denis gullickson | talking titletown | dec. 2019
Part Two of a Three-Part Series
High-minded folks might have found little old Green Bay a disturbing place in the 1920s: Prohibition was supposed to have quashed the sale of liquor, yet nigh on a hundred “soft drink parlors” (their tag in city directories of the time) were operating as “saloons” — much as they had before Prohibition took effect.
Green Bay wasn't alone. NYC had as many as 30,000 speakeasies; Detroit had 25,000 and other northern cities registered proportionately. Today, Chicago embraces its own notorious “blind pig” past at several former speakeasies — including the Green Door, Simon's Tavern and the Green Mill.
However, for a small town, Green Bay seemed to embrace its 1920s law-breaking with a gusto not witnessed everywhere with a — ha-ha — “soft drink parlor.”
Illicit imbibing was nearly as rampant on Titletown's west side as it was on its east. There were 21 “parlors” up and down Broadway with nine more nearby on Dousman, State and Mason Street. On the east side, there were 15 along Washington Street and a dozen others scattered across downtown.
Nothing, however, rivaled the 44 establishments found along Main Street.
Several of these former speakeasies still stand, some pouring liquor — legally — to this day.
Last issue, we reviewed some of the forces that made Prohibition a consideration at all — let alone a law. WWI was a factor. So, too, were changing demographics and a century of church and civic groups pressing politicians. Some suggest that banning alcohol was an extension of Puritanism hell-bent on banning everything that might beget joy that might beget laughter that might beget laziness that might beget ... well, you beget the picture.
The result was chaos seething beneath a calm façade — producing a whole lot of peaking behind curtains with feigned shock and, then, a whole lot of “tsk-ing” tongues.
Numerous factors made illegal alcohol consumption soar in this town: The city's size and geographic location — there were 31,643 souls in this port town at the time. Other factors were its generally productive, erstwhile pace and its cultural heritage. There was also the fact that federal marshals were headquartered 120 miles southward in Milwaukee.
Saloons had been a part of the GB business community since the mid-19th century when the town's five breweries kept them flowing in fresh suds. The 1884 City Directory listed about 110 such establishments in GB and De Pere. By the eve of Prohibition, that number had grown to 130 in Green Bay alone. Yes, Prohibition would have an impact: By 1927 the number of soft drink parlors had dropped to 100; by 1931, that had tumbled to 78.
Some of GB's saloons did shut down or convert to actual soft drink parlors or restaurants. Most, however, kept right on keeping on after intensifying their discretion — moving operations to the basement or a backroom, or drilling out peepholes and installing sliding slots through which passwords were whispered.
After that, things were predictable — usually — and, frankly, somewhat mundane. Like today, establishments often had their “regulars” who lived nearby, had a connection with the place or preferred a certain ambiance. Those folks offered little threat whatsoever.
Green Bay policemen — like other local cops — generally viewed the enforcement of Prohibition laws as a federal responsibility. Besides, they were members of the community too: They knew the saloon owners, were often related to them and sometimes — like former sheriff Jacob Geurtz — were barkeeps themselves.
Under normal circumstances, the few bottles of liquor on hand — less plentiful and varied once Prohibition got rolling — were kept in the open behind the bar.
Following crackdowns — there were at least a half-dozen agent-conducted raids in Green Bay over Prohibition's 13 years — nerves were frayed and things got tidied up. Strangers were given a thorough once-over, but liquor was usually available once perfunctory pleasantries had been exchanged and the newcomer had been judged “alright.”
The “bathtub gin” available inside (seldom beer which was messy and consumed space) could be nasty, even deadly — especially once Prohibition took hold and the previously-regulated alcohol was consumed. At that point, the underground booze trade turned to every conceivable method to deliver product — including re-distilled industrial alcohol and liquor with traces of kerosene, mercury, Lysol and carbolic acid.
“Prohibition is a joke,” said one judge. “It has deprived the poor workingman of his beer and it has flooded the country with rat poison.” In GB, things never got that dangerous, but partaking of any potable well into Prohibition presented some risk — no matter where one found his or her drink.
