Prohibition - The GREAT EXPERIMENT

Prohibition – once called the GREAT EXPERIMENT – intended to free society of the evils of drinking.  However, it became quickly evident that society was uninterested and after a little over a decade, the experiment failed.  Later, Hollywood created a glamorous image of the Roaring Twenties, with speakeasies, bathtub gin, flappers and gangsters.

However, Prohibition in Lexington was much tamer than the Hollywood version.  Liquor became illegal overnight, but not unavailable.  Whiskey, wine and beer were readily available, but at a much higher price.  Taverns and saloons were closed, but overnight they became soft drink stands and nightclubs.  Probably the biggest loss was in legal employment and tax revenues.

Main Street, with the Lexington Brewery on right, circa 1910s

Reviewing the newspapers, reveals a steady stream of prohibition cases each month, ranging from 50 to 75 per month.  Most of these cases were for selling a pint or two to undercover Feds.  Occasionally, a big case would appear on the docket.  The local police did not enforce prohibition, unless it involved other crimes.  This has less to do with corruptions and more to do with the fact that the police force was largely Catholic.  The police, like most Americans, failed to see that having a drink was a crime.

At the advent of Prohibition - Lexington was a small, traditional  Southern town with a population of just over forty six thousand.  Lexington was long famed as the heart of the “Blue Grass Region of Central Kentucky” and “Thoroughbred Capital of the World.”  It was the regional hub of three national railroads and the economy was concentrated around the horse, tobacco, banking, distilling and higher education.  Improvements included fifty-five miles of highways; including twenty-seven miles paved (the Central Business District was paved with wooden blocks).  The assessed value of the real estate in the city was $24,300,000.  The city fire department operated four modern fire trucks, one electric truck and five horse-drawn wagons.

Main Street, circa 1910s

Lexington as well as the rest of the nation, was still traumatized by the events of the past few years – the Spanish Flu outbreak claimed three quarters million dead and the First World War another quarter million.  The local headlines included:

  • Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War in Russia
  • Women’s Suffrage
  • Versailles Peace Treaty
  • Ratification of the League of Nations
  • U. S. Marines Invade Haiti
  • Violent Miner’s Strike in West Virginia
  • Labor Unrest in Western States
  • Fear of Mexican Invasion of Texas
  • Delaware City Race Riots

Therefore, locally Prohibition arrived with little fanfare.

Whiskey Trade:

Lexington has a long tradition of whiskey distilling.  By 1810, more than two thousand distilleries were located in Kentucky, with a significant portion in Central Kentucky.  These were mainly small stills set up by farmers to convert their excess corn into cash.  After the Civil War, the local bourbon industry consolidated into four major and a dozen small distillers.  During the 1890s, the James E. Pepper & Company (producers of Old Pepper Whiskey and James E. Pepper Whiskey) was the world’s largest distiller plant, with an international reputation.  The Wm. Tarr & Company (producers of Old Tarr and Ashland Whiskies), Commonwealth Distilling Company (Old Elk Whiskey) and Headley & Peak Distilling (Woodland Whiskey) were all established national brands.  In addition, a number of whiskey brokers and jobbers established offices to sell bourbon distilled from the smaller plants and from distilleries in surrounding counties.

Pepper Distillery, circa 1890   <UK>

By Prohibition, only the Pepper and Tarr Distilleries were still operating in Lexington.  Both were located on Old Frankfort Pike at the city limits.  However, Lexington was still home to six liquor merchants and seven wholesale dealers.  The distilleries, merchants and wholesalers employed one hundred fifty, twenty-eight and thirty-five, respectively.  These concerns also paid license fees to the city of $5,750.

WCTU Rally at Woodland Park, circa 1890s  <UK>

Lexington also was home to the Lexington Brewing Company (brewers of Dixie Beer), one of the top twenty-five breweries in the country.  The company shipped product throughout the South and deep into South America.  In addition, five other brewers had sales agencies in Lexington.  These concerns employed approximately one hundred fifty people and paid license fees of $1,500.  In addition, ninety-seven saloons operated in Lexington, with an estimated five hundred employees and paid license fees of $77,528.50 in 1919.

