Imagine if exactly at the stroke of midnight one night, the law changed and the whole country suddenly went dry.
How would people react?
Would they just stop drinking alcohol? Or would they find someway to skirt the law and keep the liquor, beer and wine flowing?
Many chose to do the latter after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, officially took effect on Jan. 29, 1920. The new law imposed a nationwide ban on the production, sale, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages during a three-year period known as Prohibition.
The 18th amendment would be overturned 13 years later by the 21st Amendment, which was ratified in December 1933, drawing Prohibition to an end.
At least on a federal level. The state of North Carolina didn’t ratify the 21st Amendment until 1937, when state lawmakers created the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission and turned over decisions about alcohol sales to counties and municipalities.
The Prohibition era is the subject of a new exhibit opening this weekend at Museum of the Albemarle. Titled “Temperance and Bootlegging: A Nation Under Prohibition,” the exhibit features informational panels explaining the federal law and its impact on northeastern North Carolina. The exhibit also includes artifacts like moonshine stills, a temperance medal, and vintage wine and whiskey bottles.
The museum also will host a series of public activities on Saturday in conjunction with the exhibit. At 10 a.m., visitors can attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the exhibit that will feature light refreshments.
Then at 10:30 a.m., Daniel S. Pierce, a professor of history at University of North Carolina Asheville, will discuss his newest book, “Tar Heel Lightnin’ How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World.”
Pierce’s book covers the period of North Carolina history between the late 19th century and well into the 1960s, when the state boasted some of the nation’s most restrictive laws on alcohol production and sales. For much of that era, the state was also the nation’s leading producer of bootleg liquor.
“Folklore, popular culture, and changing laws have helped fuel a renaissance in making and drinking commercial moonshine, and Pierce shows how today’s producers understand their ties to the past,” a museum press release about Pierce’s book states. “Above all, this book reveals that moonshine’s long, colorful history features surprises that can change how we understand a state and a region.”
On the subject of moonshine, at 11 a.m., Rick Boyd, vice president of the Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Association, will portray the late Alvin Sawyer, a Pasquotank County resident who became known as the “moonshine king” because of his exploits making illegal liquor over the span of five decades.
According to press accounts, Sawyer served prison terms in 1950 and 1951 for operating illegal stills in the region that produced untaxed liquor. He was arrested again in 1985 after state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents seized three 500-gallon stills in his possession. After pleading guilty, he was placed on probation for three years. In 1987, he was arrested again after officers seized a 2,000-gallon still. He ended up serving four months in prison for that charge.
Sawyer was last arrested in 1990 and charged with felony manufacture of untaxed liquor after ALE officers found an illegal still on his property in rural Pasquotank.
According to the museum, the “Temperance and Bootlegging” exhibit will explore the question whether Prohibition should be considered a failure or a success. It’s also designed to answer questions about whether better law enforcement or more funding would have made a difference in how the law was enforced; whether Prohibition turned otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals; and whether Prohibition ultimately ended because of the loss of tax revenue and income for farmers and others it caused.
A 1957 black 210 Series Chevrolet used by bootleggers to transport illegally made liquor will also be on display at the museum during the run of the exhibit.