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100 years ago, a Minnesota congressman's law passed, and Prohibition really began

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A prohibition raid in St. Paul in 1925.
A prohibition raid in St. Paul in 1925.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

A century ago Monday, Prohibition got teeth. On Oct. 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, ushering in an era of illegal consumption of alcohol in the United States.

Congress and legislatures across the country had already worked together to propose and ratify the 18th amendment in January of 1919. 

Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead
Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead wrote the law enacting Prohibition in 1919.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

But it took effect a year later, and required laws written to outlaw beer, wine and other intoxicating liquors.

Congressman Andrew Volstead, of Granite Falls, Minn., wrote the particulars, in legislation subsequently known as the Volstead Act.

It even got him on the cover of Time magazine in 1926.

Volstead was an avowed opponent of liquor, and he wasn’t alone.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union influenced many to support Prohibition. World War I also may have played a role: German immigrants, with a long tradition of distilling and brewing, had been suspected of disloyalty for years — even to the point of feared insurrection in southern Minnesota.

Like Prohibition itself, Volstead was a polarizing figure.

“He got death threats. People were really angry about this,” said Lori Williamson, acquisitions and outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Historical Society. “They felt that freedoms were being taken away, part of their cultural heritage was being taken away. They were really against prohibition, and he was the focal point for that. So, people put a lot of their anger and resentment on him personally.”

Eventually, that sentiment won. Volstead was defeated by a Farmer-Labor candidate in 1922. He became legal counsel to National Prohibition Enforcement Bureau, the federal agency charged with enforcing the law he wrote.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he returned to Granite Falls and a private law practice, and died in 1947. His home remains a National Historic Landmark.

The Minnesota Historical Society has digitized his papers to mark the centennial.