Booze and temperance in Detroit's hard-drinking early years

Liquor played a large role in the city’s history, from fur traders and Indians to Carrie Nation’s temperance campaign and 13 years of Prohibition

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

The furious tug of war between liquor and temperance began at the very founding of the tiny settlement on the Detroit River. The settlement’s governor, Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, along with French fur traders, sold brandy to Indians. The Jesuits fought to stop it. They protested, they prayed, they wrote letters to superiors to try to force the traders to stop selling brandy, but to no avail.

From 1705 through 1708 complaints were filed against Cadillac in Quebec and Montreal to Count Pontchartrain, Chancellor of France, on this issue. M. D’Aigremont, a surveyor who inspected Detroit in 1708, came to his defense: “If M. la Mothe Cadillac had not introduced the trade in brandy at Detroit but very few of the traders would remain. Brandy and ammunition are the only profitable articles of commerce for the French.”

Brandy was a cynical win-win for the French fur traders: They made money selling the brandy, and when the Native Americans were drunk they could be easily swindled out of the true value of their furs.

The man who came closest to shutting down the brandy-for-furs business was the eighth French commandant of Fort Pontchartrain, Pierre Jacque Payan de Noyan, who was in charge from 1739 to 1742. When he took over Detroit, the Huron and Ottawa were in the start of what Noyan described as a “bloody argument.” Noyan proposed shutting off the brandy to curtail the war. He wrote in his letter accepting the post in Detroit:

“Hitherto, my lord, in the flood of brandy, which we have seen flowing in this unfortunate post, it has been sought to use the interests of the colony as a cover to the greed of sordid gain, which the commandants have made contrary to the laws of honor and religion. I beg your highness orders to go against it; to authorize me to punish the guilty parties, to hold me in check, my lord, if I were wretch enough to seek my fortune by such shameful means.”

He did manage to shut down the brandy trade for one year, but Noyan was one of the most unpopular commandants in French Detroit history.

Keeping Native Americans drunk

Under the British rule in Detroit it was no better, if not more despicable. Colonial British governors in Detroit used alcohol to keep Native Americans drunk to control them or to simply kill them off outright. Henry Gladwin, commandant of Fort Detroit, wrote to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the Governor General of British North America, who had just defeated Pontiac in 1763: “If your Excellency still intends to punish the Indians further for their barbarities, it may easily be done without expense to the crown by permitting a free sale of rum, which will destroy them more effectually than fire and the sword.”

The Indians were well aware of this disease. In 1765 Pontiac, the great Ottawa leader, said, “Our people love liquor and if we dwelt near your old village of Detroit, our warriors would always be drunk.” He claimed they left Detroit for the Miami River in Ohio to escape the plague of alcohol.

In his 2004 book “War under Heaven,” Gregory Evans Dowd described how difficult it was to control the liquor trade in Detroit during British rule. Rum was a standard part of the British soldiers’ allowance and was brought into Detroit under official cover. The trader James Sterling sold 30 gallons of rum or brandy for one lieutenant’s private use, and another record shows him bringing 900 gallons for the French citizens. Most of it was used for manipulating Indians.

In 1774 the British merchants passed laws forbidding sales of hard liquor in Detroit to Indians and put all liquor in a “general rum store” to protect it from the Indians, but this had little effect. They simply went elsewhere for it.

This monumental tragedy of liquor and Native Americans continued in Detroit for decades after Americans took control. Intoxicated Indians, no longer on brandy or rum but now on whiskey, were not uncommon and had become a sad and sometimes frightening nuisance.

In 1824 a young mother with two daughters had recently settled in Detroit from Buffalo, N.Y. There were about 300 Indians of various tribes in Detroit at that time. Her daughter recorded the memory decades later:

 “My poor mother suffered much from fear of Indians our first year in Detroit. I recollect one late autumn afternoon we saw a drunken Indian coming toward the house; mother dropped the window curtains and fastened the doors. We soon heard him trying the kitchen door, after a while he gave up the attempt and we thought he had gone but scarcely had we time to freely breathe when the door flew open and the Indian who in the mean time had fallen into the muddy way side ditch, lay full length on the clean floor…. After lying there for some time muttering to himself he crawled along to the stove. After entreaties and threats to induce him to leave were alike in vain. … I was sent for the sheriff.”

