Peoria’s saloons “magically” became soft drink parlors, bottling companies supplied jobs… and the city grew.
I was recently part of a TV documentary about Prohibition here in Peoria, and I will give the producers credit for not telling viewers all about the speakeasies we supposedly had here during Prohibition. The simple truth is: we had none.
In August of 1917, the Lever Act shut our distilleries and breweries down. This phony piece of “conservation” legislation—perpetuated by Wayne B. Wheeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League—was designed to do more than conserve food and fuel during wartime, as intended. It also dramatically reduced the production of spirits by diverting grain away from the liquor industry.
This was during the First World War, and the act was said to be temporary. But of course, that was a lie, and when our doughboys came back home to Peoria, their jobs were gone. Those jobs would not return until Prohibition ended with the 21st Amendment in 1933. During that time, your relatives and mine suffered a tremendous financial burden, I can tell you that.
Next came the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act (conceived and drafted by Wheeler), which ushered in Prohibition at midnight on January 16, 1920. The taverns all shut down, and just like that, the Alcohol Capital of the World, Peoria, Illinois, was gone. It happened that quickly. Thirteen long years followed—the most dangerous and murderous period of time in America’s history—spawning political corruption locally, statewide and across the United States. Our enforcement officials came close to allowing the country to disintegrate; some say it most definitely did.
Soft Drink Parlors & Confectionaries
Mayor Edward Nelson Woodruff worried about the lost revenue from taxes and the sale of his precious liquor licenses. He told Peorians the city was losing about $170,000 a year in liquor license sales alone—and he meant to do something about it! So he thought up a scheme that would allow the taverns and saloons to reopen… as long as they bought a soft drink license. That’s right! All those dark, fun places had a chance to wake up the downtown area during a dismal time in our history, and that’s exactly what they did. They could not sell whiskey or beer, except for some watered-down versions that Peorians called “colored water.” But open they did.
One by one, the saloons “magically” turned into soft drink parlors. When the city directory was printed in 1921—one year into Prohibition—there were 66 soft drink parlors open and doing business. That same time in 1922, there were 147 up and running, and in 1923, there were 161 soft drink parlors listed in the city directory. They sold “soft” drinks like Coke, root beer, tea, coffee and much more. You could buy cupcakes, ice cream and cookies, and take your kids with you. Later in the evening, the night people and the “flappers” came out to visit those parlors… and they were not interested in cookies.
As the years rolled on, the tavern owners learned they were being scammed. No law forced them to buy a special license to run a soft drink parlor, but the old mayor had outsmarted them. Most of them stayed open, mainly as “confectioneries,” but of course, they stopped buying the soft drink licenses. The truth is, confectioneries and soft drink parlors were basically one and the same. If you look them up in the old city directories, you will find that to be absolutely true. The buildings were the same; only the facades were changed… to protect our youth.
By the time 1934 rolled around, Prohibition was over, and the soft drink parlors were well on their way out. Peoria was officially back in the booze and beer business, and by 1940, it had 242 taverns with a population of 105,010 in our city limits of a little over a dozen square miles. The next year, we were in another world war, and just over 23,000 of our young people went off to save the world once again.
The March of Glass
Bottling companies also sprang up in Peoria during Prohibition, and fruit juices were on every shelf. With all the stills scattered around, many local breweries and distilleries were in the fruit juice business by 1921, while the “certified” distilleries distilled Peoria whiskey for all kinds of purposes approved under the Volstead Act. Did you know physicians could write prescriptions for a pint of whiskey, which could be filled at all the local drugstores? A lot of local physicians became wealthy on that scheme alone. The bottle-makers manufactured bottles in all colors, shapes and sizes, and by the beginning of 1922—if you knew where to go and when—getting all the booze you wanted was no problem.
Oh, we had “dry agents” who enforced the Volstead Act and certainly did some arresting, but the fix was in, and the word “joke” pretty much summed up those enforcement efforts.
The bottling plants supplied jobs for a lot of desperate Peorians, and the city’s population grew by 28,848 people during that first decade of Prohibition. Companies like Chero-Cola Bottling, Coca-Cola Bottling Works, Arrow Products Co. and Independent Bottling Works worked around the clock to keep up with demand. We had several bottle dealers, including Singer Bottling Works and Dennison Bottle and Liquor Co., and three “cereal beverage” companies: Atlas, Gipps and Star Union Brewing. Does that surprise you? I mean, after all, it was Prohibition… I think.
If you look at the Peoria city directories during those 13 years, you can read exactly what was going on here: buy and sell booze, and don’t get caught. It was all that simple.
By 1925, Singer Bottling, Watkins Beverage and Whistle Bottling Works had joined the “march of glass.” Prohibition may have hit Peoria harder than any other city in America, but like always, it not only survived… it thrived. a&s
Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and author whose works can be found in the Peoria Public Library and online. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.