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De Facto Dry in Columbia City, 1893 - 1914

History of Columbia City's "Dry" years.

During Columbia City’s early years, Washington struggled with the prohibition issue.  Temperance advocates had begun their work back in the 1850s, when Washington was still a Territory. At that time, hard-line prohibitionists were closely aligned with other “radical” causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Over the next half-century, the prohibition movement waxed and waned, becoming a complicated tangle of often contradictory strands including anti-immigrant sentiment, populist revolt, religious fervor, economic analysis, and an appeal to “respectable” middle-class values.

While they weren’t fanatic anti-alcohol crusaders, Columbia’s founders definitely wanted a quiet, middle-class town for their children to grow up in, and their liquor policy reflected this goal. When Columbia incorporated in 1892, state law allowed local regulation of alcohol, though not prohibition, and one of the town Council’s first acts was “an ordinance fixing the amount to be paid for license to sell malt and spirituous liquors, wine, ale, etc., and providing the manner in which the same shall be issued.”

The ordinance decreed that an application for a liquor license must include a $1000 bond and $500 in cash. This sounds like a lot of money in a town where entire lots went for $300, but it was a fairly standard license fee at the time, and such fees were often paid by brewers in return for an exclusive contract with a saloon. So the $500 fee alone would not have kept Columbia “dry.”

An even greater hurdle was the requirement to submit a supporting petition “signed by a majority of the freeholders of the town.” Also, the establishment couldn’t be located within one block of a school or church – not an easy condition to meet in a town three blocks long, with a school on one side and a church on the other! Finally, the Council gave itself blanket discretion: “If upon consideration,” the ordinance goes on, “the Council shall deem it in the interest of the town to grant said petition and license, said license shall be issued…” but it “may be revoked or suspended at any time by the council for good cause, and the council shall be the sole judge as to the sufficiency of the cause...”

Unsurprisingly, Columbia was able to boast in the 1899 City Directory that it had “Good Schools, Pure Water, [and] No Saloons” – and the town seems to have stayed saloon-free at least until it joined Seattle in 1907.

This does not mean nobody was drinking, however. Columbia’s population included many German and Irish immigrants who – according to historians, not just stereotypes – often continued their traditional beer consumption at home. Other residents may well have enjoyed (perfectly legal) alcoholic beverages at home too. We may never know for sure just how much alcohol was consumed – legally or not – in those early days.

We can speculate, however. One avenue for speculation involves a petition presented to the Town Council on May 1st, 1905: “We, the undersigned Mothers and Women residing in Columbia, hereby petition your Honorable Body to regulate the conduct and operation of the billiard and pool room operated on Rainier Avenue…” These 83 women wanted the pool room closed on Sundays and at 11 pm the rest of the week. The Council, at the urging of Councilman Hastings, directed the town attorney to draft an ordinance “regulating and controlling Billiard Halls and Pool Rooms. Also all places of lounging and loafing on Sundays.”

Well, the loungers and loafers of Columbia City weren’t about to take this lying down. On May 18th the Council was presented with a petition signed by 90 residents of Columbia (all male, naturally) who “respectfully petition your Honorable Body not to pass an ORDINANCE as prayed for by a certain PETITION presented … at your last Meeting.” Councilmen Peirson and Raynor spoke in favor of this petition, and the Council promptly and quietly dropped the proposed ordinance. (Close inspection of the two petitions reveals that several of the women who signed the first petition were married to men who signed the second – one can only imagine their comments at the dinner table that night.)

Again, we have no evidence of anyone selling or consuming spirituous beverages at the pool hall on Rainier – we are still firmly in the realm of speculation. The 1905 City Directory doesn’t list a pool room in Columbia, though there was a “pool hall & barber” in Hillman City. The pool – barber combo seems to have been a popular one back then – Lee Gardner and Menzo LaPorte owned such an establishment in Columbia from 1908 to 1923. It certainly sounds like a rather comfortable, decidedly masculine hang-out from which wives might well have had difficulty extracting their husbands of an evening – particularly if you imagine the lure of a drink or two.

When Columbia was annexed to Seattle in 1907, it became part of a “wet” urban zone in an increasingly “dry” state – but this didn’t appear to have much of an effect on Columbia City. The prohibitionists continued to fight for a statewide liquor ban, gaining ground as they became more politically savvy. In 1914 Washingtonians approved a “dry” ballot resolution that took effect on January 1st, 1916. All over the city, liquor stores and saloons desperately sold out their inventory as the clocked ticked down, and in the wee hours of January 1st the police dutifully arrested a couple of Pioneer Square bar owners to mark the start of the dry era.

Four years later the 18th Amendment was ratified, and Prohibition took effect nationwide. But Seattle’s “dry” years were anything but, and at least one Rainier Valley resident played a key role in that story. Tune in next month for more about bootlegging, “blind pigs” and the Rum King!

by Mikala Woodward