Non-Indians were not much better. The sheer quantity of whiskey that men, women and children drank was stupefying. (Children were commonly seen in taverns, having their tankards “topped off.”) Hard cider and beer were not considered imbibing; most people drank cider and beer with meals, many with breakfast. In 1825 the annual consumption of pure alcohol (200 proof) was 7 gallons per person over the age of 15. Today the World Health Organization reports that Americans drink 2.49 gallons annually, or nearly two-thirds less than our ancestors.

A change in drinking habits

During the 18th century up to the American Revolution, Americans drank rum. Sugar cane from the West Indies was still cheap and readily available. Whiskey, made from grains like wheat and barley, was harsh and expensive.

What changed drinking habits in the 19th century and made whiskey a national drink was improvement in techniques. “Continuous operation stills” were invented in 1826, enabling the repeated distillation of grain and corn to inexpensively purify it. Americans could now make whiskey on a par with expensive products from Scotland and Ireland and without their sophisticated equipment.

Despite Americans’ love of whiskey, French Detroiters continued to drink rum and brandy. The Detroit author and chronicler of French Detroit culture, Marie Hamlin, noted that a favorite drink was called L’Eustrope — peaches soaked in rum.

The Detroit wealthy drank champagne or fortified wines, such as port, muscatel, malaga (a sweet fortified Spanish wine), Madeira, and sherry.

 “Champman and Owen have on hand a dozen casks of Madeira, Port and Malaga wines which will be sold for a small advance by the cask or by the gallon.” — Detroit Free Press advertisement, 1834.

The working class drank Jamaican rum, brandy and lots of whiskey by the keg. Other drinks were Shrub (fruit liquor) and Mardi Gras Beer. “Highballs” were made by mixing hard liquor with sugar and water. Wedding wines were made in the region and were described as sparkling, golden, and Catawba. Catawba grapes are found in southeast Michigan as well as throughout the Midwest; much of the Catawba wine came from Cincinnati and Missouri.

On December 9, 1855 the Detroit Daily Free Press reported an estimated 300,000 bottles of Catawba wine were produced that year, 200,000 from Cincinnati.

Tansy Toddies, something akin to mint juleps, were popular along with Cherry Bounce (cherries soaked in brandy or whiskey). Occasionally fancy after-dinner drinks were advertised, such as Crème Yvette Cordial — “just the thing for violet luncheons and dinners.” Even dear old Granny had her “weed wine,” which was basically fermented anything-you-can-find.

A Scottish visitor to Detroit, James Logan, describes Detroiters at the bar of the Woodworth Steamboat Hotel in 1838:

“… They drink very little during dinner, although whenever they pass the bar, they either sit down and smoke or indulge in potation. … No sooner are they out of bed than they call for bitters, and all day long they drink at brandy, gin, or whiskey, taking, however, only a wine-glass at a time, which they mix in a tumbler with a little sugar and water. Just enough is taken at once to raise the spirits, and then when the excitement subsides, the dose is repeated.”

“Bitters” was a common concentrate flavored with bitter herbs and other ingredients such as clove or orange rind. Aside from purported medicinal purposes, it was mostly used in the past to make cocktails.

Alcoholism and the temperance movement

The beginnings of the temperance movement are usually placed between 1804 and 1810 in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. While the passion for temperance was fiery Protestant evangelism, the intellectual foundation of the movement was said to have come from a chapter in a book written in 1784 by Dr. Benjamin Rush, an influential physician in Philadelphia and a signer of the U.S. Constitution. His book, “Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind,” included Rush’s views on alcoholism and his forward-thinking ideas on temperance.

Rush considered alcoholism a “disease of the will” resulting in loss of control over drinking behavior through habitual use, curable only through abstinence. He recommended the creation of “sober houses” where drunkards “could acquire the habit of abstinence.”

