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Howard County in the dry years

By Lisa Kawata

5:24 PM EDT, September 30, 2011

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When Ken Burns’s new documentary “Prohibition” debuts on public television next week, Americans will revisit an era in this country when the people participated in an unusual moral experiment. From 1920 through 1933, citizens were forbidden to manufacture, sell or transport intoxicating alcohol, except for religious and medicinal purposes. We were dry, as the saying goes -- but not all of us. Read on for a glimpse of how the 18th Amendment affected Howard County and what happened when it was finally repealed.

In 1919, Howard countians smoked Camel cigarettes and went to the first moving picture shows on Saturday night at the Howard House on Main Street. They “cut a rug” at Monday night dances and played pool on the second floor above Talbott’s Lumber. Taverns and saloons dotted every crossroads in the county from Route 1 to Route 144. But things were about to change when it came to what they drank.

The cry of temperance unions and anti-saloon leagues against the evils of alcohol had swept through the nation, and in late 1917, Congress passed the Prohibition Act, dividing its citizens into two camps: the “wets” and the “drys.” The federal law required ratification by 36 states, and to many people’s surprise, when the Maryland General Assembly closed its session in March 1918, it voted in favor of Prohibition.

A writer for The Ellicott City Times described it this way: “The persistent hammering of dry forces on the outside forced a favorable action on the prohibition amendment.” He went on to say that a small but vocal group of anti-liquor proponents threatened legislators with potential losses in future elections, even though Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie vetoed it (as did President Woodrow Wilson) and continued to voice his contempt for the new law throughout his years in office.

In January 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. One year later, on Jan. 17, prohibition went into effect across America. But in a twist of fate, or perhaps political retribution, Maryland’s legislators never passed the enforcement law required by Congress. Maryland became known as the only “wet” state in the nation.

Confusion reigned as to what kind of “spirits” came under the new law. The Anti-Saloon League of Baltimore ran an advertisement in the Feb. 13, 1920, issue of The Times to clarify under the title of “Can I Make Cider and Vinegar Under the Prohibition Law?” The answer was yes ... sort of. People could make apple, pear or other fruit cider, but they couldn’t keep the cider until it became hard or intoxicating. If they already had whiskey, brandy, rum, etc., it could only be consumed on their premises. No selling of the liquor was allowed.

Take something away and people are bound to want it more. County residents made do for a while on the whiskey and wine they had in their own pantries and cellars. However, wealthy landowners, such as Howard Bruce of Belmont, soon became targets for nighttime raids by “roving bands of whiskey thieves,” reported one article in The Ellicott City Times in April 1920.

At Doughoregan Manor, a still was carefully hidden from revenuers by its groundskeeper and game warden, Alfred Smith, who also made the applejack and hard cider for the Carrolls, says Denise Spanos, granddaughter of Smith. Spanos’s grandparents, aunts and uncles all grew up at the plantation from 1930 until 1960. She recalls hearing stories about “revenuers” (federal prohibition agents) coming to Doughoregan looking for a still, but her grandfather led them in circles through the vast estate.

Saloon owners had to innovate as well. Some, such as Malone’s on Main Street, became grocery stores during Prohibition. But discontent was growing, and Americans began to fight back against the law.

By March 1933, Congress passed an amendment to partially repeal the Prohibition Act, allowing for the sale of 3.2 percent beer (referring to the alcohol content) and wine, effective April 7.

The day before the revised law went into effect, 13 county residents lined up at the courthouse in Ellicott City to apply for liquor licenses from Clerk of the Court Benjamin Mellor. The first to get in line, according to the county’s register of licenses and permits at the Howard County Historical Society Library, was Joseph Buncke, of Jessup. The fee was $16.75, which included the license and recording fees. The next day, 26 more people got their applications stamped, including Roy Feaga, who managed the A&P grocery store on Main Street, William Yates, the Valmas family, who ran the confectionery store, the Moxleys for their pool hall, the Allview Country Club, the Henckels in Annapolis Junction, and other tavern and grocery store owners.

By the end of the day on April 7, residents would be able to legally imbibe once again at 46 places in the county. Within a week, taverns reported running out of beer. In all, 138 licenses were purchased by Nov. 7, when Congress officially repealed Prohibition in America. Within a month, the liquor -- for good or for bad -- flowed freely through the county and the nation again.