In aggregate, these “wet” enterprises employed well over a thousand workers and paid city taxes in excess of $85,000.  The total license fees collected in 1919 was $123,249.09, of which seventy percent came from the saloons and liquor trades. [1]  This was the second largest revenue source for the municipal authorities.[2][i]

National Prohibition:

Following the Civil War, the temperance crusade was established as an offshoot of the abolition movement, to prohibited liquor sales.  The National Prohibition Party was founded in 1869, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874 and the Anti Saloon League in 1893.  These groups quickly organized and sent crusading speakers across the United States to preach prohibition.

The first organized effort in Lexington appears to be the founding of the Prohibition Club in May 1887, by J. C. Woodward and George C. Snyder.  The club held its first meeting at the Fayette County Courthouse.[ii]  The next year, the Prohibition Party was established in Lexington and unsuccessfully sponsored a Prohibitionist for the City Council.[iii]  Carrie Nation, the notorious temperance reformer, visited Lexington in July 1904 and delivered two addresses to large rallies.[iv]  In September 1905, William Frost Crispin, of Akron, Ohio, lectured the citizens of Lexington at an outdoor rally on Cheapside.  He spoke of temperance and indicated that the Prohibition sentiment and votes were increasing.  He was employed by the Prohibition State Committee.[v]  In Lexington, these speakers were warmly received by the local religious leaders, but ignored by most.

By 1908 only four counties, including Fayette County in Kentucky, remained “wet”, where the sale of whiskey was not prohibited by law.[vi]  During 1914, both Lexington and Fayette County voted to remain “wet” by a majority of 3,264 votes.[vii]

After the United States entered the First World War, the reformers gained momentum by using the cover of providing food for the troops fighting the Great War.  The Food Control Act of 1917 was passed as a temporary wartime measure to conserve foodstuffs.  President Wilson was authorized to restrict the use of grains and barley malt in distilling and brewing.  He limited the alcohol content of liquors to 2.75%, except for ales and porters.  The next year, the Food Conservation Act of 1918 provided "that no grain, cereal, fruit or other food products may be used in the production of fermented malt liquors after May 1, 1919.”  These acts became known as Wartime Prohibition Acts.[viii]

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was approved in 1917 by Congress to prohibit the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”  On January 16, 1919, the amendment was ratified with the approval by three fourths of the state legislature.  Prohibition became effective one year after ratification.  Kentucky was the third state to approve the amendment.

The National Prohibition Act was approved in October 1919 to enforce the amendment.  The act was also known as the Volstead Act, after its sponsor Andrew Volstead of Minnesota.  Portions of the act read as:

“That no person shall, on or after the date when the 18th amendment to the constitution of the United States goes into effect, nor while the war prohibition act shall be in force, manufacture, sell, barter, give away, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish, receive or possess any intoxicating liquors except as authorized by this act, and all the provisions of this act shall be literally construed to the end that intoxicating liquor as a beverage may be prohibited.  Liquor for non-beverage purposes and wine for sacramental purposes may be purchased, sold, transported and used as herein provided.” . . . .

“every person legally permitted to have liquor is required to report to the proper authorities within ten days after the passage of the act, and possession after that date by any person not legally permitted under this title to possess liquors, shall be regarded as evidence that it is kept for purposes of sale.  This, however, does not apply to home stocks” . . . .

“That such liquor (in private dwellings) need not be reported, provided the burden of showing that possession is legal is upon the possessor.”

The act defined any beverage with more than one-half of one percent alcohol to be prohibited.  The first offense was punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and a prison term of up to six months.  The third offense was considered a felony, with a possible sentence of up to two years and a fine of $5,000 per count.  [ix]

Nationwide Prohibition became the law of the land on Saturday, January 16, 1920, at 12:01 am.  The First World War was over for six months before this measure became effective, but it became law anyway.  The "GREAT EXPERIMENT" had begun.

Pepper Distillery, circa 1910s   <M. Veach>

It is interesting to note that during the First World War, the Army mustered in troops from Kentucky at Camp Stanley, on the Versailles Road (later purchased by Ike Miller).  Recruits were transported by the local railroads, which ran along Old Frankfort Pike. The first thing recruits noticed, upon entering Lexington, was the Pepper Distillery and its boxcar sized billboard for James E. Pepper Whiskey – “Born with the Republic.”  This war was “to make the world safe for democracy.”  One year later, returning battlefield veterans passed the shuttered Pepper distillery on the way home, with whiskey now being illegal.  Some suggested that the sign should be updated with “Born with the Republic, Died with Democracy.”[x]

Wartime Prohibition:

On June 30, 1919, wartime prohibition became effective, resulting in the temporary[3] closing of distilleries and breweries.  Prior to the deadline, a large quantity of whiskey was sold and stockpiled by many drinkers.  During the last week, Lexington distilleries shipped fifteen hundred cases and three hundred barrels of whiskey across the country, with New York and California receiving the bulk.  M. J. Kelly, agent for American Express Company, indicated, “that those living in this State were able to obtain their liquors by going only short distances and could either have it hauled or carry it by automobile.”

