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Revisiting Prohibition: 100 years after ratification, local writer pens history of illegal booze in Seattle and environs

 

April 17, 2019

Brad Holden in front of Rosewood Manor on 220th Street SW. During Prohibition, it was a brothel and speakeasy known as the White Horse Tavern.

Brad Holden has a regular 9-to-5 job. It pays the bills.

But in his spare time, the Esperance resident and Edmonds Historical Museum docent is a self-described “urban archeologist” who rummages through estate sales, flea markets and swap meets searching for items of local historical significance.

One such discovery helped lead to the publication of his first book: “Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners & Graft in the Queen City.” It will be released by History Press on Monday, April 22, and includes an introduction from Paul de Barros, a former music writer for The Seattle Times.

His 1993 book “Jackson Street After Hours” touches on Prohibition in Seattle.

“A few years ago, I was investigating the dark, damp basement of a Seattle estate sale and found the remnants of a copper moonshine still,” said Holden, 49.

“Looking further, I found a trove of old family papers and documents which revealed the story behind the still. As it turned out, the original owner had been using the still to supply the local neighborhood with illegal booze during Prohibition, but was eventually caught and sent to prison.”

That was all it took for Holden’s fascination with Prohibition in the region, which certainly didn’t exclude our area, as he documents numerous shady haunts, as well as good-time activities taking place around Edmonds and Snohomish County.

Holden continued to uncover stories connected to local Prohibition, and read every book he could find on the subject.

“At some point, I realized that there was a much bigger story that had never been told before,” he said. “So that is what I set out to do in my book – tell the entire story in all its exciting glory, and how all the people, places and events were interconnected with one another.”

18th Amendment

Holden’s book is being released 100 years after the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was ratified in 1919 and became the basis for the 18th Amendment put into law in January 1920.

It was still legal to drink, as the 18th Amendment only forbade the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors, not their consumption.

Booze or not, it was a strangely different time, coming shortly after World War I, when domestic violence, crime, corruption and a overwhelming sense of moral decline, among other perceived ills, led religious groups – most notably the national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and, locally, Seattle groups like the Anti-Saloon League – to wield tremendous influence on the passage of a “great social experiment.”

(According to HistoryLink.org, the Anti-Saloon League was instrumental in Washington state voters approving Initiative 3, prohibiting the manufacture and sale – although not the consumption – of liquor statewide.)

Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In Washington state, Holden said, the Washington State Liquor Control Board, formed after Prohibition ended, was tasked with establishing rules for how alcohol would be sold.

One rule initially established was that bars, restaurants and taverns were limited to selling just beer or wine. They could not sell or serve hard alcohol, a rule in effect until 1948. That led to a rise in roadhouses in areas immediately south and north of Seattle. Those establishments allowed their guests to carry in their own booze, and were soon dubbed "bottle clubs."

“It was a clever way to get around this rule that was in place,” Holden said. “There were several of these bottle clubs in the Edmonds area along Highway 99.”

To this day, Prohibition is considered by many as a failure, not only because the vast majority of Americans ignored it, but because it also helped give rise to the brutality of organized crime, which was already making its presence known.

But often overlooked are those who believe Prohibition actually did some good.

Mark H. Moore, who in 1989 was a professor of criminal justice at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, wrote a piece in The New York Times that argued that point.

Alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition, Moore wrote, noting that cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. He also wrote that arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 to 50 percent.

“Violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition,” Moore added in his piece. “Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained roughly constant during Prohibition's 14-year rule. Organized crime may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.”

In addition, Moore noted that, following the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption significantly increased.

Rowdiness, liquor stores

It’s true, as Holden writes, that Seattle was no paragon of virtue in the years leading to Prohibition. Vice was big business by the 1880s, as saloons, brothels and gambling parlors proved to be popular additions to corner grocery stores, pharmacies and sundry haberdasheries.

With the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933, the 18th Amendment has the distinction of being the only Constitutional amendment with that ignoble honor. The repeal allowed state control of alcohol – there are still several “dry” counties and towns in the U.S.

In addition, numerous states and cities clung to “blue laws,” one of which was that spirits could not be sold on Sundays. That included Washington state, where state-run liquor stores were closed Sundays.

That stopped in November 2011, when Washington voters approved Initiative 1183, which ended the state’s monopoly on liquor stores. Edmonds residents, and those statewide, could now buy their favorite vodka, bourbon and other spirits in grocery stores and at other fine establishments.

Research, and Edmonds

If you want to learn about the Prohibition, there are plenty of books to satisfy your curiosity. You could do worse than former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” from 2011.

In addition to getting his hands on any Prohibition book and magazine article he could, Holden discovered invaluable information during many hours at the National Archives in Seattle.

Although time has erased most new, first-hand contributions from those associated with Prohibition, Holden had the good fortune of connecting with a few of the descendants of the main players profiled in his book.

