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

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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.

"It was a reflection of the cultures we came from in Europe," Shettleworth said. "Alcohol was used to reward workers throughout the workday, so it was part of the industrial workplace. When ministers went visiting, they would go from house to house, expecting to be served a drink at each one. By the time they got home, they were very well lubricated."

Temperance leaders focused on alcohol as the source of society's ills. Many of them, like Dow, positioned themselves on a religious and moral high ground and expected others to climb the hill. Some were also abolitionists who wanted to end slavery.

As more immigrants came, expanding the working class and diversifying public drinking habits, the temperance movement grew more political.

"Neal Dow believed if the sin is huge, then the salvation must be strict," said Herb Adams, a Portland historian. "At stake was the moral well-being of mankind, starting in Portland, Maine, of course. Alcohol was the central issue and everything else got tangled in it."

By the time the Maine law passed in 1851, temperance groups had been fighting for liquor reform for 25 years. It was repealed in 1856, following the Portland Rum Riot, when opponents of the law stormed City Hall because they thought Dow was selling liquor stored in the basement. The law was re-enacted in various forms and eventually folded into the state constitution in 1885.

"They kept tinkering with the law, but it never really worked," said Bill Berry, a reference assistant at the Maine Historical Society who worked on the 1998 exhibit.

The Maine law not only laid the foundation for national Prohibition, it also broke legal ground by establishing a standard for justifiable search and seizure, wrote Wesley Oliver, a law professor at Widener University, in the Maine Bar Journal.

The law allowed a magistrate to issue a warrant to search for liquor in a building if at least three complainants had probable cause to believe alcohol was there.

An additional provision, drafted by Portland lawyer Edward Fox, required at least one of the complainants to swear and provide evidence that he had actually witnessed the sale of liquor at the house. The law made it possible for police to investigate crimes on behalf of victims or witnesses in a way that would stand up in court.

The Maine law remained in effect until the repeal of national Prohibition in 1933, amid the Great Depression.

Through the years, it was celebrated, tolerated and reviled. During Portland's three-day centennial celebration in 1886, several events featured temperance songs and Dow delivered a long, glowing account of society's improvement under the Maine law.

"The wages of labor are now saved and devoted to other purposes than the purchase of drink," Dow said, "(in) better public buildings, (in) better ways of living, in multiplied and enlarged industries, and in prosperous, thrifty, happy homes."

As pressure for national Prohibition grew, President Theodore Roosevelt pointed to Maine's experience as reason to think twice, according to the "Text-Book of True Temperance," published by the United States Brewers' Association in 1911.

"The state of Maine has been trying prohibition for 60 years," Roosevelt said. "That is long enough to try anything. What has been accomplished in the state? The American people down in Alabama, Tennessee and other states are waiting to hear the facts."

The nation went ahead with the "noble experiment" of Prohibition despite Maine's example, and the temperance movement continued in Maine for decades after the federal law was repealed. Ben Bubar of China, then superintendent of the Christian Civic League of Maine, ran for president on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1975. The Maine Women's Christian Temperance Union, located in the Neal Dow House at 714 Congress St. in Portland, is the last group of its kind in the state and has about 20 members.

The PBS series comes during a period of rejuvenated interest in the Prohibition era, including HBO's award-winning dramatic series, "Boardwalk Empire." The interest doesn't surprise Shettleworth, the state historian. It was a pivotal time in America and encompassed issues far beyond alcohol. But the intrigue of the forbidden is paramount.

"It's only natural for people to be fascinated by things that they are denied," Shettleworth said. "You tell me I can't have something and of course I want it."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:



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


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