Green Bay Roared in the ‘20s

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | nov. 2019

Part One of a Three-Part Series – The Back Story

These days, Lenny's Tap, 431 N Broadway, is a friendly neighborhood tavern. Before Prohibition, it was a ‘saloon,’ run by Victor Mathys. At midnight, January 17, 1920, it magically transformed into a ‘soft drink parlor’ also operated by Mathys. It wouldn't have been too surprising to learn that Mathys was serving up some of the same libations he had the day before — just like many of Green Bay’s other ‘soft drink’ proprietors. Denis Gullickson photo.Titletown may suffer a knock or two these days as a quaint little corner of the world — a tad too quiet and famous for only football and toilet paper. But there was a time — back in the rambunctious days of Prohibition — when Green Bay was hailed as “Party Town, USA” by such experts as other NFL teams here to play the Packers. The prototypical image of Prohibition's wild side is probably that black and white footage of a screaming dark Studebaker careening at high speed around a Chicago street corner on two wheels at night — gangsters blasting Tommy guns from the open windows.

While things never got that edgy around here, little old Green Bay saw its share of secret doorways, whispered passwords, midnight stakeouts, raids by “G-men,” feds on the take, padlocked speakeasies and busted-up whorehouses. Still (a Prohibition pun), these were tiny inconveniencies, really since most days it was “business as usual” at this city's dens of iniquity. In fact, there are those who suggest that Prohibition never really took hold in Green Bay: Establishments that were “saloons” on January 16, 1920 — the day before the Volstead Act became law — opened for business the following day as “soft drink parlors” and (with a slightly-more-watchful eye) went right on pouring hard liquor and ushering customers upstairs or “next door” for related “extracurriculars.”

Over the next few issues, we'll drop in on Green Bay back in the heyday of the Roaring Twenties — a time when the little city by the bay took a backseat to few other towns. Our time travel will take us down Broadway and up Main Street as well as to a mid-summer night surveillance by “Dry Agents” at a supposedly shuttered GB brewery. First, let's set the stage for what was essentially a “wide-open” Green Bay while the National Prohibition Act was supposed to be the law of the land.

The Jazz Age

WWI ended on November 11, 1918. “The war that will end war” didn't. Despite its unfathomable ugliness, that “Great War” failed to fix the underlying, perplexing panorama of human foibles and outright savagery. The post-war disillusionment packed more power than the blast from the 420-millimeter siege howitzer fired in the Battle of Liege to open the bloody ground game. An obvious disdain for authority took psychological hold amongst the younger set while a weary ennui settled over their elders. In-your-face sassiness strutted hand-in-hand with clandestine pursuits. Many partook. Many looked the other way.

The disaffected brashness was set against amazing technological advances — making the Twenties themselves an oxymoron. Necessarily, they traveled by multiple aliases: the Republican Era, the Boom to Bust Decade, the New Era, the Era of Prosperity and the Era of Intolerance.

In 1922, author F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the phrase, “The Jazz Age,” to depict the post-war stretch. Three years later, he published his lavish — yet chilling — critique of the time, “The Great Gatsby.” The musical allusion was fitting for an age that saw social and economic exploration and experimentation. Jazz — with its freewheeling, improvisational chi — blew like a breeze cooling the angst. Woven delicately between the notes was a haunting admonition.

Solos were en vogue amongst the day's jazzmen. Those solos often meandered well off the path — showing a musician's skill and derring-do but causing a listener to drift or wonder whether the player could make his way back to the original riff.

Fitzgerald's prose painted the upheaval with an elegance that made him a veritable rock star:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”

“I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy.”

“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”

“What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?”

Everything seemed to be rushing toward something. Or nothing. The biggest of dreamers — Jay Gatsby — would wind up with a bullet in the back thanks to the chaos. Over the course of a summer, slews of bearcats, bimbos, bootleggers, dandies, daddies and dames showed their wares and ran their schemes at Gatsby's luxuriant lawn parties; they avoided his funeral like the plague, however, as the summer lost its dash.

“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive, and not after he is dead,” said Gatsby's mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim — the man Fitzgerald alleged to have fixed the 1919 World Series. Unlike the rest, Wolfsheim steered clear of Gatsby's wake out of respect, not disregard. The clarity of the contradiction was painfully apparent.

Post-Slaughter Progress

To assuage the anguish, the '20s came with frills galore: A Model T was rolling off Henry Ford's production line every 10 seconds. Autos were hitting break-neck speeds of 60 m.p.h. and beyond. Household appliances like the vacuum cleaner, refrigerator and washing machine were freeing up hours and leisure time was gaining favor for the working family. Vacations were becoming an anticipated possibility — especially popular following President Cal Coolidge's 1928-summer stay at Cedar Island Lodge near Brule, Wisconsin.

Women — pressing for equality — finally got a national right to vote in 1920. The rest of the decade would see them advance in nearly every aspect of society — from college campuses to the work world to the bedroom to the political arena to the speakeasy. As one source put it:

“In the 1920s, a new woman was born. She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties. She was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper.”

