor in the 1920s. Prohibition became law nationwide with the 18th Amendment in 1919.

Press Herald file photo

Additional Photos Below


"PROHIBITION" will air on MPBN, Channel 10 in the Portland area, at 8 tonight.

In 1851, Maine became the first state to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, though an exception for "medicinal, mechanical and manufacturing purposes" kept many liquor wagons rolling.

Portland Mayor Neal Dow, the so-called "Father of Prohibition," pushed the law through the Legislature, became a leader in the national temperance movement and ran for president on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1880.

Many states and other countries followed Maine's lead, culminating with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and the start of national Prohibition the following year. Lawmakers and temperance leaders might have taken a harder look at Maine's experience and avoided the widespread pitfalls that prompted the national law's repeal 13 years later.

Many Mainers flouted the state's dry law, concocting liquor at home and selling it to neighbors in "kitchen bars." Farmers continued the age-old practice of turning apples and other fruits into hard cider and wine. Tavern owners saw fines as a cost of doing business. Pharmacies and groceries sold alcohol legally as medicines and flavor extracts. The Portland Rum Riot of 1855, when an angry mob gathered outside City Hall, left one man dead and seven injured.

"What happened in Portland and in Maine was a microcosm of what would happen across the country," said Earle Shettleworth, Maine's state historian. "When Prohibition passed, people immediately began to find ways to circumvent it."

Maine's bumpy history as the birthplace of Prohibition and a stronghold of the temperance movement will be featured in "Prohibition," a three-part PBS documentary series that starts tonight.

The series was directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, award-winning makers of films about the Civil War, baseball, jazz and World War II.

The documentary covers the development of drinking habits in America, from its founding when rum was the beverage of choice for many through the flood of European immigrants in the late 1800s.

It explores the motivating factors that led to Prohibition and its links to women's suffrage, changing social mores, anti-immigrant fervor, organized crime and advances in the legal system.

Researchers for the film spent several days at the Maine Historical Society in Portland in 2009, poring over photographs, newspapers and advertisements from the 1800s and early 1900s. The society has an extensive collection of Prohibition-related materials, which were featured in a 1998 exhibit, "Rum, Riot and Reform: Maine and the History of American Drinking."

"The film's researchers went through tons of photographs and other ephemera, looking for visuals that would capture the era," said Jamie Rice, public services librarian at the society. "Ultimately, they selected 14 images. It was a lot of work for 14 images."

They selected photographs of Mainers at work, on the streets and in churches. One shot captured the H.H. Hay Apothecary on Congress Street in Portland. They also chose the following headline from The State of Maine newspaper in Portland on June 5, 1855: "Atrocious Outrage! Citizens fired upon by order of Mayor Dow. One Man Killed, Seven Wounded!" The shocking story ran on page 2.

"In most of the research I've done, Prohibition wasn't on the front page," Rice said. "When national Prohibition passed, surprisingly it was buried in the back of newspapers. You'd think you'd want to let people know they couldn't drink anymore."

In Maine, as in most of the nation, the temperance movement was a complicated issue born from frustration with widespread drinking as a cultural norm and the socioeconomic problems it caused, including poverty and domestic violence. In the early 1800s, when the city had about 9,000 residents, there were more than 200 licensed liquor establishments in downtown Portland. The world's first Total Abstinence Society was founded in Portland in 1815 and a statewide organization of local temperance groups formed in 1834.

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Additional Photos

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Neal Dow, the so-called "Father of Prohibition"


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