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Volstead Act


The Volstead Act took effect at midnight on this date in 1920, forbidding the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol into or within the United States. While the separate Eighteenth Amendment established prohibition in the U-S, the Volstead Act enabled its enforcement. Since North Dakota had included statewide prohibition into its original state constitution in 1889, the act had little effect in the state, although now that prohibition was nationally mandated, any violation would be a federal crime. Additionally, the act allowed for a league of agents to enforce prohibition in the state.

Andrew Volstead was the act’s namesake and chief proponent. A Republican from Minnesota, he was an ardent member of the Anti-Saloon League. The league zealously believed that alcohol was the basis of society’s ills, and that its prohibition would usher in an era of peace and prosperity. On the eve of January 16, 1920, however, this was anything but the case. As the nation stood on the brink of prohibition, regular and irregular drinkers alike took the occasion to celebrate in excess. Parties were thrown around the nation to mourn the death of “John Barleycorn.”

Individuals ordered copious amounts of liquor to stock their pantries as booze distributors sold the last of their stock below wholesale. In New York, Gold’s Liquor Store sold off their remaining stock for “$1 a bottle.” Future President Franklin Roosevelt spent the evening drinking champagne at the Metropolitan Club in Washington. And the parties didn’t end at midnight: the first official prohibition arrest occurred in Chicago within the first hour of its enactment. There, six armed men stole $100,000 worth of medicinal whiskey from a freight train.

In North Dakota, the years of prohibition would prove just as volatile, as blind pigs and liquor stills popped up across the state. The state’s shared border with Canada made it an ideal route for smuggling liquor destined for cities to the east. In 1923, a 100-gallon still was found and destroyed on a farm near Medina, and in 1928 the ‘largest still in North Dakota history’ was shut down in Mandan. A 50-gallon still capable of producing 30 gallons a day was wrecked by federal agents in 1924 near Fargo.

Crime and enforcement issues that accompanied prohibition ultimately proved its downfall, and it was repealed in 1933. North Dakota also amended its state constitution in order to eliminate prohibition for good.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Simon and Schuster, 2010.