Harmon’s Histories: In wine there is truth; in beer there is freedom


By Jim Harmon


Alcohol has been a part of human society for a long time – perhaps as far back as Neolithic times, about 10,000 BCE. Ever since then, it has generated both commerce and controversy.

Booze was a big part of Western lore and Montana’s history. After all, a town wasn’t really a town until it had a livery and a saloon.

Montana’s first newspaper (Montana Post, Virginia City, 1864) encouraged readers to “go and see the boys” at the Head-Quarters saloon and “strengthen (your) inner man.” At the same time, it duly reported the death of one fella, who succumbed to “exposure caused by intemperance… another of rum’s victims.”

Saloon advertising filled many of Montana’s early papers. They’re fun to read.

A couple of my favorites come from Deer Lodge City’s newspaper, the Weekly Independent in 1867.

The first ad is actually for “Wilson’s California Bakery.” Then, you do a double-take. Conveniently attached to the bakery is a “magnificent bar supplied with the finest kinds of liquors and segars (sic).” The ad goes on to say, “Billy is always on hand to attend to the most refined imbibers, – or ‘any other man.'”

Ah, the aroma of Deer Lodge City in 1867: “Segar” smoke, stale whiskey and a fresh croissant.

In the same issue, the “Bed Rock Saloon” in Philipsburg assured readers that its proprietor, Newton Dickinson, would always be “on hand to attend to strangers personally.” Apparently drinking men, especially strangers, needed a lot of attention.

Missoula had a robust drinking scene in its early days. Besides the notorious sanctums of the prescribed district, there were respectable saloons galore.

The Capital Beer Hall made its name by serving fresh rabbit stew to its customers. When bar-owner Andy Schilling wasn’t hunting local game, he was importing the ingredients for his famous clam chowder, “the most palatable dish ever set before the bulging eyes of hungry humanity.”

In the late 1890s, Al Holbert and Warren Shopp re-opened Missoula’s mothballed Headquarters Saloon (seems to be a popular saloon name). The Missoulian declared it “a howling success.” There was a turkey banquet and a live orchestra. The revelry lasted well past midnight.

If you believed the newspaper advertising, imbibing was good for your health. Schlitz encouraged you to “drink more pure beer.” After all, the “nations that drink the most of it suffer the least from nervousness and dyspepsia. It will not cause biliousness-it gives you the good without the harm.”

Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey claimed to “improve the digestion and assimilation of food and give tone and vitality to every organ of the body.” But the claims didn’t end there. Why, it was said to be useful in alleviating the symptoms of coughs, colds and asthma. It even claimed to have prevented and relieved pneumonia and malaria!

Is it 5 o’clock, yet?

Alcohol sales and saloon taxes proved to be a financial boon to cities like Missoula. In 1894, the annual municipal financial report listed income just under $22,000. Most of that came from general taxes but the second largest amount came from saloon and gambling licenses (nearly $2,000).

There was opposition, to be sure.

In 1866, the Territorial legislature passed a law outlawing gaming, dance houses and hurdy-gurdy houses on “the Lord’s Day” or face fines and jail time. But, lawmakers didn’t ban liquor or saloon operations.

In 1873, there was a movement to establish a “Sunday Law” in the Territory, prohibiting business of any kind on that day to promote “better observance of the Sabbath.”

The Weekly Missoulian, while agreeing Sunday should be a day of rest, argued such a law would never be enforced. “Better have no laws at all than have laws that are constantly violated with impunity.”

The paper pointed out that in the local mining camps, Sunday was the only day the men had to make most of their purchases and there likely wouldn’t be a soul “who would make a complaint against the merchants and saloon keepers” who did business. In fact, it argued, “Close up stores by this act, and the owners will sell goods out of the rear. Close up saloons, and men will buy liquor by the bottle and make beasts of themselves.”

Stevensville’s paper, the North West Tribune, in the late 1890’s, carried a weekly column on its front pages, authored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The articles decried “The brutal murder of helpless women and children and the demoniacal deeds of rum crazed fiends resulting from the licensed liquor traffic…”wctu-drinking-parents-debased-progeny

The Salvation Army did its part to save all the poor souls from alcohol’s “cesspool of sin,” but their soldiers were often “jeered by men and boys old enough to know better.” The Missoulian rather weakly admonished the hecklers, saying the Salvationists were at least “entitled to the respect of the community even though they may be denied its support.”

As for me, I’ll follow the wisdom of Ben Franklin, who was known to say, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.”

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.