A typical example of a Green Bay speakeasy was the Milwaukee House — run as a soft drink parlor and boarding house at 618 Main Street by the Piaskowski family including Joseph; his wife and son; and his brother, Bernard. By 1927, Bernard opened his own establishment at 128 S Broadway — today's Sardine Can.
A 1926-picture of the Milwaukee House interior tells a story. Essentially, it looks like a saloon with the liquor removed — mostly. Tobacco products are for sale, including Old Gold cigarettes and Old Duke cigars. While the liquor on display is nominal, it is present.
Smoking and drinking were parts of a night out as were games of chance — especially cards. Patrons sitting at round tables partook in all three — women were sometimes enticed by the Old Gold's flapper-featured marketing campaign and the chant, “Not a Cough in a Carload.” Chesterfield cigarettes called to women with the sassy, “Blow some my way.”
Green Bay earned a reputation as the place to party. So much so that the “City that Beer Made Famous (and Foggy)” — Milwaukee — took a sustained interest in the goings-on up here. One can only guess that part of the motivation came from the fact that the Cream City was under near-constant surveillance.
Regular articles appeared in the Milwaukee papers exposing GB's law-breaking. In the Aug. 12, 1929 Journal, for instance, Russell Lynch wrote a scathing piece, “Green Bay's 'Speakeasies' Hold Dry Agents in Open Scorn.” Lynch described a town where vice was ubiquitous and obvious.(Green Bay would strike back. Following Lynch's report, Journal truck drivers were said to be regularly arrested for speeding in GB — sometimes before they hit the city limits.)
What Lynch found on his trip north was a place bustling with illegal pursuits: alcohol, gambling and prostitution. He would return several times … for research purposes. He suggested that all one had to do to find “action” in GB was to approach the edge of town looking for a roadhouse with its porch light on — booze, broads and games of chance were close at hand.
The first “Dry Raid” on GB occurred in October 1920. Two proprietors were arrested: Herman Holz for serving whiskey at his 110 S Broadway parlor and George Cormier for serving “everything” at his establishment. Pressure would continue sporadically.
A stakeout Thursday night, July 16, 1925, found a pair of G-men slouched down in a dark sedan off Main Street — likely near the Bellevue Park baseball field adjacent to the Hagemeister Brewery building. In theory, the brewery had shut down when it should have. However, allegations said otherwise, and the agents were there to watch for any midnight comings and goings.
Raids became a nearly-annual event as they became more productive — at least four of them occurring between 1927 and Prohibition's 1933 end. Soft drink parlors weren't the only targets: Forays in 1927 yielded 40 gallons of moonshine at a Green Bay hotel and a lode of illegal liquids at a Green Bay home.
The two largest raids occurred in September 1928 and February 1931. “62 Padlocks Face Green Bay” read a Sentinel headline following the '28 raid.
The GB city council was outraged. Titletown's speakeasies were such a prosperous cylinder in the city's economic engine that the council found itself defending the illegal activity following both raids.
The hit on the local economy — including the city's coffers — was considerable: perhaps $730,000 worth of real estate alone. Construction of the Fox Theater (today's Meyer) was also threatened: Wm. Nickolai's establishment at 109 S Washington had been seized and sat on a piece of property where the theater was to go up.
In 1930, things cooled some amidst a $1,600 scandal involving bribes from GB soft drink purveyors to federal agent Henry Straum. That year's biggest news was that a “large alcohol plant near Green Bay was busted.”
The '31 raid rivaled that of '28 — though it focused on GB's outskirts. The Country Club Inn, a roadhouse on Velp Avenue, was busted with what the Sentinel called “a complete gambling outfit as well as assorted liquors.”
The nearby Sunset Club and King of Clubs were also tapped. Stub Wilson's roadhouse, the Silver Slipper, operating in the old Hagemeister Brewery Building, was busted as was Beckers Roadhouse, also on the far east end of Main Street. Padlocked, too, was Big George Kolocheski's place.
Titletown's speakeasy legacy continued.
--[Prohibition] banner image, US Public Domain.