Housewives, too, felt that they were a part of something larger, with a broader sense of opportunity. A Friday evening, July 30, 1920 Green Bay Press-Gazette ad for Bohemian Baking Co. averred:

“The Woman Who Really Helps Her Husband is Not a Slave to the Kitchen.”

The ad continued, “She is interested in the big things of today and knows what is going on. She does not bake at home, particularly when she can buy a loaf that is made of the same pure ingredients she uses … Think it over. The hours you spend in baking could be spent to better advantage in some of the big movements of the day. Get into them now.”

People of color made a modicum of progress, though the ancient prejudices hung on — driven underground, perhaps, but still there. African-Americans saw a widened audience for their culture — reflected in the Harlem Renaissance, for instance — but still felt the sting of overt discrimination.

Native Americans — who had found themselves subject to policies meant to rip them off and make them vanish into the mainstream — now found their dress appropriated into flapper fashion. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted indigenous people citizenship — an awkward attempt to reshape a string of wrongs.

Meanwhile, the country experienced a nearly overwhelming throng of immigrants — many with their gazes fixed on Indian land. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 25 million folks arrived on U.S. shores. The country's overall population shot from 50,189,209 to 106,021,537. More than 80 percent of the arrivals after 1890 were natives of Southern and Eastern Europe, creating a tense dynamic as they mixed with folks already here.

The nation was experiencing bone-aching growth and dizzying demographic shifts. Its total wealth more than doubled in the decade. For the first time, more citizens lived in cities than in rural areas. Despite the obvious social and economic caste system that developed, a common U.S. identity was emerging as mass production, media and marketing produced a homogenization of attire, music, dance, even slang.

U.S. consumerism was conspicuous and celebrated. Few understood or capitalized more on the paradigm shift from artisan-based individualism to consumerism than Edward Bernays — often called the “Father of Public Relations.” Bernays consulted with psychoanalysts to sell products. His most-famous project was probably the pedaling of Lucky Strike cigarettes to women by hiring fashion models to stroll in New York's Easter parade while brandishing a Lucky and bearing a banner declaring it a “torch of liberty.” The rapidly expanding consumption of goods and ideas added to the frenetic persona of the age. Nonetheless, something seemed to be missing.

The Lost Generation

Fitzgerald's compatriot, Ernest Hemingway, conjured the term, “The Lost Generation,” to tag the era's youth — many of whom had abandoned their ideals to the war and the antiquated political machinations that had driven it. The bewilderment wove its way into the melody and prompted recklessness across the classes — from Fitzgerald's desperate Mr. Wilson, the filthy garage owner, to Tom and Daisy Buchanan, his narcissistic, moneyed-snobs. The Lost Generation's intelligentsia loathed the seemingly superficial mores of the previous generation, which had young men slogging through miserable trenches to 30 million deaths and injuries while accomplishing little. The young men who survived asked questions and the young women — who'd vigorously entered the workforce at home to support the war — were reticent to return to staid expectations of females.

The “Sheik of Araby” and the flapper were ready to party — to the point of stupor if that's where their own solos took them. The revved-up lifestyle that resulted shocked the blue bloods and the puritans who just wanted some peace and quiet. At times, its reflection even frightened the sheik and the flapper.

Smoking, drinking, gambling, late-night partying and sexual adventure all seemed to promise careless glamour, with the tiniest risk of a hangover or heartbreak as the next day's sun broke the skyline. Women who would take those odds — like Lois “Lipstick” Long and Clara “The 'It' Girl” Bow — scorched the pages of the nation's newspapers, including Green Bay's Press-Gazette. They could melt a man by touching their finger to his lips.

Everything seemed overheated — with a mind-numbing cold front about to pounce.

The idea of temperance probably sprang up shortly after the first drunk fell down back in the Stone Age (laugh if you must) about 10,000 years ago. Drunkenness was widespread during the Medieval Age. (W.C. Fields said it was called the “Middle Ages” because you could only make it home by walking between two other people.)

A dedicated temperance movement, however, didn't get traction until the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The American Temperance Society was organized in 1826 and had 8,000 chapters and 1.5 million members by 1835. As a result of their efforts, local prohibition laws were being enacted by the mid-1800s. In 1847, Maine passed the first prohibition law. In 1881, Kansas became the first state to have prohibition in its constitution.

By 1895, the Anti-Saloon League became a national organization hell-bent on applying political pressure to achieve a national prohibition of alcohol — often together with Protestant ministers and their flocks.

By the time the U.S. entered WW I, 18 states had complete prohibition. The war led to increased support for prohibition as resources were diverted to the sobering war effort. (Some suspect that the eventual ratification of the amendment was aided by the fact that many of the nation's young men were off fighting overseas.)

On August 1, 1917, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to present a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification banning the sale or consumption of alcohol. A couple of years later, the bill passed both houses and was sent to the White House, though President Wilson vetoed it over concerns about outlawing beer and continuing prohibition after the war. He was overridden.

Next Issue

Bringing it home.

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