Thirdage News - September 1993

"Saloon". You've seen it before in a hundred movies. Hot day. Dusty streets. False-fronted wooden buildings with hitching racks in front. A tall man with a leather vest, wide-brimmed hat, tight fitting pants above dusty boots rides in alone. Lazily he swings a right leg back over the rump of his tired horse, steps lithely to the ground, and mounts a step to the boardwalk, heading for those batwing doors. From inside comes the tinkle of an off-key upright piano and the low rumble of conversation, punctuated with the clink of glass against bottle. On the stranger's right hip is a low slung .45, handle worn smooth and action carefully oiled. You know what is going to happen next because Hollywood has brought you there ever since you were a kid.

Fights, gun shots, semi-guided missles whizzing across the room into the mirror, break-away chairs smashed over actors' heads, schooners sliding down polished bars, spittoons, voluptuous nudes painted on canvas framed above that shattered mirror, folks flying out the swinging doors to thump into the dust. Were those things all real or just the figments of screen writers' imaginations as they created the myth of the American cowboy?

In some ways they were accurate portrayals. After the Civil War men could meet in a saloon to discuss the affairs of the day, have a drink, and relax a bit before returning to the constant cares of a farm or having to struggle out of bed for another 10 to 12 hour day of work. On weekends or "between engagements" the saloon provided a place to cash a draft or deposit one's money before having a bath, getting supper, finding a woman, and getting drunk for the duration. Weary travelers also could find a place to unwind before heading next door or upstairs for a basic room for the night.

Emory C. Ferguson built the Blue Eagle saloon as the main attraction for his plat of Snohomish City to entice business and prospective buyers of his town lots. For a long time it also housed the government offices of Snohomish County, which didn't have its own courthouse for 30 years. In Mukilteo Ferguson's political and economic rivals, Morris Frost and Jacob Fowler, had a saloon next to their Exchange Hotel, two separate buildings located above high tide mark on the beach. That was handy for travelers paddling by on their way up and down the Sound.

Some saloons were monsters in size, seeking to gain reputation by length of bar. August Erickson's establishment on Burnside Avenue in Portland's Skid Road area was reported to be a mile long, but actually it measured only 684 lineal feet of bar top, running along all four sides and down the middle of a building almost as big as a city block. Others were more modest in decor. A plank set across two sawhorses in a tent would do in a new mining camp or after a city burned down, as did Spokane, Ellensburg, and Seattle in the summers of 1889 and 1890.

During the early years of the century, however, the saloon as an institution came under increasingly bitter attacks. They would destroy the institution by the time the United States entered World War I.

The places were accused of being dens of iniquity where gambling, drunkenness, prostitution, crime, and drug use flourished. Often, that was true. By the 1890s, the West had changed with the growth of cities and arrival of railroads. Cities attracted working class men, immigrants, transients, slum dwellers, and Marxists who accurately saw a society changing from a simple farming nation into growing class-splintered fragments. Massive private fortunes were created at the expense of increasingly degraded workers.

Railroads also brought better transportation for refrigerated beer. Up to that time there could be no national distributors. Local brew went by wagons, unpasteurized and short-lived. When "crown capped" bottles appeared and refrigerated cars became more available, beer wars erupted among corporations determined to create new markets and wrest control from local outfits such as the Everett Brewing Co., whose sign you see in the picture.

Money was available to open new establishments, providing you sold enough of the right brand of beer. If you couldn't, others would. Competition quickly became cut- throat. Vicious tactics were used to increase business, profits, and outlets. Beer consumption rose by nearly a third between 1889 and 1890. In 1910, Everett for example, had 40 saloons serving a population of 24,000 residents.

Liquor interests from St. Louis, Milwaukee, and the large cities in Washington now could influence politicians, corrupt law enforcement officials, and dominate the media. Clearly something had to be done!

The solution? Stay tuned for the next column!