The first temperance organizations sought to reduce — to “temper” — drinking hard liquor. Local historian Anson De Puy Van Buren recorded an early temperance creed of Michigan settlers from the 1830s that was much tamer than later pledges, saloon attacks and firebrand rallies:

 “Pledge: No member shall be intoxicated under penalty of 50 cents. No member shall drink rum, gin, whiskey, wine or any distilled spirits … except by advice of a physician, or in case of actual disease (also excepting wine at public dinners)under penalty of 25 cents; provided that this article will not infringe on any religious ordinances. No member shall offer any of said liquors to any other member; or urge any other person to drink thereof; under penalty of 25 cents for each offence.”

By 1833 there were temperance societies in 23 states, subdivided into 5,000 local chapters. It was later that the temperance movement called for abstinence. Two stories exist on the source of the term to describe a complete non-drinker, a “teetotaler.” One story claimed a person pledged to drink only tea (meaning non alcoholic beverages), while another tale said when a person attended a temperance meeting if he or she pledged to abstain from alcohol a bold “T” was noted beside the person’s name.

But the temperance movement had a formidable task. By as early as 1814, taverns, saloons and bars were everywhere in Detroit. A license to sell liquor under one quart at a time or cider or beer under one gallon was ten dollars. Liquor sales to Indians were not allowed without permission from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, nor could you sell to soldiers without their officer’s permission.

No spirits were sold on Sunday except to lodgers and travelers. Licensed liquor vendors were not allowed to sell to servants, apprentices or children without consent of the “master, parent, guardian, or mistress.” To be approved for a license one had to demonstrate “good moral character.” However, the heaviest drinkers were reported to be the licensed bar owners themselves.

A bar for every 13 families

In 1834 — with a population under 5,000 — 100 people were licensed dealers selling liquor in Detroit; there was no estimate of the unlicensed. It was said there was a bar for every 13 families.

A traveler from New Hampshire with a strong Puritanical eye, a Mr. Parker, noted in 1834: “The streets [of Detroit] near the water are dirty, generally having mean buildings, rather too many grog shops among them, and a good deal too much noise and dissipation. The taverns are not generally under the best regulations, although they were crowded to overflowing. I stopped at the Steamboat Hotel, and I thought enough grog was sold at that bar to satisfy any reasonable demand for the whole village.”

However, saloons and bars were not the entire picture. Pharmacies did substantial business packaging and selling liquor for medicinal purposes.

Throughout Detroit, but especially in Corktown and Germantown, whiskey also was sold through groceries to such an extent that many grocers distilled their own whiskey and had sit-down bars in their stores. The term “grocery” became synonymous with “saloon.”

Records of temperance groups of the day show the desire to “reduce the number of groceries in the city.” At the time, whiskey was sold in barrels, smaller kegs, or demijohns (jugs ranging anywhere from five gallons to half a gallon.)

Barrelhouses were another source of alcohol. These were rough places with sawdust floors and barrels lined up for wine, spirits, and beer. People brought their own containers, such as bottles for wine or spirits or open buckets for beer. The buckets were called “growlers” and carrying beer home in one was called “rushing the growler.”

In 1825 the annual consumption of pure alcohol was 7 gallons per person over the age of 15. Today it's 2.49 gallons annually, nearly two-thirds less than our ancestors.

In 1825 the annual consumption of pure alcohol was 7 gallons per person over the age of 15. Today it’s 2.49 gallons annually, nearly two-thirds less than our ancestors.


John B. Gough, orator

Temperance groups used every tool they could find to get people to give up drinking. One method was through emotion, especially melodrama. And for this they found the perfect actor — John Bartholomew Gough, a reformed drunk. He was born in 1817 in upstate New York, moved from farm to city and became an actor.

He drank heavily as he acted in theater, performed farce in vaudeville, was a short-lived ventriloquist, and sang in squalid dives. Mostly drunk, he lost his wife and child, was arrested countless times for drunk and disorderly, was on the streets penniless, and suffered from the DTs. A man from Massachusetts saved him and made him sign a pledge to stop drinking. In addition he was to confess his tragic story to a small gathering of “drys.”

