Progressive on the Prairie

On the night of November 4th, 1902, the Volstead family likely gathered here in their home – their last night as a regular family in Granite Falls. The next morning, the news was spreading across the state: Andrew had been elected to Congress. Andrew had been a County Attorney and Mayor, but this was different. Now Andrew was going to be an actor on a national stage. Nellie would soon take on the role as a wife in the social scene in Washington. Their daughter Laura would complete her childhood with a front-row seat as the country experienced the dramatic changes of the Progressive Era. 

Just twenty years later, in 1922, the Volsteads faced the results of yet another election. This time, Volstead lost. During the twenty years in between, Andrew had played a role in many of the legislative efforts of the Progressive Era and was a central figure in the history of Prohibition and Agricultural Cooperatives. Now his name was known – and sometimes cursed or lauded – across the country. 

Eventually, Andrew returned to Granite Falls, where his legacy and progressive spirit continues to inspire us today. Welcome to the Volstead Home. 

Andrew, Laura and Nellie Volstead

America and Alcohol– A Hot and Cold Romance

First, Admit you have a problem-

By 1900, it was clear that America had a drinking problem. Between 1870 and 1900, the number of saloons in the United States grew from 100,000 to 300,000. By 1910, American adults drank around 2.6 gallons of pure alcohol per year – that’s equal to 34 bottles of 80-proof liquor. Many Americans liked to drink … a lot. 

But by 1910, a growing movement of “drys” (anti-alcohol activists) were starting to advocate for “Prohibition”– to make alcohol illegal. They had good reasons. 

Alcohol abuse caused true suffering. Public drunkenness and fighting spilled out onto city streets. Many workers misspent their wages at saloons, returning home to their wives and children empty-handed and short-tempered. 

Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance League and the Anti-Saloon League opposed alcohol on these grounds, as well as moral and religious ones. 

Some drys were motivated by anti-immigrant and racist beliefs, too. While many rural and wealthy Americans drank privately at home, saloons typically catered to urban and immigrant populations, like Germans, Irish, Bohemians, Slavs, Italians, and Poles. Native-born Americans were suspicious of saloons and their clients. White Americans also believed that African- Americans were particularly susceptible to alcohol – and especially dangerous when drunk. 

Alcohol was about political power, too. Saloon keepers and brewers had significant political clout, and used it. Many drys hoped eliminating alcohol would eliminate corruption, too. 

original artwork by Tamara Isfeld in the Volstead House Museum

Prohibition Passes The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act

The Anti-Saloon League became a major political force in the 1910s. By effectively organizing a small but passionate group, they began to shift the balance in elections. Soon, the Anti-Saloon League had built an outsized influence on politicians. 

When World War I began, drys saw a chance to capitalize on anti-German attitudes. Many brewers were German-Americans, and drys claimed that true patriots wouldn’t brew or drink alcohol. Their efforts succeeded, and momentum for prohibition began to grow. 

On December 18, 1917, Congress passed the resolution for the 18th Amendment, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Many people assumed the amendment would never get approved by the states. With shocking speed, the states ratified the amendment by January 16, 1919. 

In the summer of 1919, as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead began drafting the National Prohibition Act. This law, named the Volstead Act, laid out the details for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment. Volstead’s skill as a lawyer and wordsmith was critical, as was his experience prosecuting illegal liquor sales as Yellow Medicine County Attorney. While the intentions of the Prohibition Amendment were generally clear, its language was muddy. Did “Intoxicating liquors” include even the natural fermentation in ciders or fruit juices? What about religious wines? Volstead set to work. 

To create an act that would pass both chambers of Congress, Volstead’s act allowed loopholes for religious, medicinal, and industrial use. Cider and fruit juices that naturally fermented would be allowed, too. 

With these details outlined, the Volstead Act was approved on October 28, 1919. Prohibition was set to begin on January 17, 1920. 

WCTU – original art by Tamara Isfeld at the Andrew Volstead House

Getting Blotto on Hooch at the Blind Pig – Drinking Goes Underground

During Prohibition, public saloons were replaced by hidden speakeasies, blind pigs, or juke joints. Each of these places offered secure places to drink – as long as the local police were paid off. Even here in Granite Falls, it is rumored that a speakeasy was in operation. 

In the home and around town, people disguised their alcohol in many ways. Hidden spots in garages, root cellars, or between walls concealed large stashes of alcohol. Pianos or false books might hide a flask. 

underground drinking, original artwork by Tamara Isfeld at the Andrew Volstead House Museum.

