By Peter Holmstrom
It was the 14th of January 1916. The day was cold and a snowstorm had descended upon Baker, Oregon. A crowd of onlookers had come to pay their last respects to a dying industry. As horrified beer lovers watched, more than 1,500 gallons of Weinhard beer was poured into the sewer. Many had brought buckets and pails, hoping to capture some last vestige of a drink they might never taste again; for, you see, Prohibition had come.
The road to Prohibition had been a long one; the idea was toyed with in 1844, 15 years before Oregon even became a state. The frontier timber and shipping village of Portland was developing into a major metropolis, but along with the positives that came with that expansion, there were the negatives. Crime, corruption, prostitution and gambling were common, and the frequent meeting grounds for these illicit activities were the local saloons. These businesses were not considered “nice places” and tended to attract the young, transient workforce that made up 50 percent of Portland’s population in 1866.
As the city’s population began to rise, Portland saw an influx of families with children. Many who saw the “sin and wickedness” of the city sought to change it. The popular opinion of the time: get rid of the saloons and you get rid of the sin.
This sentiment was not unique to Portland. By the turn of the century, Progressive Era political groups were springing up in every metropolis in the country, looking to drastically change the fabric of our nation’s society.
“You have a lot of different elements going on at the same time—namely, the Progressive Movement. It’s really gaining ground in the 19-aughts and into the teens. A lot of the Prohibition support was tied in with suffrage. These two political movements are really married to each other,” says local historian Doug Kenck-Crispin.
National organizations such as the Women’s Temperance League and the Anti-Saloon League canvassed the countryside, promoting the moral justification of prohibition. It became a necessity of the righteous to disown hard liquor. But beer was a something of a gray area.
During the late 1800s, Oregon was firmly on the path to becoming the brewery capital of America. Farmers had been growing hops in Oregon as early as 1849, and by the early 1900s it was North America’s top producer.
“That was really the golden age of hops in Oregon,” Oregon State University Hop and Beer Archivist Tiah Edmunson-Morton laments. “1905 to 1915 Oregon was the top hop producer in the country!”
Oregon’s history with breweries goes back to 1852, when a German immigrant named Henry Saxer established Liberty Brewery in the small village of Portland, on what is today First and Davis Streets in downtown. Over the next seven years, six more breweries would open in the territory, ready to meet the demands of the frontier life.
The brewery industry of the 19th century was very different from today. Transportation and manufacturing limitations meant that most breweries only serviced a small geographic area. Bottling and canning were still years away, so most patrons would come into a brewery with their own personal keg or tin pails specifically for beer. Even once bottling beer became possible and popular in the late 1800s, upgrading machinery was a costly and time-consuming process. Brewers were almost exclusively German immigrants, meaning that the style of beer that Americans learned to love was primarily lighter lagers, though some also did porters and stouts.
Most breweries remained regional, servicing cities and towns you wouldn’t think could have a brewery today. Oregon breweries peaked in 1890 with 48 operations, ranging in size from a brewery in Gervais, which in 1879 sold 129 barrels of beer a year, to the Henry Weinhard Brewery, which in 1890 was producing more than 100,000 barrels of beer annually.
However, this golden age of brewing in Oregon wasn’t going unnoticed by the “moral right” of the state. “The larger breweries ran into Temperance League issues, who had really high political power, and they managed to stop the larger distribution of beer,” says Edmunson-Morton, “Basically, in every election starting in the late 1800s, people were talking about prohibition.”
The most important election in Oregon’s beer history occurred November 4, 1914. Measure 17, which would ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol throughout the state, seemed to have support from all sides.
“A lot of religious organizations were publishing pamphlets, basically saying ‘stop the horrible spread of alcohol.’ We have OSU records from 1912 stating that they needed to stop growing hops because they wouldn’t be able to continue research once Prohibition hit. That was 1912!” says Edmunson-Morton.
When the numbers were in, Measure 17 passed 136,842 to 100,362, making Oregon a dry state four years before national Prohibition.
Breweries and saloons were given a 14-month grace period before they had to cease manufacturing and selling alcohol starting January 1, 1916. The breweries of the Pacific Northwest closed their doors, many of them for the last time. However, some breweries and growers fought for a future.
Hop production continued throughout Prohibition, with exportation to the rest of the country and Canada keeping Oregon in the top spot for growing the crop. Home brewing (though illegal) was common in basements and cellars. It was easy to make. All that was required was yeast, grain and sugar, however, accidents were common, and many a dark night would ring with the battlefield-like sounds of exploding bottles.
The legitimate breweries, freshly out of business, tried to devise new ways to make a living. The Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co. produced syrups, flavorings and non-alcoholic mixers that you would add alcohol to, if you had it. Others made “near-beer,” which was produced with the legal amount of 0.5 percent alcohol. But no one could deny that agriculture was hit hard by Prohibition.
The majority of breweries closed their doors, while the ones that lasted to see prohibition’s repeal in 1933 wouldn’t last much longer. Mechanization, labor shortages, and post-World War II economics led all to close down by the mid-1950s except for the Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co.
Luckily for us, the micro-brewing industry of Oregon began to take off again in the 1980s, and today we can enjoy all the beer we want. Hop growing, which faded in the 1950s, began to service local brewers once more. And the expansion and reputation of Oregon’s beervana was secured. As we now vote on another ballot measure to decide the legality of a “moral evil,” marijuana, the question one must ask is: “In a hundred years, will there be some hack writer compose a story on our decades in prohibition?” Only time will tell…
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.