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New Research on Prohibition in West Virginia

Posted by Jane Metters.
September 9th, 2013

A century ago, the 1913 West Virginia legislature enacted the Yost Law, establishing the Department of Prohibition to enforce a recently passed state prohibition amendment -- thus began a two decade experiment in prohibition that ended with repeal in 1934.

<West Virginia State Police Pouring Out Moonshine at Williamson, WV, 1921.>

Though anticipating national prohibition and the Volstead Act of 1920 by several years, efforts to outlaw alcoholic beverages in West Virginia had actually been underway since the 1870s.  Success was achieved at the local level by 1910, but it was only with the ratification of a prohibition amendment in the general election of 1912 that the aspirations of teetotalers were attained statewide.  Approval by voters was overwhelming, with 164,945 in favor, and 72,603 against.  Only the counties of Ohio, McDowell, and Hardy voted against it.

<Social commentary included in a pamphlet explaining West Virginia’s prohibition law. Printed Ephemera Collection, item P37.>

These and other facts, and many interesting stories, can be found in Vending Vice: The Rise and Fall of West Virginia State Prohibition, 1852-1934 by historian Michael Buseman, a dissertation based in part on research recently completed at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

We learn from Buseman, for example, that "West Virginia drys [people in favor of the prohibition of alcohol] were not blind to the fact that passing a state liquor proscription law was one thing and enforcing it was another."  Loopholes were found and exploited.  For example, although the Yost Law banned manufacture, sale, and keeping of spirits, it did not outlaw importation or consumption of spirits.  Producers of alcohol needed only to cross the border to the state's wet neighbors in order to continue their trade.  One such producer, Reymann Brewing Company of Wheeling, moved its excess stock to Mingo, Ohio with the intention of "reshipping it back to West Virginia when the state becomes dry."  The Wheeling Register, a "wet" paper, opined on 27 June 1914 that "this innovation and foresight on the part of the local brewing company is expected to prove exceedingly popular."

<From State Department of Prohibition Bulletin, July-August issue, 1930, page 11. Printed Ephemera Collection, item P2611.>

The West Virginia and Regional History Center is pleased to have supported the research of many scholars like Buseman who are making contributions to the understanding of West Virginia and regional history.

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch.

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