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Prohibition: 'Murphysboro kind of ignored it'

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While Williamson and Franklin counties were known for rowdy gang wars and colorful characters, Jackson County seemed to be a much different place during prohibition.

The ratification of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution - which effectively rendered the nation dry - brought about an interesting period in the country's history. Thousands of jobs were eliminated nationwide; the federal government lost $11 billion in lost tax revenue; and a continued game of cat and mouse was played in the enforcement of prohibition.

In Murphysboro and Carbondale, prohibition had two completely different stories. Murphysboro was home to the Rudolph Stecher Brewing Co.. Carbondale was founded by the temperate Daniel Brush.

Mike Jones, local historian and director of the Gen. John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro, said by reading the town newspapers, you got a good sense of how prohibition was perceived in both towns.

"Murphysboro, unlike Carbondale - which was pretty well dry anyway at the time, they had a lot stricter laws on the sale of alcohol in Carbondale - Murphysboro kind of ignored it," Jones said.

The newspapers in Murphysboro throughout the era rarely mentioned issues related to prohibition. On the day in 1933 when the sale of alcohol became legal again, it was a major headline in Carbondale. In Murphysboro, there was a small mention of places where alcohol would be available.

Jones said there was only one period of time during prohibition when enforcement was regularly, mentioned in the Murphysboro newspaper. A mayor was elected around 1924 that made it a campaign issues to put speakeasies out of business. He only lasted one term, which was two years in those days.

Jones' great-uncle, Raymond Handley, a former baseball pitcher was the subject of one such headline - "Pitcher not fast enough with pitcher." Handley was a bartender at the Maryland Hotel in Murphysboro. During an alcohol raid, he wasn't fast enough with a pitcher of water kept underneath the bar that was used to water down drinks to where the level of alcohol could not be determined.

Murphysboro's attitude toward alcohol could be because of having a prominent brewery of its own, which continued to produce beer illegally throughout prohibition.

According to a 2007 article in American Brewerian, a journal on brewing, Rudolph Stecher, a German immigrant from a family of brewers and coopers (makers of barrel or casks used in beer production), was working with Anheuser-Busch in the 1870s. After establishing his own successful cooper business in 1875, he decided to expand his interests to include brewing.

In 1886, Stecher and other partners purchased the former Broeg Brewery and renamed it the Murphysboro Brewing Co., which, in 1899, was renamed the Rudolph Stecher Brewing Co.. Stecher moved to Murphysboro at the same time, becoming sole owner.

By 1910, Stecher Brewing Co. produced more than 40,000 barrels of beer a year. Over the years of its existence, Stecher Brewing Co. offered many different types of beers, including Heidelberg Export Lager, Stecher Special Brew, TPA, Beer Sect Champagne Beer, Extra Pilsner and Extra Pale.

During prohibition, Stecher tried manufacturing "near beer" and root beer, and kept a hand in the production of illegal beer, for which they were cited numerous times.

On the last occasion Stecher was in front of a judge he was told - in a story told to Jones by his father - "Mr. Stecher, you're a very old man, you wouldn't want to spend the rest of your life in jail."

Stecher died in 1926 and his estate was forced to sell the brewery on the eve of the repeal of prohibition in March 1933. Although various owners tried to keep the company afloat, like many breweies who were unable to get their pre-prohibition momentum back, the Stecher brewery closed for good in 1940. Some of the brewery's buildings are still standing, having been converted into apartments, but the main structure was torn down in 1993.

brent.stewart@thesouthern.com / 618-351-5805

 

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