On 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 biggest grassroots electoral initiatives in our province’s history.
Support for Prohibition was massive. It was even more overwhelming in Red Deer and area as more than 80% of the voters voted ‘yes’ in the plebiscite. A long-held dream of many had finally come to pass.
However, although Prohibition was a long-sought goal, the government did not think through many of the implications of a law against the consumption of alcohol. There were many loopholes.
For example, initially, people could still buy alcohol by prescription. Although not a major problem in Red Deer, there was a local doctor who used to show up every morning at the Gaetz Cornett Drugstore for eight ounces of medicinal alcohol. Mr. Cornett quickly figured out that the physician was actually buying the liquor for his own use.
One of the biggest loopholes involved the inter-provincial transportation of liquor.
For quite a while, it was perfectly legal to sell alcohol so long as the sale was completed in another province.
Eventually a second plebiscite was held in Alberta on Oct. 25th, 1920 to stop this. However, the new measure only covered inter-provincial sales. The ban did not include sales to the United States, which had passed its own Prohibition legislation.
Hence rum-running and bootlegging became major problems along the Alberta-U.S. border. In 1922, two Alberta Provincial Police constables were gunned down by the infamous rum-runner, Emilo Picariello. While Picariello was executed for the crime, so was a female accomplice, Philomena (Florence) Lassandro.
As the 1920s progressed, the illegal manufacture of alcohol, or moonshining, became a growing problem in Central Alberta. Many of the illicit stills were located along the Red Deer River. The river provided a convenient transportation route for the moonshiners who then did not have to use the public roads where the chance of being spotted was much greater.
In 1922, 21 illegal stills were seized in the Red Deer area in the first five months of the year. One the quirks of the law was that the police had to be accompanied by a federal excise official. Daniel Horn, the chief customs agent in Red Deer, collected so much money for being part of these raids that he was able to pay off the mortgage on his house before the end of the year.
One of the local magistrates, Henry F. Lawrence, became exasperated by all the moonshine cases he was hearing. In May 1922, he pronounced from the bench that while it was common practice to levy the fine on the amount of alcohol involved, he was, “Inclined to make the punishment rest upon the quality of the liquor seized.”
What Magistrate Lawrence was trying to address that while some moonshine might be of good quality, a lot was sheer rotgut and a danger to public health. However, as often happens, his comments were reported out of context. The premier of the province, John Brownlee, who was also the attorney general, consequently formally disciplined Lawrence.
By 1923, 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.
In November 1923, a new plebiscite was held authorizing new legislation. Low alcohol beer could be served in licensed premises, although women were prohibited from entering those premises. Liquor could be purchased in government owned and operated stores. Alberta approved the new laws by a majority of 25,000. Red Deer voted ‘wet’ by a margin of 478-338.
When the first government liquor store opened in Red Deer, the first customer was a woman. However, Colonel R.C. Lister, the official vendor, declined to sell her the bottle of liquor she requested.
Nevertheless, the ‘Grand Experiment’ of Prohibition had come to a legal end.