Winners and Losers If you can’t beat ’em, join em

While Prohibition might have seemed like a good idea in theory, it quickly proved to be a failure in practice. 

People with foresight simply stocked up on their favorite liquor. Others began to make their own beer, wine, and hard spirits. Sales of religious wines and medical prescriptions for alcohol shot up. 

For everyone else, a robust market for illegal alcohol quickly developed. Pre-existing, local criminal gangs began to expand and establish networks to manage the production, importation, and distribution of alcohol. As the money flowed in, the gangs grew larger and more powerful. With money and intimidation, they easily bought off local police, judges, and politicians. With murder, they expanded their territory. Gangsters like Al Capone became romantic characters whom were both feared and admired. 

With a tiny budget – just $2.1 million – federal prohibition enforcement efforts were feeble. (State and local law enforcement efforts were also underfunded and overwhelmed.) Underpaid agents were susceptible to bribery. Few wanted to risk their lives to take on the serious criminals. Big-time gangsters were ignored while small-time dealers were arrested. The federal courts were overwhelmed with petty cases. 

In 1929, frustrated that the laws were being widely flouted, Congress increased the penalties on violators of the Volstead Act. Violations that had once been misdemeanors became felonies. Now justice was even more unevenly applied: the wealthy and well- connected continued to receive token penalties, while one poor woman received a life sentence for selling two pints of liquor.

Andrew Volstead at his desk.

Repeal The majority of Americans are finally heard 

In the cities and immigrant communities, Prohibition was deeply unpopular. Here in this home and in Washington, Andrew Volstead often received phone calls and letters bitterly cursing him and blaming him for Prohibition. Fair or not, his reputation and his fate were closely tied to it. 

While the majority of Americans opposed Prohibition, their voices and votes were meaningless in Washington. Congressional district boundaries gave out-sized power to the rural voters. As long as the rural voters still supported Prohibition, Congress did, too. 

Finally, in 1929, things began to change. Congressional redistricting finally restored the power of urban voters. In October, the stock market crash triggered the Great Depression. The economic crisis made people re-evaluate many social, economic, and government systems. 

In the election of 1930, voters blamed the majority Republicans (generally dry) for the economic catastrophe and voted them out. In the 1932 elections, voters sent even more Democrats (generally wets) to Congress, as well as Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Presidency. 

On February 20, 1933, just weeks after being seated, the new Congress voted to propose the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. The Amendment was forwarded to the states, and was ratified by states on December 5, 1933. After nearly 14 years, Prohibition was over. 

Prohibition is over! original artwork by Tamara Isfeld in the Volstead House Museum

Lasting Consequences Prohibition’s long echo

As soon as Prohibition was repealed, the big breweries sprang back to life. In 1915, there had been 1,345 American brewers. In 1933, just 31 re-started production. These brewers maintained their dominance for decades. In 1935, the five leading brewers controlled 14% of the market. By 2009, the three leading brewers controlled 80% of the market. 

For gangsters, the end of Prohibition eliminated their biggest source of income. Their networks and knowledge of corrupt law enforcers remained, though. Gangsters simply shifted their attentions to other illegal markets and crimes. 

While Prohibition failed, it did permanently alter drinking behaviors and highlight the dangers of alcohol abuse. Immediately after Prohibition began, the national drinking rates dropped by more than 70%, and remained low for decades. 

After Prohibition, many states, counties, and towns enacted their own specialized liquor laws, including age limits, bar closing times, or bans on Sunday sales. Here in Yellow Medicine County, citizens voted to keep the county dry until 1951. 

As our country continues to grapple with this and similar issues, Prohibition remains an example of the negative consequences that can come from good intentions. 

Uneven Ground – Cooperatives

For generations, American farmers have appreciated the value of cooperation. Farmers that shared tools, ideas, seeds, animals, and labor had more successful farms and more healthy communities. In the 1800s, communities of farmers began to cooperate on marketing and transporting their good. These cooperatives helped to stabilize prices and create more predictable markets for the farmers. 

In 1867, cooperatives began to really grow when the “National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry,” was founded by Minnesotan Oliver Kelley. The “Grange” (as it was commonly called) was the first nationwide organization created to advocate for farmer’s interests. Within a decade, membership exceeded 800,000, and many Grange chapters also established local cooperatives. By 1890, there were more than 1,000 farm cooperatives in the U.S. 

During this same time, the economy was rapidly shifting. Business tycoons began to dominate their industries, often through trusts and monopolies that shut out competition. Small businesses and farmers struggled to compete. 

