On Wednesday, July 21st, 1915, the province of Alberta voted overwhelmingly to bring in the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages.
It was one of the most momentous pieces of social legislation of modern times as it sought to fundamentally change human behaviour. Hence, many people have dubbed it the ‘Grand Experiment’.
Support for Prohibition was massive across almost all of Alberta. It was even more overwhelming in Red Deer and area as more than 80% of the voters voted ‘yes’ in the provincial plebiscite.
A dream of temperance and social reform groups for more than a generation finally seemed to have come to fruition.
One of the first noticeable consequences of Prohibition, after it came into full legal effect, on July 1st, 1916 was the bankruptcy of many local hotels.
For a great many years, these establishments had relied on the income from the bars as much as the rental of the rooms for their income. Now there was an enormous hole in their financial balance sheets.
Even before Prohibition was fully implemented, both the Alexandra and Windsor Hotels closed their doors.
The Arlington was in turmoil as the managers tried to break their lease with the owners. Only the Alberta Hotel, on the west end of Ross Street, remained fully operational.
However, many of the rooms in the Alberta Hotel were taken up by lodgers.
Problems for travellers were compounded by the fact that it was not possible to take a train to Red Deer and leave on another on the same day.
Hence, many people found themselves in some nearby sub-standard accommodations, or else stranded for the night in the C.P.R. station waiting room.
With all the empty hotel space in the community, the military used the Alexandra Hotel on Ross Street as temporary billets for the 191 Battalion.
However, early in 1917, the military decided to phase out the use of Red Deer as a recruitment and training centre.
Hence, almost all the men were transferred to Calgary for training there.
While the imposition of Prohibition was devastating to the local hotelkeepers, it was a wonderful boost to the Red Deer Police Department and the Alberta Provincial Police, who had established a detachment in the City in 1917.
Crime dropped to almost insignificant levels. Red Deer’s Chief of Police was able to report to City council that only two people had been held in the city cells in all of 1917.
Most police activity was devoted to dealing with by-law infractions and health code violations. With cars becoming very popular in the community, the issuance of traffic tickets and the investigations of automobile accidents became a primary concern for the police. Violence, and particularly family violence, became rare. Even cases of theft and fraud became infrequent.
Breadwinners hung on to more of their paycheques, instead of spending a good portion of their earnings in the bar. Families had more to spend on entertainments, like taking in a movie, attending a community dance or going to a local amateur theatrical production.
The annual Red Deer Fair enjoyed some of the best attendance ever. Also highly successful was the Chautauqua, an annual travelling show that offered dramatic performances, musical entertainments and education lectures on the City Square (current site of City Hall Park).
Unfortunately, as the 1920s progressed, the illegal manufacture of alcohol, also known as moonshining, became a growing problem. Many of the illicit stills were located along the Red Deer River.
The river provided a convenient transportation route, both in summer and winter, for the moonshiners and rum runners, who then did not have to use the public roads where the chance for being spotted was much greater.
By 1922, moonshining and rum running had become such significant problems that the authorities began to rethink the approach to Prohibition and the sale of alcoholic beverages. The ‘Grand Experiment’ was starting to fail and new legal measures would have to be implemented.