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Wet and dry in Eaton County

New book recounts the region’s prohibition era


“Last call for alcohol” is a common refrain in bars near closing time, but on April 30, 1918, the barkeepers across Michigan really meant it. Due to a statewide referendum, Michigan turned off the tap on May 1, 1918, — a full two years before Prohibition went into effect nationwide in January 1920.

By 1887, counties across Michigan were given the power to implement prohibition locally, and it was typical for county voters to vacillate between dry and wet.

A new book, “Spirits of the Past,” issued by Eaton County Historical Commission, details that experience in one county covering everything from the history of local bars and taverns, the local Temperance Movement and how local residents still found creative ways to drink.

In 1892, voters affirmed Eaton as a dry county, but in 1889 it switched to wet, Then in 1902 it went dry again … until 1904 when it went wet again.

Finally, according to the book, prohibition was approved by voters in 1909, closing 26 Eaton County saloons and a Charlotte brewery.

Eaton County’s schizophrenic relationship with alcohol wasn’t atypical, but according to the book “another challenge for Eaton County enforcement was the inconvenient fact that neighboring areas didn’t ban the sale of alcohol until much later.” For example, it wasn’t until 1910 that Ingham County would go dry, so it was an easy run to Lansing to imbibe.

About the impact of prohibition laws the book concludes: “Alcohol remained readily available in Eaton County and other parts of Michigan throughout even national prohibition.”

Using historic advertising, photographs and postcards, the book tells the history of the Eaton County temperance movement through the eyes of Eaton County residents such as Isaac N. Reynolds, founder of The Eaton Rapids Temperance Reform Club in 1877, and Eaton Rapids Mayor Barzilla Custer, who publicly posted the names of prominent “over indulgers.”

Reynolds helped attract more than 1,000 men as members to the “Red Ribbon” club, one of 203 local chapters in Michigan with membership of more than 58,000. In Eaton Rapids, the Reform Club was the force behind the construction of a meeting hall seating 1,000. The building still stands today near State and Main Streets in Eaton Rapids and is used for community events.

The building has the distinctive band of red bricks near the roof, symbolic of a red ribbon.

The book explains the history of the use of the red ribbon as a symbol of abstinence for the temperance movement and its unique ties to Michigan. It seems a congressman from Monroe first wore the ribbon into the House of Representatives. The book cites an Adrian doctor and temperance leader as he explains the symbolism of a red ribbon: “a few years ago a lot of good, big-hearted, whole souled fellows, who had been in the habit of drinking got together and resolved that they would rather wear a red ribbon than a red nose.”

“Spirits of the Past” also details some of the clever ways drinkers circumvented Prohibition by using patent medicines sold in drugstores, like Dr. Hess Colic Remedy and Hinkley’s Liniment which were 60 percent alcohol. The book also examines what it calls “an ingenious way to get around the law” by using a wine brick infused with concentrated grape juice. To circumvent the law, the instructions described how to dissolve the brick in a gallon of water while cautioning against leaving it in a cupboard for 21 days or it would turn into wine.

One of the more unique ways of getting a drink was the “beer bucket train,” which in the days before Prohibition ran between the dry county of Barry and the wet Eaton County.

The book relates how a special train would run from Hastings in Barry County with stops at Coats Grove and Woodland before going on to Woodbury in Eaton County. The men would jump off the train at stops to fill their buckets before getting back on the train.

By 1933, the nation became tired of all this rigmarole and Congress enacted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment which established Prohibition. Michigan became the first state to vote for repeal and in December 1933 the “noble experiment” ended with a toast.

The book also details the history of the bars and taverns in Eaton County and covers the relatively recent craft brewing and spirits manufacturing movement.

Deborah Malewski, a contributor to the book and an Eaton County Historical Society commissioner, said the idea was to attract younger readers who are interested in the craft beer and spirit phenomena.

Malewski said the book is used as a fundraiser for the commission, which provides grants to local groups who undertake history projects. The book costs $15 and is available at the Eaton County Courthouse Museum at 100 W. Lawrence Avenue in Charlotte.

The book also will be for sale at a presentation on the history of Prohibition in Eaton County 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 13 at the Delta Township Library.


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