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Looking Back: With new year coming, a history of Marion and alcohol

  • Confiscated moonshine alcohol is checked by Marion Deputy Jack Stephens, left, and Chief of Police Charles "Yobbie" Edwards at Marion Police Department headquarters in 1955.

    Confiscated moonshine alcohol is checked by Marion Deputy Jack Stephens, left, and Chief of Police Charles "Yobbie" Edwards at Marion Police Department headquarters in 1955.

By Sam Lattuca
Williamson County Historical Society
updated: 12/27/2017 11:43 AM

With the approach of New Year's Eve, I thought I would spend some time summing up how alcohol has played a part in our local history. In 1839, when 20 acres of land was donated to the newly formed Williamson County in order to establish Marion as the county seat, a survey was organized that platted off the public square and about one block surrounding it as the beginnings of Marion.

Before the survey could even be completed, an individual by the name of Bone Davis had already built a makeshift tavern in the form of a small log cabin on what would later become the near center of the square. Needless to say, it had to be moved.

The duty of the first Williamson County commissioners was to establish fixed liquor prices. Whiskey was priced at 12.5 cents per half pint; brandy, rum, wine and gin, 18.75 cents per half pint; and hard cider at 12.5 cents per quart. Liquor licenses ranged from $25 per year in 1839 to $500 in 1864 during the Civil War. Saloons in the early days were often referred to as grocery stores, which gives shopping for groceries a completely different meaning.

By the time 1869 rolled around, the Temperance party had become a national party and attempted to compete with the Republican and Democratic parties based on the elimination of alcohol. The Temperance party eventually found some fertile soil in southern Illinois, but it clearly didn't take off immediately; a county election held here in 1869 that had prohibition on the ballot received only one vote in favor.

When the Bloody Vendetta occurred here in the county in the early 1870s -- the local equivalent of a Hatfield/McCoy feud that claimed a handful of lives -- the Temperance party not only began to gain traction, but the open carry of handguns and weapons was called into question as well.

By 1900, there were no less than six separate temperance groups in Marion alone. The Marion city election of 1899 was clearly between the pro-saloon and anti-saloon forces. The Temperance party barely won that particular election, but it clearly didn't affect the number of saloons in town -- a 1906 city directory indicates there were 12 saloons in town, with four of them on the square alone.

The temperance movement of the late 1800s was reflected not only in local politics, but also showed up in the names of children. The mother of Edward Creal, the founder of Creal Springs, was named Temperance Soberness Wilburn.

Long before the Volstead Act was created, forcing the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, many locals had already developed the skills required to make their own alcohol, often referred to as "moonshine," "hooch," "mule" or "white mule." This was likely magnified after 1900 by the large influx of European immigrants moving into this area to work in the coal mines. They were more culturally accustomed to drinking their own homemade wine and alcohol products.

By the time Prohibition took effect in 1920, the local county sheriff was already accustomed to turning his head away from the illegal production of alcohol. That left many local Protestant churches fertile for coupling with the Ku Klux Klan and relying upon them for illegal alcohol enforcement when they resurged nationally in the early 1920s.

In 1924, when the Klan had reached near full potential in this area, an anti-Klan group called the Knights of the Flaming Circle coupled with pro-alcohol gangsters like the Shelton Brothers to take on the anti-alcohol forces. The result was open warfare on the streets of Williamson County, particularly in Herrin, and came to be called the Booze Wars.

The Booze Wars resulted in Williamson County coming under militia control by the National Guard. The situation was reported on regularly in national newspapers, just as the Herrin Massacre had been in 1922.

In 1924, raids were conducted almost daily on homes in Marion as officers searched for illegal alcohol. Even the local state representative who lived on North Lear Street wasn't immune from being raided, even though he was an active Klan member.

In December 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition, but not the local production of moonshine stills, which continued to be raided and confiscated all the way into the 1950s.

• SAM LATTUCA is president of Williamson County Historical Society.