Dry no more: a history of prohibition in Evanston

    Prohibition ends in Evanston - Daily Northwestern headline

    A Daily Northwestern headline from Jan. 5th, 1972 announces the end of Evanston's dry era. Photo courtesy of the Daily Northwestern and the Northwestern University Library

    Monday, January 30th, 2012 is a day that will live in infamy for many Northwestern students. After the unexpected early closing of the 1800 Club (Hundo, for those who were close to it) during the winter break of 2009, many of NU's barhopping students felt they had nothing left to lose.

    They were wrong. To today's students, all was lost when Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl revoked The Keg of Evanston's liquor license.

    However, this was just the most recent speed bump in the long process of Evanston trying to separate itself from “Heavenston,” the dry bastion of morality in the Midwest. The story of wet-versus-dry in Evanston begins before the city even existed with the first visions of Northwestern's devout Methodist founders in the 1850s.

    Northwestern's charter was approved by the Illinois legislature in 1851, and soon after the founders began looking for land. Although they had originally wanted to locate the University in the city, after some debate the decision was made to instead look to the north for a more wholesome location. Soon, the University purchased the 360 acres of swampland that would one day be Evanston.

    It was not long after that the first students began to arrive at Northwestern from all around the Midwest. The University administration, sensing the need to protect the moral, Christian sensibilities of Evanston, quickly acted to amend the University charter to add, among other things:

    “No spiritous, vinous, or fermented liquors shall be sold under license, or otherwise, within four miles of the location of said University, except for medicinal, mechanical, or sacramental purposes, under a penalty of twenty-five dollars for each offense.”

    There was little objection to amendment in 1855, as even before the liquor ban had passed into law, groups of Evanstonians had been known to break into the businesses of the city's few “lagerites” to destroy their stocks of alcohol. Those who dared to drink, such as the members of Northwestern's first fraternities, had to do so in the secrecy of their own homes or in hidden saloons called “Blind Pigs.”

    With such extreme measures already being taken to prevent the sale or consumption of alcohol in the late 1800s, the effect of Prohibition was hardly felt in Evanston when the 18th Amendment went into effect on January 17th, 1920. Evanston had actually been ground zero for Prohibition movement as the headquarters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, headed by former Northwestern Dean of Women Frances Willard.

    Unfortunately for Willard, (and fortunately for NU students) Prohibition was only a passing fad, but when the state of Illinois became 36th state to ratify the repeal of the 18th Amendment in December of 1933, Northwestern wasn't ready to roll out the kegs just yet. William Dyche, the University business manager, promised to do everything in his power to enforce the Northwestern charter's four-mile alcohol-free zone.

    Illinois law changed to allow cities to choose to their alcohol status in 1934, causing an uproar known as “Evanston's Greatest Crisis.” Not surprisingly, Evanston, led by the vigilante group known as the “Four Mile Limit League,” voted 3-1 to remain dry.

    Students searching for a drink had to voyage outside of Evanston's city limits, with many heading down to Chicago, or at least the Howard Street tavern district right across the border. Up through the 1980s, many liquor stores just across the border would also deliver to campus free of charge, making picking up a handle even easier than a trip to EV1 today.

    It wasn't until the 1960s that a movement for a wet Evanston began to pick up speed. After the opening of Old Orchard Shopping Center in 1956, Skokie began to compete with Evanston as the top destination on the North Shore. Empty storefronts began to appear as the restaurant market in Evanston died, unable to offer patrons a stiff drink.

    On campus, the Council on Undergraduate Life, successful in ending many ancient campus regulations (such as women's curfews), petitioned President J. Roscoe Miller in 1967 to allow alcohol on campus, spurred on by a report in the Daily Northwestern that the Faculty Club was illegally serving alcohol. Miller responded by saying he was “deeply committed” to keeping alcohol off campus.

    Soon after the departure of J. Roscoe Miller in 1970, the unthinkable happened. After a Holiday Inn threatened to call off its plan to move into the dying downtown Evanston area if it couldn't serve alcoholic beverages, the city council was finally moved to consider granting liquor licenses.

    As the result of the changes to the Illinois state constitution in 1970, a citywide referendum was no longer necessary to change the law, meaning that the WTCU, still a power in the 1970s in Evanston, couldn't rely on its loyal army of voters to prevent the city council from legalizing the sale of alcohol.

    On June 9th, 1972, Frances Willard, Orrington Lunt, and over a hundred years of Northwestern presidents and trustees rolled over in their graves. On that day, The Spot, a restaurant in Evanston, served its first legal drink. A large Daily headline proclaimed, “Prohibition ends in Evanston!”

    The next year, the drinking age in Illinois was lowered to nineteen, and Northwestern students soon began a campaign for a “rathskellar,” a German beer hall in Norris. After initially saying the University “would not seriously entertain” the possibility, President Strotz relented and agreed.

    A beer hall on campus would not come easy though. After some investigation into the process of making campus wet, a snag came when the University realized that the same amendment to the University charter that had made the campus dry also secured its tax free status. After a prolonged legal battle to ensure that the new wet status would not invalidate any part of the charter, the beer hall finally opened in 1975.

    The WTCU decried the decision, saying it would lead the University to “lose its high moral and educational standards,” but was powerless to fight the bar's construction.

    Although the bar would close with the drinking age's return to 21 in 1980, it was one of many bars to start up in the newly wet city. The original Keg of Evanston, a great deal classier than its current incarnation, opened at its present location on Grove in 1976. A review from shortly after its opening promised a “relaxed, warm atmosphere” and lobster tails for only $5.45. The price of “big cups” was conspicuously absent.

    By the end of the 70s, the University and City of Evanston had finally and reluctantly succeeded in undoing the safeguards that the founders of Northwestern had put in place and the WTCU had maintained. Despite Evanston's wet status, however, the aura of the original “Fighting Methodists” and the now almost defunct WTCU is still felt, as Northwestern students learned this week.

    The fake mayorial twitter, @ETisdahl, summed up what is still the sentiment of many Evanstonians when it tweeted, “I only regret that I had but one The Keg to close.”

    Updated Feb. 9, 2012: Matt used Wilde’s Northwestern: A History; Gordon’s The Life of Frances E. Willard; a variety of primary sources; and Weinberg senior David Schieber’s recent report on the history of alcohol in Evanston, available at the Evanston History CenterNBN is grateful for their scholarship and for the continued graciousness of the University Archives.


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