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The road to Prohibition in Idaho was a bumpy one

Gov. Moses Alexander signs prohibition into law in the state of Idaho in 1916.
Gov. Moses Alexander signs prohibition into law in the state of Idaho in 1916. Provided by Arthur Hart

For many Americans in the 19th century, the solution to the problems associated with the use and misuse of alcoholic beverages was to prohibit their manufacture, importation, transportation or sale. Prohibition had been tried before with mixed results, first by Maine in 1846. By 1906, 18 states had tried prohibition, but only Maine, Kansas and North Dakota still had it. For the rest, enforcement had proved to be difficult, expensive and ineffective.

Local option had been somewhat more successful, allowing cities and counties to ban alcoholic beverages if the majority of their citizens voted for it, but after it went into effect, violations had been widespread. Idaho adopted local option by county in 1909. Both Gov. James H. Brady, a Republican, and his opponent Moses Alexander, a Democrat, had spoken in favor of prohibition in that year’s election campaign.

The Idaho Statesman wrote on Sept. 7, 1909, that the campaign would end “in a blaze of glory” and that both sides seemed confident, although the result was still “much in doubt.” The paper asked on Sept. 8, 1909, “Which Shall it be? If Boise goes dry today, Nampa and Caldwell will celebrate. They want a ‘dry’ Boise.” Miners at the Homestake mine at Neal sent word that they had a right to vote and that they would vote, “dry forces notwithstanding.” The Teachers Institute meeting in Boise closed its session with a resolution favoring statewide prohibition. Saloon keepers at Idaho City then passed a series of humorous resolutions after receiving the news that Boise had “stayed wet.”

Canyon County did “go dry” in 1909, leading to a crackdown in 1910 on a private club in Caldwell. “The Payette Club had an arrangement whereby a stock of wines and liquors was kept on hand, and the members furnished with a ticket upon payment of $1, which was punched according to the number of drinks used. The payment of another dollar bought a second ticket, and so on indefinitely, this method being thought to evade the law, as the liquor was purchased by the members as a body and kept on hand for the sole use of the members of the club.”

Judge E.L. Bryan was not impressed by this scheme and had janitor H.D. Ficke, who served the drinks, arrested. Section 19 of the local option law provided that “any person who either directly or by any device or subterfuge shall sell, furnish, deliver, give away or otherwise dispose of intoxicating liquors shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” Surely the least the club could have done was to pay Ficke’s fine, since the members were equally guilty.

Another 1910 case presided over by Judge Bryan had some amusing features. Dr. C.E. Schmitz, physician and surgeon of Cambridge, Idaho, was found guilty of violating the local option law by prescribing liquor for several of his patients, all in this form: “For Joe Madison, whiskey, one quart. Drink all at once. Take this to the City Drug Store.” E.E. Lorton, its proprietor, was no doubt happy to fill such prescriptions. When arrested and fined $300, Dr. Schmitz said he gave out these prescriptions to friends and patients “in a spirit of levity.” Judge Bryan was not amused. Dr. Schmitz appealed the case to the Idaho Supreme Court.

In 1912, the vote to have Ada County go dry was close but failed. However, the move toward statewide prohibition in Idaho was on its way and would arrive in 1916 when Alexander was governor.

Idaho would find, as the nation did after 1920, that Prohibition created more problems than it solved in this classic case of unintended consequences.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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