For Gough it became an awakening. His hold on that audience as he told them his heart-rending story was absolute. As an actor he had never seen people so enthralled and so moved by his own story. He began to talk to other temperance groups and earn small fees. As he spoke he worked to perfect his “routine” and found himself in demand as “John B. Gough, orator,” earning more money than he ever could have imagined. He came to Detroit several times over 20 years to give lectures to temperance audiences.

“He is unsurpassed by any living orator. At will he moves an audience from convulsions of laughter to floods of tears. … His lectures are entrancing as plays, his acting equal to that of the finest ‘star,’ while he inspires his hearers with healthful sentiments and noble thoughts.” — Detroit Free Press, December 1, 1861.

Temperance dramas were a demanding genre from 1825 through the early 20th century, with titles like “Poison It with Rum,” “Fifteen Years of a Drunkard’s Life” and “The Last Loaf.” “The Drunkard,” written in 1841, followed the typical format of a temperance drama: the main character has an alcohol-induced downfall, and he restores his life from disarray once he denounces drinking for good at the play’s end.

Theaters like the Whitney Grand Opera House in Detroit featured many of these plays, including perhaps the most famous, Emile Zola’s “L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den).” An interview of the director of an 1880’s production adapted from Zola’s novel showed that nothing was held back:

[Reporter] “The Lavoir” scene is very original, is it not?

[Director]”Very. … Imagine these two pretty leading ladies deluging each other with buckets of cold water every night.

[Reporter] “…the star’s ‘delirium’ scene is the strongest?

[Director] “Strong is hardly the word for it. It is absolutely overpowering, calculated to make the most inveterate toper forswear his glass forever! Boston went wild over it.”

There were Temperance hotels, like the Indiana House on Atwater Street, which was set up in 1848. “The bar-room is the hotbed of intemperance,” the Detroit Free Press wrote. “Many men, who would shrink from resorting to a grocery, are ensnared in the more respectable bar-room. The danger will no longer beset the traveler in the Indiana House.”

Hiram Walker makes his fortune

Hiram Walker began as a grocer. He was born in Douglas, Mass., of a poor family, grew up working in dry-goods stores, and arrived in Detroit at age 22 eager to make a fortune. After a few false starts and stumbles he opened a successful grocery on Woodward Avenue below Jefferson — the Walker Wholesale and Retail Store. He first learned how to distill cider vinegar in his grocery store in the 1830s before moving on to whiskey and producing his first barrels in 1854.

However, the temperance movement in Detroit was gaining strength. Temperance groups were growing more aggressive, moving from persuasion to confrontation and enforcement. By the Civil War, while most groups claimed to be non-political, if a politician called for constitutional prohibition, they soon became very political. They formed the Prohibition Party to try to change laws.

Speeches, rallies and editorials of organizations like the militant International Order of Good Templars became the language of the firebrand: “… lovers of honesty and sobriety to meet at the ballot box for the support of the only party that does stand erect before this Goliath of death!”

The pressure of the temperance movement was affecting the liquor industry. Whiskey sold for years for 23 to 24 cents a gallon, but through the relentless action of the temperance movement, demand lessened, forcing producers to lower their prices.

Hiram Walker decided to escape from this dangerous environment for his whiskey ambitions and bought a farm north of Windsor, Ontario. In 1856 he moved with his family to the other side of the Detroit River. In three years he had opened his distillery, calling it the Windsor Distillery and Flouring Mill (later to be Hiram Walker & Sons.)

His timing was impeccable. The U.S. Civil War broke out and all American distillers were closed as “unessential industries.” Every day Walker’s distillery was busy loading boats with casks and barrels into American boats to cross the river. In addition, the Canadian dollar was worth $2.50 at the start of the war. Walker bought thousands of U.S. dollars and when the price of those dollars rose at the end of the war, Walker cashed in millions.

