Marking the 100th anniversary of Prohibition

On July 1st, 1916, one of the most ambitious and far-reaching pieces of provincial legislation came into effect. As of midnight, June 30th, it became illegal to sell alcohol in Alberta.

Government was going to attempt to change generations of social behavior. Many people dubbed Prohibition to be The Great Experiment.

People knew well in advance what was coming.

On July 21st, 1915 there had been a provincial plebiscite on a general ban on the sale of alcohol. Albertans approved of the measure by a massive 61%. Support for prohibition of alcohol in Red Deer was even more overwhelming. The voters in the City voted ‘dry’ by a margin of more than 80%.

There was a realization that working out the details of Prohibition would take time. Hence, the actual end of the sale of beer, wine and spirits was set almost a year later for July 1st, 1916.

That would give Government an opportunity to make sure the proper legal and enforcement systems were in place. It also allowed bar owners and liquor merchants an opportunity to clear out their remaining inventories.

Nevertheless, businesses such as hotels, which were heavily dependent upon their bars for income, quickly felt the squeeze. Banks refused to extend credit to establishments with such poor future financial prospects. The hotels became virtually worthless as no one was willing to risk an investment in such a venture.

Consequently, in Red Deer, the Alexandra Hotel on Ross Street went out of business just after Christmas. All the furniture and fixtures were sold off in an auction in mid-February. The building remained vacant for a number of years.

Then, the Windsor Hotel went into bankruptcy. On April 17th, 1916, creditors sold off all the remaining liquor to the Arlington Hotel, which now operated the only bar left in town. The managers in Arlington in turn were doing everything they legally could to break their lease with the owners.

By early June, the community became alarmed over the emerging crisis in hotel accommodations. A special committee was formed by the Board of Trade and City council to see what could be done.

The report back to council was discouraging.

Once the July 1st deadline for Prohibition came into effect, only the Alberta Hotel, on the southwest corner of Ross Street and Holt (51) Ave., could be relied upon to provide rooms for travelers and visitors. However, the Alberta had managed to remain solvent by renting out most of its rooms to lodgers. Only 15 rooms, in the brick annex on the east side, would remain available for overnight guests.

Meanwhile, City council was facing significant financial challenges of its own.

The councilors debated whether the one remaining night constable should be laid off once all the bars were permanently closed. Many predicted that if liquor sales were banned, crime rates would plunge.

However, a determination was made that there was still a need for night policeman to keep an eye-out for fires and other such problems. Hence, the constable got to keep his job.

During the last days of June, a number of people headed to the Arlington bar for one last legal drink. Their numbers, and thirst, quickly cleared out the remaining stock. At 3 p.m., on June 29th, the managers announced that they had no more liquor to sell. The bar was permanently closed.

There was one more public event to mark the start of Prohibition. Rev. L.E. Brough, the minister at Red Deer’s First Baptist Church, conducted a ‘funeral service’ to celebrate the ‘decease’ of the liquor trade in Red Deer and across Alberta.

Ironically, the end of booze turned out to be less than total.

Those with money had built up private stocks in advance since only the sale of alcohol, not consumption, was illegal. Moreover, the sale of alcohol for medicinal purpose was exempt from the law. One local doctor showed up at a pharmacy every day to buy his ‘medicinal stock’ of alcohol, which he then apparently converted into personal use.

Other people soon discovered a loophole in the law.

It was still legal for an Albertan to buy liquor from an outlet in British Columbia and have it shipped to them by mail. The loophole was soon closed, but in the meanwhile, there was still a legal means to get a bottle of liquor.

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