When you think about Prohibition you probably picture Al Capone and his gang riding up and down the streets of Chicago shooting it up with Tommy guns. And once Prohibition was voted out everything went the way of cocktails during happy hour as folks like Carey Grant sipped martinis.
Of course, Prohibition lasted decades longer here in our area since once national Prohibition went away it was left to local areas to decide for themselves if they were going to stay dry or go wet. Whitfield County and surrounding areas stayed dry which meant that instead of Al Capone running around, Lem and Clem were running a still out in the woods up the holler and looking out for the rev-a-noo-ers.
I’ve been told that if you were running ‘shine you paid one family off in Whitfield but in Murray County there was a different family you had to pay off. The cops would then be told who to wave through.
Sounds like Chicago if you ask me. I can still remember a billboard on South Hamilton Street warning of the dangers of moonshine. Now we have a successful distillery right downtown! Wouldn’t grandma be surprised ...
Going way back
But if we go back in time guess what we discover. Georgia had the first prohibition in America and it was back in the 1700s! We’ll get to that in just a bit, but first let’s find out about the drinking habits of the colonists.
Did you know the pilgrims drank beer on the Mayflower on their way over? Even the kids. It was a low alcohol version, what they call near-beer in some places, with only a couple of percentage points of alcohol content. With the bit of alcohol in it and a ph level around 5, it kept bacteria from growing in it, something water in barrels would breed deadly amounts of on the same ship.
In those days, there wasn’t much water drinking done anywhere in Europe and other places. They didn’t understand about germs, bacteria, cholera and dysentery then. What they did understand was that lots of time when people drank water from wells, especially in crowded cities, people got sick and died. Comedian W.C. Fields had a joke about not drinking water because that’s where fish lived.
The science of thirst
They also had some funny ideas about the science of thirst. One thing they thought was that if you were hot from working, drinking cold, refreshing water would shock your system and you might die or get a fever.
On the other hand, they thought that when you were working in the heat, your sweat transported the heat from your inner body out when what it is really doing is cooling you by letting the perspiration evaporate off of your skin. They thought you needed to warm your stomach back up and they knew drinking alcohol of some type, whether beer or rum (or wine if you’re French) made your stomach feel warm, therefore it seemed to follow logically. Hot and sweaty? Drink!
The reality is alcohol acts as a diuretic and you lose hydration which can lead to heat stroke. Yikes, talk about getting it backwards.
But I guess after a work day filled with snifters of rum ... who cares?! The workers were more than happy to “follow the science” of the day. Even slaves would get a dram of the “old devil rum," or whatever else was handy.
Back on the Mayflower, the pilgrims were supposed to land and colonize Virginia, but when they landed in Massachusetts some people argue the crew was worried about their beer supply for the trip back and so put out the pilgrims on the first Plymouth Rock they came upon. One of the pilgrims was surprised and delighted by the cold, refreshing spring water he drank here in America and the pilgrims, although missing their beer, had water enough to survive until eventually shipments of beer could be sent from England. Down South, things were a little different.
Georgia was the 13th and last colony, with colonists landing here in the winter of 1732- 1733. By the hot Georgia summer, so different from the British climate, the folks were thinking they were losing so much heat from inside that they need to constantly replenish it with rum.
In the American colonies, beer wasn’t easily brewed because of the climate and the lack of the grains needed. There weren’t a lot of apples here either yet to make quantities of cider, another popular drink of the time. (Ever hear of Johnny Appleseed? That’s what he was doing, planting apple trees for cider, not apple pies.) But soon, sickness through the new colony had the leaders fearing that too much strong drink was the culprit. There were already some back in England who were concerned about excessive drinking, fearing that it was leading to such things as poverty and robberies.
Ben Franklin had gone over to England when he was a teen to work in the printing business. He drank water while the locals all drank beer at work. They nicknamed him the “Water American." He noted his co-workers drank six pints of beer a day during working hours. No wonder we spell things differently than the English.
Concerned that the drinking was detrimental to the colony’s success, on Georgia Gov. James Oglethorpe’s return to England he got Parliament to pass a law making it illegal to sell rum in the Georgia colony. America’s first prohibition was on the books. The only problem was South Carolina and cheap rum was just across the river from Savannah. On one occasion 14 workmen drowned when they rowed across for booze and their boat went down. As in the 20th Century Prohibition days, magistrates busted up barrels of confiscated liquor, but that just lost them friends on both sides of the river.
At the beginning of the Georgia colony, beer was considered, but the Southern heat was not conducive to brewing. Oglethorpe had managed to grow grapes and make wine at his property back in England and so he thought it might succeed in the new land.
The swampy land down in the low country of the Georgia coast just wouldn’t support the imported vines. There were local, native grapes, but the wine that was made from them, well, let’s just say it never won any medals.
When it came to the Indians, some brewed alcoholic beverages, but not all. Most preferred drinks like berry drinks and hot teas from sassafras in the winter. The alcoholic beverages that were made by some of the tribes were low proof.
The prohibition in Georgia worked about as well as the one in the 1920s. With the smuggling of the rum from nearby South Carolina so easy, the people kept drinking, many thinking it was still the smart thing to do.
Oglethorpe went to inspect the lighthouse that was being built out on Tybee Island. He got there and only the foundation was finished. The foreman complained that the rum was so cheap in South Carolina that a single day's pay would buy a weeks worth of rum. So there the workers were, out on the Georgia beach drinking instead of working. To some that’s describing the perfect vacation, to others a hit Jimmy Buffet song. To Oglethorpe, it was exactly what he was trying to prevent.
You can’t fight the market. Give the people what they want. In other words, they stopped enforcing the law in 1742 and in 1749 repealed the law. What are you gonna do?
Rum's the word
Rum for a while became the alcoholic drink of the Americas because it was something they could make in the colonies. Originating in Barbados in the Caribbean, rum is made from molasses. After trying various crops, the Barbados farmers had success with sugar cane. They refined the sugar and the leftover product was molasses, a natural sweetener.
Ah, but when distilled, it became rum, the drink of choice of Georgian lighthouse builders and pirates. The molasses could be shipped in barrels to the American colonies and distilled there for the local market.
The other benefit with strong spirits in America versus the beer of England was that beer was brewed up and served fast before going bad, something easy in big cities. But America was made up of smaller population centers with plenty of settlers spread out.
Oglethorpe tried to get his colonists to drink beer instead of harder spirits, but barley wouldn’t grow well in Georgia. So when beer was imported that made it all the more expensive, and only a few were able to afford it while the others were stuck with drinking —gulp — water. Rum succeeded because that’s what worked.
After Georgia became a state and during the 1800s alcohol was pretty much everywhere. In the late 1800s temperance movements sprang up as the damage from overindulging became evident. That would lead to the nation’s experiment with Prohibition. If anyone had bothered to check out Georgia history they could have predicted how it might turn out.
For the sake of sobriety, at least we tried. And in case you didn’t know, one of the words of the Georgia's state motto is “moderation."
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.