Walker’s land holdings grew from 6,000 acres to 7,000 with farms throughout the area. At his peak he owned 10,000 acres of land in Canada and was rumored to be the largest individual land owner at the time. He was the lord of his little town, Walkerville. He changed the local Methodist church to Anglican and named it St. Mary’s, after his wife. He ran the city council, department of public works, fire department and health center. He owned a large flour mill and a cattle ranch. He fed the cows with swill (the grain left over after distillation) which he piped directly from the distillery to the cattle barns. He owned railroads and oil wells. Six hundred workers and their families lived in Walkerville by the late 1880s.

Walker’s brands were consistent and dependable. The premium brand, Canadian Club, was aged in oak barrels for an unusually long seven years. This was revolutionary at the time, as all of the U.S. bourbons and whiskeys were aged for less than a year. Walker’s whiskey was sold in bottles — an innovation — and was particularly popular in the late 19th century gentlemen’s clubs of the U.S. and Canada; hence it became known as “Club Whisky.”

He always considered himself a Detroiter, so when the business seemed secure in his sons’ care he returned to live in Detroit. He died in 1899 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

The rise of women’s rights

Out of the Civil War came not only a generation of military leaders but an alliance of formidable women seeking women’s rights and other progressive issues, including temperance (although temperance organizations excluded women from their leadership). Some of the famous women included Dorothea Dix, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Clara Barton, Dr. Emily Blackwell and Catharine Beecher. Many women believed that they and their children were the first and most direct victims of male drunkenness through violence and poverty. There was plenty of evidence in the Detroit papers to verify this.

 “John Malony had a falling out with his wife, all on account of a bottle of whiskey notwithstanding that he had promised the Justice forty nine times before that he would never do the like again, could not resist the temptation to make the number even, and fell to and gave his wife a handsome drubbing. He was sent up for 90 days.” — Detroit Free Press, April 16,1860.

Saloons, which were off limits to women, were now to become the field of battle. Business leaders and politicians operated out of saloons. Many groups dominated by men, such as labor unions, held their meetings in saloons; therefore, leading women of the day claimed saloons were keeping women out of politics. Powerful beer breweries and bartenders association pitted themselves against women’s right to vote advocates for fear they would support temperance causes and ultimately prohibition.

Women camped out in front of saloons, held prayer meetings, made note of locally known men who went in and how many times, sang hymns, and sent in children to fetch their fathers. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Hillsboro, Ohio in 1873 and was joined by the pietistic and politically aggressive Anti Saloon League in 1895.

In Michigan the league developed in rural areas and began by hounding police authorities about closing saloons on Sundays and holidays. The Anti Saloon League, which was dominated by rural Protestant clergy, now saw this battle as a war of God against evil, and their language made that clear. This statement was issued by the Detroit Anti Saloon League in 1900:

“There are many forces of church and law in the city and they keep silent, while evil stalks abroad in daylight and at midnight in a way to be equaled only in the darkest and most sensual days of the Roman Empire.”

Carrie Nation, saloon smasher

The most famous saloon smasher of them all was Carrie Nation from Medicine Lodge, Kansas, the daughter of a Fundamentalist Kentucky planter father and a psychotic mother. Some historians believe Carrie Nation herself was psychotic. (Her daughter was also diagnosed with psychosis.) She was nearly six feet tall and 175 pounds, her uniform a gray raglan and a black straw bonnet. At age 54 in 1900 she became unsettled by several illicit saloons and a drugstore in Medicine Lodge. She first attacked the drugstore with a sledge hammer, then three of the illegal saloons with bricks and rocks, hurling at them anything she could find. She continued to other Kansas towns, where she and a few other WCTU women demolished several saloons, then lectured the crowds.

