BiblioChatt: prohibition in Chattanooga, TN

Whiskey tumblers | Photo via Pexels

Scene: 1917 Chattanooga. Prohibition has been going strong in Tennessee since about 1913. But temperance? We don’t know her.

That’s right, we’re talking about how Chattanooga looked a century ago. And what better way to close out the start of our roaring ‘20s + usher in a new year?

Prohibition, the time of sneaking sips from flasks. | GIF via GIPHY

🥃 Prohibition

National prohibition went into effect in 1920, but Tennessee was the first state to enact a prohibition law — in 1838, it became a misdemeanor to sell alcoholic beverages in taverns + stores. As you can probably guess, though, this didn’t stop a lot of businesses from selling alcohol.

In fact, Chattanooga would continue to ignore prohibition laws, and in 1917, Chattanooga Mayor Littleton introduced a nuisance law empowering the police to “abate all clubs and interstate liquor dealers convicted of violation of its provisions.”

Just a few weeks after the nuisance law was enacted in Chattanooga, Tennessee Gov. Tom Rye signed a bone-dry bill without a test of law, meaning the minute it was signed, it would be enforced. The bill made it illegal for Tennessee “clubs, lodges, or associations of any character” to have, store, give away, sell, or distribute any liquor containing more than .5% of alcohol.

“So far no indication has shown itself that any of the clubs are preparing to test the constitutionality of the law. Yesterday, they were all making preparations to lock up and leave.”Chattanooga Times, Jan. 19, 1917

Chattanooga has a rebellious spirit, though, and the constitutionality of the law was tested. On Feb. 6, 1917 the Chattanooga Times released a story stating “liquor men hear city has evidence of sales.” Turns out, the city mayor had been conducting an investigation and sending city employees to purchase liquor then take note of where they could buy alcohol. The record turned out to be a basis for citations, and the bootleggers were turned over to the grand jury.

Unfortunately, while we know that Chattanooga had its fair share of bootleggers, we don’t know where the speakeasies were. In all the articles, the reporters mention houses where residents would obtain their liquor — in January of 1917, it is written that 42 houses employed about 1,600 people after the saloons were shut down.

It has also been rumored that the current building housing the Terminal Brewhouse used to be a speakeasy, but the Chattanooga Library doesn’t have any information regarding that rumor.

🥃 The raid on Signal Mountain

In June of 1922, right in the thick of prohibition, federal agents named Victor and Eli Williams headed a team that raided a section of Signal Mountain. The raid uncovered four copper stills, 7,000 gallons of beer, three gallons of whiskey, and a lot of raw material. The bootlegging operation was under the control of two men, Ed Sloan and Dave Griffith.

Ed Sloan was caught at the first still, and upon seeing the federal agents, attempted a getaway but sprained an ankle. The sprained ankle was so severe that he was ordered to rest at home and report when he was able to walk again. 

Still No. 1:

Location: Cline Fork

Paraphernalia found:

Still No. 2:

Location: Rocky Creek

Paraphernalia found:

  • 45-gallon copper still
  • 1,300 gallons of beer
  • Nine fermenters

Still No. 3:

Location: Three miles north of Rocky Creek

Paraphernalia found:

  • 65-gallon copper still
  • 1,500 gallons of beer
  • 16 fermenters

Still No. 4:

Location: Chickamauga gulch

Paraphernalia found: This was not reported, but some quick math tells us there must have been 1,000 gallons of beer.

According to the Chattanooga Times story, the officers said it was the most perfect place to operate an illicit distillery that they’d ever witnessed. It was here they found the second man, Dave Griffith. He was arrested and immediately sent to Hamilton County Jail, charged with owning and operating.

Instead of throwing the party of the century, the officers destroyed it all.

Pour one out for all that was lost. Or don’t. Maybe that’s counterproductive.

🥃 The roaring 2020s

The good news: We likely won’t be hit with prohibition laws this time around. But as we all know, anything can happen. 😅

The bad news: Well, we don’t have to say it, but 2020 wasn’t exactly a Gatsby party. Fingers crossed that 2021 is the comeback year.

In true Chattanooga fashion, the city has a distillery that played a key role in changing the distilling laws here + a speakeasy so we can get that good, seedy feeling Noogans felt 100 years ago.

Chattanooga Whiskey

Post prohibition, the state of Tennessee allowed only three counties to distill spirits — Lincoln, Moore, and Coffee. After the Great recession in 2009, lawmakers voted to expand distilling efforts in 41 more counties, Hamilton not among them.

Meet Tim Piersant and Joe Ledbetter, two men looking to give Noogans a hometown whiskey. In 2011, they started a campaign — Would you drink Chattanooga Whiskey? — and by 2013, a bill known as the “Whiskey Bill” passed into law, allowing Tim + Joe to begin development on an experimental micro distillery on Market St.

Now the company has two distilleries, and we figure you can’t go wrong ringing in the New Year with a glass of hometown spirits.

Unknown Caller

A cocktail at Unknown Caller | Photo by Trista P.

The Chattanooga speakeasy on Cherry St. isn’t illegal, but it’s secretive enough + fun to pretend. The 2020 New Year’s Eve celebration is sold out (thanks, COVID, for forcing limited capacity), but that’s why we get a whole weekend to ring in 2021, right?

If you wanna celebrate like the folks did on Dec. 31, 1920, ducking into a dark bar that’s password protected (okay, not during the pandemic, but usually), is probably the closest you’ll get.

Be sure to order your Old Fashioned with Chattanooga Whiskey to really show the 1920s what the 2020s have in the arsenal.

And cheers to a new year, Nooga. 🥂