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A Century Ago: Prohibition in Missouri

December 27, 2019

Early in the 20th century it was a threat to the nation: drunkenness. The country's response? We passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacturing, transportation and sale of alcohol. It took effect 100 years ago, in January 1920.

When Prohibition began, Missouri was the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation. The new amendment forced the shutdown of nearly all wineries including Stone Hill, the country's second largest. Even the vineyards were uprooted. Today, you can sample modern vintages and tour the winery's maze of arched underground cellars, which were used to grow mushrooms to survive the Prohibition era.

Thanks to Kansas jumping the gun and going dry in 1881, causing its citizens to cross our state line to drink, part of Kansas City came to be known as the "Wettest Block in the World." It was home to J. Rieger & Co., the largest mail-order whiskey house in the country, which became a casualty of the times. Today, it's back in a big way. Their new 60,000-square-foot distillery, located in the former Heim Brewery bottling house, conducts tours and tastings. The Hey! Hey! Club in the basement resembles a speakeasy named for a 1930s downtown jazz club.

It's a bit of a trend: defunct finding new life related to the old industry. The historic 1223 Frederick building in St. Joseph once housed two pre-Prohibition breweries. It's now the newly renovated home of River Bluff Brewing.

Some places refused to enforce the alcohol ban, opening the door for organized crime to expand. Under political boss Tom Pendergast's control, Kansas City became known as a "wide-open" 24-hour town fueled by bootlegged hooch provided by Al Capone. The gangster was known to frequent the city and often stayed at the Rieger Hotel. The building now hosts one of the finest restaurants in the city, The Rieger, serving historic atmosphere with each entrée.

When Prohibition arrived, Pendergast bought the Pabst Brewing Depot to use as his office and – according to legend – to bootleg beer. Today, a night at the astounding Crossroads Hotel gives you a taste of the era. Even the restaurant, Lazia, was named for the supreme Kansas City gang boss of the 20s.

During his reign, John Lazia provided the gunmen responsible for the Kansas City Massacre in 1933. The attempt to free bank and train robber Frank Nash from custody resulted in the deaths of four law enforcement officers and their prisoner. You can still see bullet holes from the attack in a wall at Union Station.

The same year, notorious gangsters Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed in Joplin, where they were hiding from the law. The shootout that followed resulted in the deaths of two peace officers. The "ambush apartment" is now an Airbnb. The Joplin History & Mineral Museum features a small display of items left behind by the pair, including Bonnie's camera (its undeveloped film helped law enforcement identify them).

Inside and outside Kansas City, Missourians continued to drink, thanks to moonshiners in the country and speakeasies in the city – small invitation-only bars with decoy entrances and no signage.

The small, prestigious Mississippi Valley Trust Company was rumored to have one of St. Louis's most popular speakeasies in the basement; Al Capone supplied the alcohol through underground tunnels. Rumor has it that Capone masterminded a series of robberies at the bank as punishment for the company's refusal to launder money for him.

Due to his favorable relationship with Boss Tom Pendergast, the owner of Fitzpatrick's Saloon in Kansas City was able to keep a very successful speakeasy throughout Prohibition. It's now The Majestic Restaurant's Jazz Club.

Lindberg's – Springfield's oldest tavern – weathered Missouri's dry spell as a pool hall, reopened the day Prohibition ended and continues to serve fantastic food, drink and entertainment.

The glamor and life-on-the-edge atmosphere of the era has continued to fire our imaginations. Experience what it was like back in the day with a visit to a modern speakeasy like Manifesto, P.S. Speakeasy and Tom's Town Distilling Company in Kansas City … The W in Lee's Summit … and Thaxton Speakeasy and Trust in St. Louis.

For more on Missouri during Prohibition, check back for the 2020 Missouri Travel Guide - coming out soon!

Written by Barb Brueggeman

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