On Saturday, June 28, it was estimated that over twelve thousand gallons of whiskey was sold in Lexington, prices averaging between $2.50 and $3.00 per quarter.  The newspaper reported, “throngs crowded the streets Saturday throughout the day purchasing supplies for the coming drought.”  At midnight, on June 30, the local saloons closed, with the “liquor stocks on shelves exhausted.”     

Kentucky Prohibition Bureau:

In November 1919, James H. Combs was appointed commissioner of the Prohibition Bureau for Kentucky.  He was a wealthy Lexington native, part owner of Combs Lumber Company and brother of prominent State Senator Thomas A. Combs.  He was appointed by Jouett Shouse, another Lexington native, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, in charge of the Internal Revenue Bureau.  The National Prohibition Act assigned enforcement of Prohibition to the Department of the Treasury, which already oversaw the collection of excise taxes thought the Internal Revenue Bureau.

He was quoted in the local newspaper:

“The federal prohibition director is to act as the administrator of the National Prohibition Act and the War Prohibition Act.”

“it will be essential to have the cooperation of and assistances of the public, the press, all organizations and agencies favorable to the enforcement of law”

“enlist the assistance of each and every private citizen, public official, every right thinking man, woman and child”[xi]

In late November 1919, Commissioner Combs was enthusiastically endorsed by the Kentucky Prohibition Enforcement League meeting in Louisville.[xii]  This federation was composed of representatives from the WCTU, Anti-Saloon League, Democratic Forward League, Republican Prohibition Committee and numerous church committees.

Post Office on Main Street, circa 1910s

In January 1920, the Bureau of Prohibition established its headquarters in Lexington, at the Federal Post Office on Main Street.  Former Governor James D. Black was appointed Chief Assistant.  Kentucky was also divided into enforcement districts, overseen by W. B. Stanfield (Mayfield), Henry M. Mather (Covington), Thomas B. Pennell (Greenville), Elijah Hogge (Newport) and Major Tolbert Berry (Morganfield).  Salary for these agents ranged from $1,800 to $3,000 per annum.[xiii]  Louisville had a separate office.

Prohibition Eve:

On Prohibition Eve, Friday, January 15, 1920, the Temperance reformers held an all-day, mass celebration in Lexington.  The Lexington Chapter of the WCTU held a jubilee of “songs and prayers” at the Broadway Christian Church.  The organizers announced “prohibition adherents of all creeds and affiliations joined in hymns of thanksgiving for a condition for which they labored.”[xiv]

The program included Colonel George W. Bain, local temperance orator, and Kentucky’s Prohibition Commissioner Combs.  Commissioner Combs was the keynote speaker.  His address was titled “Law Enforcement:  Why and How.”  He indicated that “at midnight it will become unlawful to have intoxicating liquors except at home” and “the only place whiskey and wine may be kept for beverage purposes is in the possessor’s own home.”  The Central Christian Church held a children program titled “The Advent of Prohibition and the Meaning to Young Americans.”[xv]

During the previous few days, the local groceries and liquor stores were cleared out of available beer, whiskey and wine as local citizens stocked beverages in their cellars.  One local banker is said to have hidden his cache in the bank’s basement vault to insure its safety.