They included Jewelli Delay, the great-granddaughter of Frank Gatt, the area’s top moonshiner during Prohibition. She gave Holden a wealth of information, as well as photographs of Gatt for the book.

Holden, similarly, reached out to the great-granddaughter of Roy Olmstead, who put him in touch with her grandmother, Patricia, Olmstead’s daughter. Lt. Roy Olmstead of the Seattle Police Department, who died in 1966, used his connections and know-how to become a major bootlegger and supplier to speakeasies, those hidden establishments serving a population thirsty for illicit beverages.

Among other things, Holden discovered a well-known speakeasy on Highway 99 on the corner of 220th Street SW and Highway 99, which was then county land and annexed to Edmonds in 1959.

The Ranch Roadhouse, he writes, “served as a restaurant and dance club where guests could enjoy illegal spirits as they danced the night away. As with many of these north-of-the-city roadhouses, the Ranch always kept its bar well-stocked, thanks to Roy Olmstead.”

There were plenty of speakeasies in north King County and south Snohomish County, and you might be able to guess why.

“This was kind of out of the jurisdiction of the Seattle Police Department and even the federal agents,” Holden said. “Seattle didn't really go beyond the city limits, and it was all country back then. So it was a lot looser, and you had Highway 99 going through the area.”

That’s not all. The area played an important role in the local Prohibition story, Holden said.

Just north of Edmonds, on Meadowdale Beach, is where Roy Olmstead was first arrested for smuggling booze, in March 1920, as he and others waited on the beach for a boat delivering supplies.

“This is when he was still a Seattle police officer,” Holden said. “As a result, he was fired from the force, which led him to become a full-time bootlegger.”

Holden writes: “As the last of the booze was being handed off, the entire area suddenly became lit up with floodlights and police sirens. Figures swiftly emerged from the darkness of the surrounding woods, and the smugglers unexpectedly found themselves surrounded by a mix of federal Prohibition agents and local police. Some tried running but were promptly stopped when police drew their guns and opened fire.”

Another well-known speakeasy from the era is still standing, and you’ve passed it many times while driving east on 220th Street SW past 84th Avenue West. It’s Rosewood Manor in Esperance, the unincorporated slice of land whose homes have an Edmonds address.

Rosewood Manor, which sits back from the street and sports a circular driveway, was once a hunting lodge where President Teddy Roosevelt supposedly stayed on a West Coast trip.

After morphing into both a brothel and speakeasy during the Prohibition era (Teddy was gone by then) – it was named the White Horse Tavern for the lone white stallion grazing in the adjacent pasture – it was purchased by an owner who used it to train dogs for Hollywood movies.

The legend goes that Rin Tin Tin is actually buried in the backyard somewhere.

Rosewood Manor is now home to Church of the Beloved and is showing its age – it was built in 1905. Whitehorse Tavern itself, Holden said, was closed down after federal agents raided it due to moonshine on its premises.

Holden does not include the Whitehorse Tavern in “Seattle Prohibition,” and said he now regrets not adding it. It’s understandable, though, as the book’s title states its concentration.

Holden does include a photo of the so-called Edmonds Uplift Society, a secret drinking club in downtown Edmonds. The club is an inspiration for Daphne’s Bar on Main Street, which displays Edmonds Uplift Society members in a photo on a wall. Longtime members of Daphne’s annual New Year’s Day polar plunge also use the moniker as their team name.

A big anniversary

There will no doubt be plenty of celebrating in bars and restaurants on Jan. 17, 2020. Prohibition actually went into effect on that date in 1920. (Wait ‘til 2033!)

You may just spot Holden in one of Edmonds’ totally legal drinking establishments with spirits, including Engel’s Pub, Daphnes, 190 Sunset, Epulo Bistro, Calypso, and Kelnero, for example.

Or he might decide to frequent the city’s breweries and alehouses – Salish Sea Brewing Company, American Brewing Company, Church Key Pub, Brigid’s Bottleshop, Maize & Barley, and Gallaghers’ Where-U-Brew, among others.

“Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners & Graft in the Queen City,” Brad Holden.

“I have always loved living in Edmonds,” Holden said. “It’s a great community, and was the perfect place to raise a child (who graduated from Edmonds-Woodway High School). The food and beer scene here has really grown impressive over the past several years.

“There’s no Prohibition in my house. I'm not a teetotaler. I enjoy the local craft beers and whatnot. We’ve got so many choices.”

Brad Holden will have a meet-and-greet and book signing at the Edmonds Bookshop 5-7 p.m. Thursday, May 16, during Art Walk Edmonds. He also will be giving a presentation and book signing at the Edmonds Historical Museum in June, with a date to be determined. He hopes to have an Edmonds brewery on hand.

 

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