Prohibition at the state level
C. Jarrett Dieterle for the R Street Institute: In 1877, the Virginia Legislature started taxing alcoholic spirits and, by 1886, it gave counties the ability to shutter saloons and other drinking establishments within their borders (what became known as the “local option”). On the brink of Prohibition going national, nearly 90 percent of Virginia counties had shut their drinking establishments.
Not satisfied with the local option, Prohibition fever, spurred by the Progressive and Temperance movements, quickly advanced to the state level, where in 1914 the Legislature approved a ballot referendum on statewide prohibition. State citizens voted in favor of the statewide booze ban, although the exhibit notes that African-Americans and the white working class — two constituencies who opposed the ban — were largely excluded from the vote.
While Prohibition wouldn’t become nationalized until 1920, Virginia wasted little time in commencing its crackdown on bootleggers. Nov. 1, 1916, was the official “last call” for Virginia distillers, breweries and bars. Most went out of business during the dry years, although some large companies were able to stay afloat by switching their production to beverages such as soda.
As followers of the Prohibition Era know, a black market of booze quickly sprang up, despite the government’s best enforcement efforts. As one placard at [the Library of Virginia’s “Teetotalers & Moonshiners” exhibit] described it:
“Prohibition created a thriving underground economy and culture. Those in the know used passwords and secret knocks to access ‘nip joints’ and speakeasies. Moonshiners, makers or sellers of illicit whiskey, hid their operations in remote rural landscapes. Hidden compartments in clothing, everyday items, and even cars moved alcohol from place to place.”
Virginia was ground zero for this moonshining culture, as remote regions of the Blue Ridge Mountains, places like Franklin County in southwest Virginia, made for ideal bootlegging locales.