100 years later, Prohibition's legacy lives on in Tennessee

Jonathan Roberts • Jan 16, 2020 at 8:04 AM

On Jan. 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment — commonly known as the Prohibition Amendment — took effect in the United States, banning the production and sale of all types of alcohol.

“Prohibition was very, very important for ways just in the national interest, but also in ways its proponents misfired, so to speak,” said Daryl Carter, a political historian and professor and East Tennessee State University.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the amendment’s ratification — Jan. 16.

The 13-year ban on alcohol is now widely viewed as a failed social experiment that ended up giving rise to organized crime and the glamorization of illegal drinking, though alcohol-related arrests and deaths did decline during that time.

“What prohibition helped to do was solidify the growing strength and size of organized crime in the country,” Carter said. “I don’t see the positives, necessarily, (of Prohibition).

“It really demonstrated the limits of regulations and law in terms of affecting behavior,” Carter said.

According to the Knox County Public Library archives, Tennessee Gov. Malcolm Patterson called the 18th Amendment “The most stupendous and far-reaching reform legislation the world has ever known.”

“Prohibition is here to stay,” Patterson said at the time.

Tennessee ended up being one of the states to support the 21st Amendment in 1933, and decided to leave decisions related to the sale and production of alcohol up to local governments. Today, Tennessee still has five “dry” counties, with the remaining 90 either “wet” or “limited,” according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.

“Tennessee had many of the same issues other states did in terms of Prohibition, which is, you have activist communities that are being developed in the 19th century to address various problems — we can look at this as a reform effort,” Carter said. “Alcohol, for them, was one of those issues.”

And though Prohibition has been gone for 87 years, a staple of the era is still around today.

During those years, illegal bars or taverns — otherwise known as “speakeasies” — that sold alcohol became incredibly popular, and legal versions have seen a surge in popularity over the past two decades.

In Johnson City, the Windsor Speakeasy opened its doors last year, and though it’s not hiding from law enforcement today, owners Jacob Grieb and Alex Bomba try to stay true to history by relying solely on word of mouth to attract patrons.

“It’s been great,” Bomba said of operating the speakeasy. “The speakeasy aspect of it is a nice feature and people get a kick out of the fact that there’s a secret door and there’s no advertising on the outside of the building; it is sort of a ‘hidden bar,’ but I think given the fact it’s not illegal it would wear off eventually, but luckily we do make a high-quality product.”

Bomba also joked that, had Prohibition never been repealed, they’d “be even more popular than we are.”

“I think it Prohibition had never been repealed I bet speakeasies, probably, never would’ve gone away,” he said.

Carter attributes some of the resurgence of speakeasies to the romanticizing of the era, a romanticization that might be a little misguided.

“To be honest, I think people mythologize, and look at certain parts of the past in a way that they believe it to have existed but it’s not how they believed it to have existed,” Carter said.