In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Though the Act was intended to stop the industrial trusts from forming monopolies, it did not exempt farm cooperatives. As a result, many farm cooperatives were in danger of violating the antitrust laws. The Clayton Act of 1914 attempted to fix the problem, but stopped short of full protection for farm cooperatives. 

After World War I, a worldwide slump in agricultural prices created economic pressures for American farmers. Farmers demanded the full legal rights to cooperatively produce, market, handle, and price their products. Politicians like Andrew Volstead heard them. 

 Capper-Volstead Act “The Magna Carta of Cooperatives”

As a Progressive, Andrew Volstead was a firm believer in supporting the rights and interests of the common man. As the son of a farmer and Representative from Granite Falls, he was especially supportive of farmers. 

In 1922, Andrew worked with Senator Arthur Capper from Kansas to draft the Capper– Volstead Act. The Capper–Volstead Act aims to strike a fair balance between the concerns of farmers and consumers while also reducing the danger of price-gouging by middlemen. 

The first section of the Act allows farmers to “act together in collectively processing, preparing for market, handling, and marketing” their products. A variety of provisions were designed to protect the interests of the individual farmers. Agricultural cooperatives had to be operated for the mutual benefit of their members. Members had to be farmers – not distributors or others. Members were restricted to one vote in the cooperative – no matter the size of his or her farm. Cooperatives also could not deal in the products of non-members in an amount greater than their own products. 

The second section of the Act also protects consumers. Cooperatives were prohibited from any activity that would “unduly” enhance pricing. It gives the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to investigate and bring a case against any cooperative it believes has violated the Act. 

The simple language and clear intentions of the Act were popular with farmers and Congress. It was signed into law on February 18, 1922. 

The Growth of Cooperatives -A Popular Idea

In 1922, when the Capper–Volstead Act was enacted, agricultural cooperatives were mostly small organizations of local farmers. In the decades after the Capper–Volstead Act was passed, cooperatives began to expand. By the 1950s, cooperatives had grown into large, regional and sometimes national organizations. 

The simple language of the Act left it open to ongoing lawsuits, especially as cooperatives grew larger and more influential. Initially, some judges interpreted the Capper-Volstead Act to give agricultural cooperatives full immunity from antitrust laws. In 1960, the Supreme Court helped clarify the issue: there were some limitations. Cooperatives couldn’t bully non-members, or conspire with distributors or labor unions. But Cooperatives could form agreements with other cooperatives, and they could even set prices as long as that was done under the guise of common “marketing.” 

With this legal protection, large cooperatives like Land O’Lakes, Ocean Spray, and Sun- Maid began to expand their services. They began to operate plants and subsidiaries. Large cooperatives were able to control their products from the field to the grocery store. 

Since the 1970s, the success of large cooperatives has attracted scrutiny.1 During the 1990s, the government successfully brought cases against dairy cooperatives for price fixing.2 Mushroom, egg, and potato cooperatives have faced similar lawsuits.3 Some believe that that large, multi-layer agricultural cooperatives now pose a threat to the small farmers that the Act was designed to protect.4 Despite the criticisms, the Act has remained. 

Cooperatives Today “I am not thinking of farmer folks only…

Over the last century, the Capper-Volstead Act has had a tremendous impact on the farm economy. Cooperatives are involved at every stage of agriculture: processing, marketing, negotiating with other processors, negotiating purchasing for favorable pricing, and even providing credit and financial services to their members. Cooperatives provide thousands of jobs in rural economies. 

Cooperatives were a $197.1 billion business nationwide in 2017. Of that, Minnesota had the largest share of co-op sales and service of any state. Minnesota’s economy benefits from some of the largest cooperatives in the country. CHS in Inver Grove Heights is the largest co-op in the country. Land O’Lakes (St. Paul), Associated Milk Producers (New Ulm), and American Crystal Sugar Company (Moorhead) are all in the top twenty largest cooperatives in the nation. Central Farm Service in Owatonna rose to become the 55th largest co-op nationwide in 2017. 

At the end of his life, Andrew Volstead had a clear understanding of the impact of his signature legislation, writing, “I know of no measure ever passed by Congress that will be more helpful or far reaching than this bill…. I am not thinking of farmer folks only, for the consumer is as much benefited as the producers by the measure, so you have in a broad, statesmanlike way served the people of our national life.” 

Cooperatives, original artwork by Tamara Isfeld at the Andrew Volstead House Museum

The Andrew Volstead House Museum invites visitors for guided tours in the summer months and on special events. Thank you for visiting our virtual exhibit.