Harmon’s Histories: Prohibition ends, but where’s the beer?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

The next time you’re at your favorite pub, you might consider raising your glass in a toast to Frank H. Cooney (current Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney’s grandpa).

On Tuesday, March 14, 1933, Cooney signed the bill legalizing the sale of beer in Montana, following the end of prohibition in the nation.

The Sanders County Independent newspaper in Thompson Falls praised the action saying, “The state will make a lot of money, and every beer parlor will bring back prosperity to the land.”

But thirsty Montanans would still have a month’s wait – the law didn’t go into effect until one minute after midnight, April 7th – and even when the day arrived, there was no beer, with one notable exception.

An unidentified Deer Lodge man somehow managed to procure a shipment of beer from a Spokane brewery. His two cases of 3.2 beer arrived by train the night of April 7.

For everyone else, it was a waiting game.

It had taken a full month for the big breweries to get back into production to be ready for the legal date. Local breweries would take considerably longer.

Missoula businessmen H. L. Shepard and William Steinbrenner filed paperwork in late March to take over the Garden City brewery, but at best it would take them 90 days to begin operations.

The Missoulian newspaper lamented, “There will be no bands, German or otherwise … no street dance … no ‘Sweet Adelining’ quartet, with the singers’ feet on the rails and steins in their hands.

“The wholesalers who have secured license to sell beer, have no beer. The retailers who want to sell beer, have no licenses. The consumers who want to drink the beer, will only have thirst.”

Even the local movie theater (Fox-Wilma) reflected the sentiment, showing a film called, “What! No Beer?” starring Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. “They bought a brewery – but they didn’t know how to make beer!” read the poster.

In a few days, some small beer shipments did begin arriving in Great Falls, Butte, Havre and a couple of other locations, but the supply was so limited “beer for sale” signs were taken down about as fast as they went up.

The Dillon Tribune reported “a crowd of Dillon’s thirsty … paid little heed to the snowstorm raging at the time to cluster about for the first distribution (of) Pabst Blue Ribbon” at the local mercantile.

A couple hundred cases arrived in Missoula by truck from Spokane on Thursday, April 14 and were quickly bought out by thirsty Missoulians.

It wasn’t until April 15 that the morning paper in Missoula announced that the “first (big) carload of the new 3.2 percent beer (was) scheduled to arrive on (Northern Pacific) train No. 603 westbound.” The second carload would come April 20.

Beer meant jobs for Montanans. An estimated 300 new positions were expected to be created almost immediately in the hotel business alone. After all, the thirsty traveler needed a tall cool one.

The box factory at the Anaconda Copper Mining company’s Bonner mill got a contract to manufacture beer cases for an Alton, Illinois, brewery.

The Western Montana Electric company in Missoula ordered in a supply of commercial beer cooling equipment in anticipation of the post-prohibition demand.

Murphy’s Corner, a small grocery and sandwich shop on North Higgins Avenue, offered free beer delivery to your home (with a four-bottle minimum).

Weather played a part in early beer sales, too. After the initial rush to buy the newly legal brew, a cool front moved in and demand dropped.

But on April 23, sunshine returned (69 degrees in Missoula) and beer retailers reported “business, which had been slow for several days, picked up readily Saturday with the change in the weather.”

The state’s beer license fund grew to nearly $130,000 in the first week of legal sales. Within a few months, Missoula county’s share of those receipts topped $2,400 and the city’s share was calculated at about $1,900.

But not everyone was reveling in the return of beer.

Prohibitionists packed into Missoula’s First Presbyterian Church on April 17, 1933 to hear W. E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson, an “internationally known foe of liquor,” and he didn’t disappoint.

“Beer,” he said, “has been the chief drunk-producing beverage in this world since the beginning of history.” He assailed the congressional act declaring 3.2 beer “non-intoxicating” as “a bald fake.” It was “light wine and beer,” he said, that caused Alexander the Great to drink himself to death!

Despite the protestations, beer was back. Liquor would follow.

Today, beer continues to make headlines, but of a different kind. Every session, lawmakers are confronted with widely varied perspectives on how to regulate the beer business in light of the surge in micro-breweries.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.