The “wet” forces held a more subdued celebration on Prohibition eve, with a number of farewell parties.  Both the Phoenix and Lafayette Hotels served whiskey, wine and beer up to midnight.  At midnight, the liquor disappeared, and these parties slowly broke up, but with many a hip flask in evidence.  These establishments’ liquor stocks quickly disappeared into private cellars around town.  The week before, the Phoenix Hotel reduced its wine cellar by distributing a carload of Weidemann Beer to its stockholders.[xvi]

Prohibition Bureau Reorganization:

In November 1920, Commissioner Combs resigned and was replaced by Paul Williams.[xvii]  In July 1921, the Prohibition Bureau was reorganized again, under the newly appointed State Director Sam Collins.  The new regulations assigned all enforcement efforts in Kentucky to the state director.  He was authorized to hire thirty new prohibition agents and three narcotic inspectors.  The existing force of roughly twenty agents were all determined to be unreliable and terminated.  Kentucky was reorganized into three districts – Eastern (Pikeville), Central (Louisville) and Western (Bowling Green).  State headquarters remained in Lexington.  The new agents were assigned half to the Eastern District, with the remaining divided between the Central and Western Districts.  The Eastern District contained the mountain area, that was notorious for illegal stills.  In 1925, the headquarters relocated to Louisville.[xviii]

In December 1921, the Prohibition agents in Lexington were armed with automatic weapons to use on raids.  A shipment of a dozen Browning Automatic Rifles, a dozen Springfield rifles and two dozens 45-caliber automatic pistols were received at the Prohibition office.  The Browning was a heavy machine gun, with a rate of fire of six hundred rounds per minute.  Ten thousand rounds of ammunition were also shipped with the weapons.  Chief Agent, F. G. Fields, was quoted as saying “I hope we won’t have to use them, but if the occasion arises we will be well heeled.”[xix]

Medicinal Sales:

Section 37 of the Volstead Act authorized the sale of medicinal whiskey.  Medical doctors could prescribe whiskey, which was then filled at the drug stores.  In May 1920, the Treasury Department issued guidelines that prescriptions be issued on preprinted government forms, Form 1403, issued to physicians free of cost.  These forms were issued in a book, serially numbered and contained one hundred prescription forms.  New booklets would be issued every three months, more frequently if a physician could “show to the satisfaction of the director or commissioner that an additional book is necessary in the course of his practice.”

Prescription Form for Whiskey, circa 1920s

In Lexington, Commissioner Combs “declared that doctors who had believed the sky the limit in this matter of issuing whisky prescriptions will receive a jolt; and that any further public feeling that the drug stores are but substitutes for the saloon will be safely forestalled.”  Prescriptions were later limited to one quart at a time, later one pint every ten days.[xx]

Concentration Warehouses:

At the start of Prohibition, the Pepper warehouse still held twenty six hundred barrels of whiskey.  These barrels held thirty five to forty five gallons each.[xxi]  With the lack of security, especially at rural distilleries, whiskey became the target of gangsters.  Several warehouses were allegedly burned, after the whiskey was replaced with water.  One story indicated that the good whiskey was replaced with moonshine to fool the Federal inspectors.  Later the aged moonshine was liberated and the warehouse burned.  Federal inspectors began counting the number of metal barrel hoops to determine the number of barrels in burnt warehouses.  Some enterprising individuals then gathered the hoops and rented then to bootleggers, before they set fire to a warehouse.

The Liquor Concentration Act of 1922 required that all whiskey stored in bonded warehouses be concentrated into newly designated warehouses to safeguard the remaining inventory.  These warehouses were located in Lexington, Bardstown, Frankfort and Louisville.  In Lexington, the Pepper warehouse on Old Frankfort Pike was licensed as a concentration warehouse.  Their whiskey stocks, along with those from a number of smaller distilleries, were bottled over the next twelve years for medicinal sales.[xxii]

In 1923, the Pepper Company began marketing to pharmacists and stated James E. Pepper whiskey is endorsed by over forty thousand physicians throughout the United States owing to its “AGE – STRENGTH – PURITY and we can assure you that your trade will be pleased with the superior qualities of this whiskey.”  A case of twenty-four pints sold for $31.00 wholesale.  For a point of reference – this is a roughly six times the pre-prohibition price.  This whiskey was noted “made in the spring of 1913 and bottled in the spring of 1923.”

