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Rehabilitating Andrew Volstead, the Minnesotan blamed for Prohibition

Andrew Volstead was right on a few things. That's more than you can say for a lot of members of Congress.

Andrew Volstead was right on a few things. That's more than you can say for a lot of members of Congress.

Spare a thought for Andrew Volstead.

Come January, Volstead will be 70 years dead. He was born in southeastern Minnesota to Norwegian immigrants in 1859, and the whole of his legacy casts him as a villain.

In truth, the Minnesota congressman who authored Prohibition was the product of a time, a place, and a movement bent on social engineering. Volstead and his ilk saw a nation of men perpetually slouched and slack-jawed from drink, and set about straightening up their spines.

First elected to Congress in 1902, Volstead was not the most outspoken of the “dry” lawmakers. More like the least: Through his first eight terms, he made not a single speech about alcohol.

Then his dubious place in history fell into his lap.

When Congress convened in 1919, seniority dictated that Volstead take the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. By that time 28 states, including Minnesota, had ratified the 18th Amendment, which constitutionally banned the sale of alcohol.

When it came time to enforcing it, Volstead was simply the man holding the gavel.

Though he may not have relished the role, he was a cold instrument pressed against the hot pulse of America’s most divisive issue. Like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Volstead saw outlawing liquor as a major step forward for domestic home life. The former Yellow Medicine County prosecutor’s highest-profile case had been the homicide trial of a respected town doctor who shot card sharks after a drunken poker game.

He also believed temperance made for good economics. As a small-town attorney, he’d litigated land disputes, finding that hardly anyone made their payments. After the saloons were shuttered by local ordinance, all but one buyer was able to keep up.

As the “Volstead Act” was prepared for a full vote, brewers pushed for an amendment to allow for the sale of 2.5 percent alcohol beer, saying that level was low enough to avoid catatonic intoxication.

Volstead pushed back: Prohibition was not just about stopping drunkenness, but preventing the “useless waste of uncounted millions in money that should go to provide luxuries, comforts, and conveniences in the home.”

After the bill passed in 1919, letters flooded Volstead’s Washington, D.C., office and his Granite Falls home. Some came from supporters. Others blamed Volstead for the rise in bootlegger crime and deaths connected to lethal moonshine. 

A few featured a newspaper clipping with his image under the heading, “Here’s the Man Who Made U.S. Dry.” The senders fashioned small pieces of rope into a noose around his neck.

The whole affair was better received back in Minnesota. This was a state that had operated under “Scheffer’s law” for anyone nabbed for a third public drunkenness offense. Its 30-day jail minimum was the harshest penalty in America.

Things were even more conservative in Volstead’s western Minnesota district. In 1920, his opponent, the Lutheran preacher O.J. Kvale, claimed to be even “drier” than Volstead. Volstead narrowly survived that challenge, but lost to Kvale two years later.

Volstead returned to Minnesota, briefly taking a job with the Prohibition Bureau in Minneapolis before retreating to private practice in Granite Falls. Locals painted him as a retiring man, not one for conversation, a tall, gaunt figure marching his incomparable mustache up the stairs to a book-lined law office.

When a reporter visited in 1933, on the eve of votes to end Prohibition in Minnesota and elsewhere, Volstead knew his side had lost. He described himself as merely “a spectator.” He preferred talking about crops.

In 1951, a few years after Volstead died, the people of Yellow Medicine County voted to approve municipal liquor stores. When one opened in St. Leo, it was the first to sell liquor in the county since 1915.

In 1970, an empty sanitarium in Granite Falls was reopened as Project Turnabout, a substance abuse treatment facility. The enterprise has grown to include four campuses, the largest the 122-bed facility in Granite Falls. We stopped arresting drunks and started trying to help them.

America still hasn’t fully learned the lesson of Prohibition. Outlawing a substance people want inevitably spawns black markets. Any 1920s bellboy or 2010s taxi driver with the slightest bit of guile becomes an enabler-cum-entrepreneur.

Volstead once posited, hopefully, that he’d be remembered well. You could build a lion’s legacy on other issues in which he took more pride: women’s suffrage, anti-lynching laws, and his support for poor farmers to band together in cooperatives.

Those good deeds are swallowed in the shadow of Prohibition. A Volstead portrait now hangs in the Freehouse in the North Loop, and the stylish Volstead’s Emporium cocktail bar in Uptown is an enduring mockery.

Volstead suggested his epitaph would say people “love him for the enemies he made.” He was picturing lynch mobs, merciless bankers, the thugs who made a killing — and killed many — during Prohibition.

In fact, there is no epitaph at his burial site in the Granite Falls Cemetery. An “Andrew J.” marking lies under the larger family “Volstead” stone. It’s just his name. What it means is up to us.

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