Monday, April 5, 2021

Beer Returns to Chemung County

by Erin Doane, Curator

It was 88 years ago this week that people in Elmira and surrounding towns tasted beer again after years of Prohibition. Nationally, Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 but Elmira had gone dry 15 months earlier on October 1, 1918. Between then and April 7, 1933, not a single drop of alcohol passed the lips of anyone in the county.

A group of men eating, drinking, and being merry in 1886

Okay, that’s not true at all. Throughout the entirety of Prohibition, illegal beer and hard liquor had been available (clickhere to read about the Briggs Brewery operation) and some low-alcohol beverages were legal to sell and consume (click here to learn about “near beer” and cereal beverages). For law-abiding beer lovers, however, the years had been quite dry. So, many people were excited when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 22, 1933 which legalized beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent. Previously under the Volstead Act, all beverages with an alcohol content of over 0.5 percent were illegal. On April 7, 1933, 3.2 percent beer became legal to sell and consume in 19 states, including New York, that did not have state prohibition laws that would supersede the federal legislation.

Map of states (marked in black) where 3.2 percent beer became legal on April 7, 1933, Star-Gazette, March 16, 1933

As soon as the act was signed, breweries jumped into action to get beer legally to their customers. They had two weeks to ramp up production before thirsty men and women could again partake of their beverages. Distributors, wholesalers, and retailers also began scrambling to get the precious brew. For those in Chemung County, the new beer was coming from the American Brewing Company of Rochester, West End Brewing Company of Utica, and from several other breweries in New York or New Jersey. The Nectar Brewery on Tuttle Avenue in Elmira (previously Mander’s Brewery before Prohibition) did not restart its operation until later in April. Briggs Brewery, by the way, did not ever switch to producing the lower-alcohol beer, preferring to continue illegally producing the full-strength stuff. 

The rush between President Roosevelt signing the Cullen-Harrison Act into law and its implementation just 15 days later was not just a challenge for breweries and beer distributors. The new federal law went into effect so quickly that state governments and local municipalities did not have time to make their own regulations. Elmira Police Chief Elvin D. Weaver said that local police had no jurisdiction over the sale of beer until a state law was put into effect as there were no city ordinances governing beer traffic. All that was needed to become a legal beer seller was a retail license, which the federal government was reportedly giving out indiscriminately to anyone who paid the $20 licensing fee. Beer would soon be available at bars, hotels, restaurants, pool halls, grocers, gas stations, and even soft drink stands in parks. 

The intersection of Water and Main Street in Elmira, early 1930s
Some local businesses took polls of their patrons to see if they were interested in buying beer. One unnamed restaurant reported to the Star-Gazette that the vote was 10 to 1 in favor of the sale of beer there. The Mark Twain Hotel manager announced that beer would be offered for sale in the coffee shop and with room services. Other businesses decided to wait and see how the rollout went. There was still considerable opposition to the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Elmira and throughout the entire nation. Frank E. Gannett took a stand against any sort of beer advertisements in his newspapers. Clinton N. Howard of Rochester, one of country’s most militant dry leaders, who had spoken on several occasions in Elmira, sent a message to President Roosevelt that read in part, “with the single exception of the crucifixion of the Son of God by the politicians of Jerusalem, legalization of beer is the crowning infamy of the ages.”

Despite uncertainty and opposition, at the stroke of midnight on Friday, April 7, 1933 barrels and bottles of 3.2 beer were loaded into waiting trucks at the breweries and government seals were broken on railroad cars that had already arrived at distribution hubs. The first shipment arrived in Elmira at 8:00 a.m. with more quickly following. Wholesalers purchased the beer at $2 to $2.50 per case (around $40 to $50 today) then turned around and sold it for 20 cents ($4) a bottle or 10 cents ($2) a glass for draft beer. The demand, however, greatly outpaced the supply and by noon many were left disappointed as they moved from one watering hole to the next searching for the highly-desired beverage. Several restaurants had promised beer with lunch but were not able to deliver. By Saturday morning, the supplies had been replenished and plenty of 3.2 beer was available for the rest of the weekend.

“First Shipment of Legal Beer Arrives This Morning,” Star-Gazette, April 7, 1933
It is estimated that within the first 24 hours, 1.5 million barrels of beer were sold in New York State. Despite not having passed laws yet regulating the new beer trade, Governor Lehman had signed a dollar-a-barrel beer tax in time to collect some substantial revenue for the state. New York City alone made $200,000 in fees from issuing retail permits. Nationally, the stock market rose in the hopes that legal manufacturing and distribution of beer would stimulate business in general.

Locally, the grand rollout of 3.2 beer seemed to have gone smoothly, despite shortages. Elmira police encountered no unusual disturbances that first weekend and reported that it was, in fact, unusually peaceful downtown. By Monday, April 10, “wet hysteria” had died down. In his ‘Round Town column in the Star-Gazette, Matthew Darrin Richardson summed it up by writing, “Beer ought to pretty well recover from its hysteria this week and settle down to regular traffic…By this time Elmirans should have satisfied their curiosity, if not their thirst entirely.”


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