ST. PAUL — One hundred years ago on Friday, Jan. 17, the United States went dry as Prohibition became the law of the land.
And a Minnesota congressman was to thank, at least in part, for the 13-year hiatus from legal alcohol sales.
Andrew Volstead, a Republican from Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, penned the legislation that allowed for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. And his bill quickly became one of the most well-known in American history: the Volstead Act.
Congress in 1917 submitted to the states a joint resolution prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” And on Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Months later, Congress approved the Volstead Act, setting up the penalties for those who illegally made, bought or sold beverages with more than half a percent of alcohol.
“Andrew Volstead did not come up with the idea of Prohibition," Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell with the Granite Falls Historical Society told the West Central Tribune in October. "He came up with how to enforce it."
On Jan. 17, 1920, the law took effect, beginning the era that came to be known as Prohibition. In the years that followed, the legislation received praise and scorn nationally and internationally. And while it led to better outcomes in health and safety early on, Americans later rebelled against the restrictions, finding ways to brew clandestine beverages, sneak alcohol in secret containers and gather for drinks in tens of thousands of speakeasy bars around the country.
Volstead defended the law, despite the pushback from opponents, and later went on to consult for the National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau following a failed reelection bid, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
"I am proud that America is leading in this great movement. The eyes of the world are upon us, and from innumerable homes, here and beyond the seas, prayers go up for the success of the cause," then U.S. Rep. Andrew Volstead said in an undated speech, given by his family to the Minnesota Historical Society. "Are we going to disappoint them? No! A thousand times no! The men and women who wrote the prohibition amendment into the National Constitution will, I am sure, sustain it."
That was true for a while. But after a 13-year dry spell, Congress approved and states ratified the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending Prohibition and restoring the production and purchase of alcoholic beverages.
A life in Minnesota before and after making headlines for Prohibition
Volstead was born in Kenyon, Minn., in 1859 and went on to attend St. Olaf College before transferring to Decorah Institute in Decorah, Iowa. Volstead went on to become a lawyer, according to the Andrew J. Volstead House Museum, and later served as Yellow Medicine County attorney.
He served in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Minnesota's 7th Congressional District from 1903 to 1923 and served as chair of the Judiciary Committee for four years.
In addition to the well-known legislation on prohibition, Volstead worked on proposals that allowed farmers to establish cooperatives without fear of federal antitrust law and supported anti-lynching legislation, which was unpopular at the time. He also backed the women's suffrage movement along with his wife Nellie.
Volstead's home in Granite Falls is now a National Historic Landmark and the Granite Falls Historical Society maintains the home as a museum. Events commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Prohibition are scheduled for Friday at the museum.