She toured the U.S., and at many train stops was greeted by thousands of supporters, like this adoring crowd she addressed on a train platform in Des Moines:

“God bless you. You are all saloon smashers; I can see it in your faces. We must all work together to down rum and the Devil. …”

In 1908 she reached Detroit, entering Considine’s Saloon on Monroe Street at 9 p.m. on Aug. 24, a busy night made busier with rumor of her arrival. She walked through the saloon to the back room where the boys “ate beefsteaks and drank beer at small tables.” The Free Press said she scrutinized the art on the wall that the paper described as “pictures of feminine beauty that are undeniably artistic but not because of their superfluous drapery.”

“A gilded Hell!” she exclaimed and stormed over to lecture the bartenders, then moved on to other saloons and finally a 20-minute harangue at Michigan Central Station to a large crowd.

Two days later she went out to the village of Holly in Oakland County for a lecture attended by two or three hundred farm families. Michigan Gov. Fred Warner arrived and she confronted him for not firing the Detroit police commissioner, whom she said was not enforcing the Sunday liquor law. The governor said a few words, then with the lieutenant governor by his side literally ran from her and an angry mob of farmers to hide in a hardware store. “You’re a coward!” she screamed after the two.

The ‘wets’ held power in Detroit

While the storm and thunder of Christian temperance roared on, the “wets” — or those people against temperance — held their own. Between 1875 and 1925 the wets held power in Detroit; in some years more than one third of city council members were saloon owners or bartenders. They controlled many city districts, stuffed ballot boxes and used alcohol to sway voters.

Some Victorian era saloons became men’s palatial hideaways, sporting clubs, and political hangouts. The saloons served locals, but with the growth of business travelers, hotels began opening “bars” where men stood “goose-style” on one leg (the other on the brass bar below). The cocktail bartender was the pride of a “high-toned” bar, as described in the Detroit Free Press on Dec. 31, 1882:

“The bar was an elegantly carved affair in polished walnut with a top of rich marble. The side board matched the bar and glittered with cut and Venetian glasses. Polished floors, frescoed walls, crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, and easy chairs were there to add attractiveness to the place…. By far the most ornate thing about the saloon was the cocktail operator.

“Probably about 30 years of age, below medium height, broad in the shoulders, small in the waist, spotless shirt, white vest, light blue necktie with a dot of gold … blond and debonair. Mark the deferential attention with which he receives orders; the dexterous grace and rapidity with which he places the ingredients of a cocktail in a glass, a rapidity that has in it no suggestion of haste; and then, the juggler-like dexterity with which he elevates the glass high above his head and sends the fragrant liquid out in a parabolic stream that is deftly caught to the last drop in a delicate silvered goblet and is then, upon a small silver tray, placed before the customer.”

Prohibition, for 13 years

Prohibition finally passed the House and Senate in December 1917 and was ratified as the Eighteenth Amendment on January 16, 1919. It ended nearly 120 years of temperance battles and some people were thoroughly convinced evil itself had been overcome. According to the Museum of the Anti Saloon League in Ohio, some communities sold their local jails, expecting criminal behavior to disappear, that the insane would become sane, and that poverty, drunkenness, child abuse, depression and suicide would vanish.

What actually did vanish was the rural Protestant mentality of fundamentalists and their attacks on urban immorality. The religious fury seemed to blow away, there being no longer a need or desire for their righteous warfare. But it was soon clear that banning alcoholic beverages did not eliminate or even reduce social problems, particularly drunkenness, crime, mental illness and poverty.

The Hiram Walker distillery was the biggest reason for the rum runners crossing the Detroit River during Prohibition. Like the United States, Canada in the early 20th century prohibited drinking alcohol; however, under pressure from Hiram Walker & Sons, Canada did not prohibit producing and bottling liquor. So, the descendents of Hiram Walker bottled whiskey and sent it to the docks. If someone decided to illegally put in a boat and ship it to Detroit, hey, what could they do?

Prohibition also marked the end of the Age of Progress and all the noble issues that consumed a century. It lasted for just 13 years. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was ushered in, and with it the end of Prohibition. After signing the repeal of 18th Amendment in 1933, Roosevelt looked around and smiled, saying, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

Related photo gallery:
Detroit during Prohibition: A bootlegger’s dream town

Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, through online retailers and Kindle.