COURTESY PHOTO Belvidere Republican
1910 Temperance Demonstration for Belvidere to be a Dry City.

In this edition of Bizarre Belvidere, we will be exploring Prohibition and its profound effect on Belvidere and our country’s history.

America’s prohibition of alcohol is largely remembered as a failure, as big government strong-arming away individual freedoms, or as the self-righteous crusade of overly pious special interest groups. While the ramifications of prohibition were certainly severe, the intentions behind it weren’t so sinister. It would be bad history to discuss prohibition in Belvidere as if it wasn’t something the people asked for themselves.

The origin of prohibition lies in America’s temperance movement. Temperance was originally an ideology motivating people to “temper” their own alcohol consumption. As the movement became more popular, it demanded local and federal policies. It is a common belief that the popularity of temperance was just a fad for America’s churchgoers, but that isn’t entirely true. While the movement did have Christian origins, it wasn’t a consensus.

In fact, Catholics and Lutherans were some of the most vocal opponents of prohibition. More significant than any religious inclination was the women of this country making it clear they would no longer accept a problem that was sweeping the nation.

While alcohol always had its dangers, industrialization made it a national crisis. Factories brought affordable, abundant goods to the masses, including alcohol. As a result, saloons replaced their watered down swill with cheaper, stronger liquor and droves of men who didn’t understand the danger of this change fell victim to alcoholism. Men came home to their impoverished families after leaving their wages at the bar, if they came home at all. Still, many women would have preferred they didn’t as the rate of domestic violence rose to horrendous heights.

In A Postcard History of Boone County, there is a collection of photographs from a temperance parade in Belvidere. One striking image captures a group of young women holding a sign with just three words on it, “Please Protect Us.” Similar demonstrations happened all across the country and in January of 1919 the 18th Amendment passed with nationwide, bipartisan support. Only two states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, voted against the amendment. However, just 13 years later it would be repealed with just as much support.

The reasons for this shift are well known. People still bought alcohol, this time from criminals. Even when people were arrested, many juries refused to convict on alcohol-related charges. While it was a serious problem at the national level, the average citizen found it hard to lock someone up for a personal decision to drink. To make matters worse, the high cost of bootleg liquor and the loss of a major industry were damaging an already wounded economy.

In 1918, just four years after Belvidere became an independent, dry city, there was a failed vote for a large tax increase to make up for lost alcohol revenue. The vote failed not just because everyone hates taxes, but because the people were even worse off than the government. The combination of the Spanish flu ravaging the workforce and the economic collapse in Europe after WWI resulted in a massive annual inflation rate of 18%.

To put that into perspective, today’s “heavy” inflation is roughly 3.5%. This was an extreme but short recession, only lasting about two years. However, when The Great Depression came in 1929 and no end was in sight, it only took the public 4 years to end their “noble experiment.”

Of course, the most famous consequence of prohibition was the expansion of organized crime, and perhaps the most famous syndicate of the era was Al Capone’s “Chicago Outfit.” Don’t let the name fool you into thinking his schemes were limited to The Windy City though. The roots of his empire spread far and wide, including here.

The head of the Rockford mob was the brother-in-law of Antonio Lombardo, Capone’s personal advisor. Reportedly, the two of them were quite close. It was even said that Capone would personally come to check on Rockford’s alcohol racket. Eventually, their business grew so large that they expanded into Belvidere as well.

One of the mob’s Belvidere operations was actually the largest bootlegging facility ever seized in Northern Illinois. In January of 1933, federal agents collaborated with local authorities to raid 129 N. State St., commonly referred to as the Brach building, after the owner Max Brach. There, they discovered a distillery capable of producing 700 gallons of liquor per day and storing 35,000 gallons at a time. The product there tested at 180 proof, or 90% alcohol. Three men from Rockford were arrested just outside the building and were issued federal charges.

Oddly enough, this was actually the second raid in Boone County in barely over a week. The first was near Spencer Park at the 101 Ranch, which was named after the popular Wild West show. It was a horse-ranch resort and also the site of an illegal still.

The investigators of the ranch were reported to be quite suspicious. Allegedly, they hauled off equipment that had been left intact, rather than dismantling it. They also never sought cooperation from, or even informed, local law enforcement about their initial investigation.

Suspicions intensified after locals looked further into the circumstances of the Brach raid. Federal agents originally only intended to perform a follow-up investigation at the 101 Ranch, but immediately after they left, the agents went to the Brach building. This information led some to believe that it was investigated as the result of a tip-off, as revenge for the ranch being seized by dubious officers.

If Belvidere citizens hadn’t made up their minds to end prohibition by then, they certainly did after facing the prospect of a mafia feud on their doorsteps. Their decision was made official in December of 1933 when the 18th Amendment was repealed. Ironically, less than a year after the Brach incident, the same building that housed an illegal distillery was leased out to Ralph Tripp for a legal tavern.

And so, a time that seems so bizarre to us today seems much less so. Prohibition wasn’t just a ploy to control the populace, and it wasn’t repealed so emphatically because American’s had a drinking problem. In Belvidere, and all across the country, citizens turned out to vote away alcohol, and 13 years later most of those same citizens voted it back. Bizarre as it seems at first, that is the story of Prohibition.

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