In October 1929, the Pepper Distillery was awarded a share of the allocation to distill medicinal spirits for pharmacists.  This was the first time that the Federal government allowed production to restocked whiskey for medical purposes.  The company estimated that it would cost $35,000 to put the plant back in commission, so they shifted production to the Stizel & Weller Distillery in Louisville.[xxiii]


In January 1925, the fifth anniversary of prohibition was celebrated in Lexington.  Col. George A. Bain again spoke at the WCTU meeting, at the Central Christian Church.  Bain was a advocate of temperance.  Director Sam Collins indicted “that upon the whole considerable progress has been made.”[xxiv]

In the late 1920s, Irvine S. Cobb, Kentucky Editor and humorous, indicated a need to “find a presidential candidate to run on a platform of but four planks, namely:  wine, ale, liquors and cigars.”  His sentiments reflected the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

In March 1926, newspapers conducted a national referendum on Prohibition.  Nationwide almost two million people responded and voted five to one against the existing Prohibition laws.  In Lexington, the results were slightly higher – almost six to one against.[xxv]






















Twenty First Amendment:

Congress approved in February 1933, the Twenty First Amendment to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.  The amendment was quickly ratified by December 1933 and became effective immediately.  Prohibition officially ended in Kentucky during May 1934, when the Kentucky Legislature repealed the state’s Prohibition statutes.  Only 34 of the 157 distilleries in Kentucky operating in 1919 reopened.  In Lexington, the James E. Pepper & Company reopened, but ownership passed to Cincinnati interests.  This distillery operated until 1958 and the bonded warehouses used until 1976.

By 1934, Kentucky distilleries began blending production of bourbon to extend short inventory of aged bourbon remaining from Prohibition.

The “GREAT EXPERIMENT” had ended.


[1] In addition, the economic impacts included over one hundred business locations now vacant and for lease with Prohibition, to volume loss of the ice plant of over six thousand tons per year.

[2] Property taxes generated an estimated $240,000 in revenues.

[3] Wartime Prohibition was expected to remain in force until September or November, but remained in effect until after the 18th Amendment became effective.

[i].  Lexington Herald, May 25, 1919, page 1, column 5.

[ii] Lexington Transcript, May 25, 1887, page 1, column 6.

[iii]  Lexington Leader, June 22, 1888, page 4, column 2 and July 20, 1888, page 1, column 5.

[iv] Lexington Leader, July 18, 1904, page 2, column 1.

[v] Lexington Leader, September 17, 1905, section 2, page 5, column 4 and Lexington Leader, September 19, 1905, page 5, column 4.

[vi] Lexington Leader, December 29, 1908, page 2, column 1-4

[vii] Lexington Herald, September 27, 1914, page 1, column 1, September 29, 1914, page 1, column 1 and November 4, 1914, page 1, column 1.

[viii].  Lexington Herald, April 25, 1919, page 1, column 5.

[ix] Lexington Herald, June 25, 1919, page 1, column 4.

[x] Carson, page 33 – 4.

[xi] Lexington Herald, November 15, 1919, page 1, column 4 and November 22, 1919, page 1, column 6-7.

[xii] Lexington Herald, November 25, 1919, page 18, column 1.

[xiii] Lexington Herald, January 22, 1920, page 1, column 4.

[xiv]  Lexington Herald, January 17, 1920, page 1, column 4.

[xv] Lexington Leader, January 15, 1920, page 1, column 4, January 16, 1920, page 1, column 5 -6 and Lexington Herald, January 17, 1920, page 1, column 4.

[xvi] Lexington Leader, January 15, 1920, page 1, column 4, January 16, 1920, page 1, column 5 -6 and Lexington Herald, January 17, 1920, page 1, column 4.

[xvii] Lexington Herald, November 12, 1920, page 1, column 5.

[xviii] Lexington Leader, July 3, 1921, page 1, column 6, July 24, 1922, page 1, column 4 and July 27, 1925, page 1, column 1.

[xix] Lexington Herald, December 20, 1921, page 1, column 2-3.

[xx] Lexington Herald, May 27, 1920, page 12, column 1 and Cecil, Sam K., The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry In Kentucky, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, 2000,  pages 23-5.

[xxi]  Lexington Herald, Lexington, Kentucky, January 16, 1920, page 1, column 5.

[xxii] Lexington Leader, December 2, 1920, page 1, column 8; December 3, 1920, page 1, column 8 and December 4, 1920, page 1, column 2 and the Lexington Herald, December 2, 1920, page 1, column 8.

[xxiii]  Lexington Herald, October 20, 1929, page 1, column 8.

[xxiv] Lexington Leader, January 18, 1925, page 1,column 4 and January 22, 1925, section 2, page 5, column 6.

[xxv] Lexington Herald, March 22, 1926, page 1, column 3 and March 28, 1926, page 1, column 1 -2.

William M. Ambrose. Bluegrass Prohibition, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2007.