It was a late July night, 1919. Darkness had fallen across McLeod County. In Glencoe, the storefronts were dark, and the doors were locked. In all the downtown, the only light to spill onto the city streets came from the windows of a saloon. Inside was a large crowd that gathered to bid farewell to a cheery old friend. There were men in suits, men in work clothes, and men with tears in their eyes. It was a funeral, apparent by the coffin that rested in the middle of the room. With eyes full of grief and sadness in their hearts, the men gathered round the coffin, held their drinks in the air, and together they sang:
“God be with you till we meet again;
By his counsel’s guide, uphold you;
With his sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again:”
It was a somber event, for in the coffin lay a bottle of booze, an item that would be illegal at midnight that night. A wartime prohibition act had been passed through the government earlier that year and prohibited alcohol with a content higher than 1.28%. Minnesota counties were fast voting to go dry. The Volstead Act, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution that would regulate and greatly prohibit the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol, would be passed later that year. On the eve of prohibition in McLeod County, men gathered in the saloons and had what was to be their last “legal” drink. They wept as their throats would be dry for the foreseeable future.
A crusade to end the trade of alcohol manufacture began to take hold in the 19th century when temperance advocates and the anti-saloon league began pushing for legislation that would prohibit alcohol use. In 1919, a bill to outlaw alcohol reached the desk of President Woodrow Wilson, who vetoed the bill, yet had the veto overridden by the Senate. Effective Oct. 28, 1919, the Volstead Act defined intoxicating alcohol as any beverage containing 0.5% or more. It was an extremely low limit and effectively banned not only spirits, but beer and wine as well.
On the eve of Prohibition, large crowds gathered at the drinking establishments in McLeod County. In Silver Lake, the streets were filled with somber saloon patrons who were out for one last hoorah. In Lester Prairie, the only saloon doing business at the time sold out of beer days beforehand. In Stewart, patrons sat atop the barstools until closing time. In Winsted, two bars opened their doors and began selling their stock. By midnight, the saloons were quiet.
With the sale of alcohol prohibited, some establishments remained open for the sale of malt and soft drinks. In Silver Lake, Ed Richter’s Saloon opened the next day as if nothing had changed, only beer was no longer on tap and instead he poured soft drinks. There’s little doubt that the sale of alcohol continued in the county, albeit behind closed doors. For a time, however, the drink nicknamed “John Barleycorn,” would be an unwelcome guest in McLeod County.