Feb 022011
Authors: Erin Udell

Walking through Old Town, looking at the charming bars and restaurants, you might not think about it. In fact you might not even know it happened.
But it did, and tucked deep in the town’s history is a roller coaster of laws, ordinances, fines and crimes that made 1896 to 1969 — years during the city-wide liquor prohibition — a wild ride for Fort Collins residents.

According to Nancy Kavazanjian’s 1977 Fort Collins Journal article about the city’s dry past, Fort Collins’ first liquor establishment, a two-story building with the town meeting hall on the second floor, was opened by T.J. Wilson on Jefferson Street in 1875.

Within five years, the number of bars grew to 13 along with three drug stores and five rumored “houses of ill fame,” where prostitution took place.

In Ansel Watrous’ History of Larimer County, he recalled, “The town was full of idle and vicious men, driftwood from railroad and ditch camps, irresponsible creatures, without home or friends who hung about the saloons and brothels.”

With an increase in crime and arson, the city kept raising liquor license prices until they reached $1,000 from the original $300. Eventually in 1884, the Fort Collins city council took its first stab at prohibition, making the sale and consumption of alcohol illegal.

But with fines for distributing alcohol lower than the original liquor license prices, the city lost money and reinstated the sale of alcohol.
By that time, Christian temperance movements had become prominent in the West, placing added pressure on city officials to reinstate prohibition.

In 1895, many Fort Collins residents got their wish when Frederick R. Baker, a known advocate for the temperance movement, became mayor and put prohibition in effect the next year, 24 years before the nation-wide prohibition of alcohol.

“Prohibition started earlier here than in other parts of the county most likely because of the greater influence and louder voice possessed by the women of our community, many who were for temperance,” said Treloar Bower, the curator of education for the Fort Collins Museum. “In general, women in the West held greater standing in society than back east.”

While Colorado was the second state to give voting rights to women — Wyoming was first — Colorado was first to do so by public referendum. This means the majority of voting men in the state voted to allow women that right.

And with alcohol illegal due in part to their influence, the rise of bootlegging liquor became part of Fort Collins’ history.

Liquor raids in alcohol-free Fort Collins

In Kavazanjian’s article, she writes of one particular liquor raid in the early 1900s that depicted the constant battle between bootleggers and law enforcement at the time. Police raided a man’s home, convinced he was harboring alcohol.

After an extensive search, they couldn’t find anything to implicate the man in bootlegging. It wasn’t until just before the police left that one officer noticed a large woman who had been sitting in the same spot during the entire raid.

When she finally moved, officers found a trap door. The door led “beneath the house where a large cache of whiskey was found, buried in a manure pile.”

With police cracking down on the illegal consumption of alcohol, many men ended up trying to find other ways around the law.

“Murder and Mirth,” written by Fancher Sarchet, a lawyer and Fort Collins resident in the 1900s, includes tales from his days during prohibition in Northern Colorado.

Sarchet writes of trying to steal confiscated liquor from the attic of the Larimer County courthouse in 1907 with two of his friends, also attorneys.

“We went there armed with three sacks, not merely looking for whiskey, but specifically looking for Old Crow whiskey, a large number of pints of which we found among the hundreds of bottles which were there,” Sarchet writes.

But, with the desperation of seeking liquor, came tragedy. Bootlegging, while glorified in many aspects, was a dangerous endeavor and often ended poorly.

For Robert Miller, the owner of the Fort Collins Bottling Works on North College Avenue, it meant his life was cut short after the city’s marshal went to confront him about his possible role in bootlegging.

The Weekly Courier reported that on May 17, 1905 that, during the marshal’s visit, Miller attacked the marshal, leading him to shoot Miller in the chest, killing him.

In 1919, 24 years after Fort Collins became dry, the U.S. Senate passed a bill making the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol illegal nationally.

But, much like what was experienced in Fort Collins, the country also saw a boom in underground criminal activity during the national prohibition.

College life during prohibition

By 1933, when the U.S. declared prohibition a failure due to this increase of organized crime, Fort Collins followed suit and allowed 3.2 beer establishments to set up in city limits once again.

But for those residents who wanted liquor, they still had to drive outside of city limits to buy it.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Andrew McDermott and his wife Norma moved to Fort Collins in 1956 so he could study physical science at CSU, or “Udder University” as some students called it due to its agricultural background.

While McDermott went to school, the young couple lived in the basement of a general store, a store in which Norma worked to support them.
McDermott and Norma McDermott often spent nights playing card games with friends, they also partook in a favorite pastime of young, college students –– drinking.

“We didn’t have very much extra money to spend while we were in college, so it was rare that we even pursued finding liquor,” McDermott said.

“But on a rare occasion, we would drive to LaPorte or Loveland and buy whiskey or beer to take home and party with some of our friends.”

“I cannot say how the alcohol consumption laws were worded, but I do know that there were no liquor stores or bars in Fort Collins while we lived there,” he added.

McDermott represents part of the CSU student population, a group who ultimately aided in the eventual passage of an ordinance that legalized the sale of alcohol in Fort Collins in 1969, finally ending the 73-year-long prohibition.

“The repealing of temperance in Fort Collins in 1969 was probably the result of several things. The existence of CSU in the community and the influence the staff, faculty and student is certainly key,” Bower said. “By the 1960s, the CSU student population was more diverse than it had ever been in the entirety of its history.”

“In general, there was a reduction in the concern of alcohol as a cause of moral degeneration of the individual as well as society at this time as compared to the turn of the 20th century,” she added.

For Fort Collins, becoming a “wet” city brought about many changes, including increases in drunk driving. But, with time, the city adapted to the new laws, leading to a substantial growth of bars and restaurants.

While it may not be clear what changed their minds, the city officials decision to legalize liquor can be seen on the streets of Old Town as couples sip cocktails at patio-cafes and as night falls and college kids come out to play — enjoying a pastime that had never really stopped.

Senior Reporter Erin Udell can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 5:08 pm

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