Author: Dr. David Cameron
Photo caption: The Sunset Saloon in Index during its heyday, advertising Everett Beer
Photo credit: Index Historical Society


For Thirdage News - October 1993

The Death of the Washington Saloon

"Saloon" had become a dirty word to hundreds of thousands of Washington citizens by the early years of the century. It was associated with vice, immorality, drunkenness, and crime. Moreover, the number of places selling beer and whiskey had increased sharply because of the great profits to be made by bottled beer and swift rail networks for its distribution. Local breweries failed or were taken over by ruthless corporate giants and national distribution chains whose drive for profits forced saloon owners to increase their business with whatever means they could. Where money flowed, so did political graft and corruption.

American history tends to run in easily definable periods. The Civil War, The Great Depression, The sixties -- all evoke certain reactions among us. How accurate they may be is debatable. How come no Black cowboys or Chinese miners in Westerns, and would Custer have been a hero without his wife's tireless myth making?

In this case, the period was called The Progressive Era, a time of largely middle class reaction to the extremes of wealth that "robber barons" such as John D. Rockefeller and others were accumulating. The rich were very wealthy indeed -- no income tax then! The poor were often southern and central European immigrants forced into menial and factory labor jobs at minimal wages and horrible working conditions. No "safety nets" existed from the government, labor laws were minimal, and natural resources were there for the stealing.

For many people here, the evils of society called for reform. Conservation of national parks and forests, an eight-hour work day for women, initiative and referendum to give democratic powers to citizens and balance corrupt legislators -- all were on the agenda. The saloon too must go.

Most people in this state were not prohibitionists. By 1914, however, most were in favor of eliminating the excesses of saloon drinking. Experiments in local option laws to dry up towns or counties largely had failed. Businessmen freqently opposed them as harmful to profits, while the urban areas normally voted "wet", as opposed to rural "drys".

Why this voting pattern developed is a topic of discussion among historians. City vs. rural voting patterns are fairly consistent across the country, but this state was not really very "rural" in the sense that most people in Snohomish Conty or Washington lived on farms. They did not. Small towns and surrounding stumpland houses were more common. Over half the population also lived in cities, unlike the other Northwestern states.

What seems better to explain who was wet or dry and why the drys won is to look at patterns based on social class. Those reforms were made basically by the middle class and reflected their values: home, church, hard work, sobriety -- "traditional values" of the white Anglo-Saxon Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist beliefs.

If society could be improved -- and they believed it could -- then the less fortunate working and immigrant classes also could share the world if worldly evils could be reduced or eliminated. Better public schools, women's suffrage, and elimination of saloons all seemed worthy goals.

By 1914 leaders of churches such as the tall and fiery Rev. Mark Mathews of Seattle's First Presbyterian Church had entered the battle to destroy the saloon. Six and a half feet tall, flowing mane of black hair, a voice practiced in preaching since age 17 in Calhoun, Georgia, Matthews dominated a congregation which soon became the largest Presbyterian church in the country, having a building seating over 3,000 members. With cries to "kill sin" and live for other than the "blood-stained dollar", Mathews and other evangelicals tried to pass Initiative Number 3, the state-wide prohibition measure.

In Everett, 1500 children paraded with banners calling for "Less Booze, More Shoes". Newspapers such as the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer bitterly fought against the measure. But on election day, November 3, 1914, 94.6 percent of the electorate cast ballots and gave victory to the "drys". Never had an off-year election brought out that many voters. Never has there been a higher total percentage of voters at the polls!

Fifty six percent of the vote in this county was in favor, 50.6 percent in the city of Everett. On January 1, 1916, the state effectively went dry. Movie theaters and automobiles began to provide outlets for people, while those who did violate the law with bootlegging and moonshine might find their premises smashed by the axes of the Dry Squad. The saloon was dead, not even to revive after the end of prohibition in 1933. So long, cowboy!

Photo caption: The Sunset Saloon in Index after a visit by law enforcement officials and their axes.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Index Historical Society

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