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Prohibition Museum

Photos by Victor Block

Prohibition Museum, Savannah, Georgia:
When alcohol went from savior to sinful – and back again

A larger-than-life diorama depicting street protests welcomes you to the Prohibition Museum. Photo by Victor Block.

The entrance way immediately transforms you to the era just preceding Prohibition from 1920-1933. A larger-than-life 1918 street scene of a truck transporting alcohol being prevented from moving by an angry crowd of protesters sporting signs reading “Liquor is a curse,” “Alcohol is poison” and “Bread not beer.” The protesters somehow felt uncomfortably reminiscent of today…

Anti-alcohol protesters took to the streets in the 1920’s. Photo by Victor Block.

Welcome to Savannah, Georgia’s Prohibition Museum, the only museum of its kind in the country, where you don’t just learn about prohibition, you actually re-live it. The visit is only one of the many enticing excursions aboard American Cruise Lines Intra-Coastal Waterway Cruise from Amelia Island, FL to Charleston, SC also the only cruise of its kind in the country.

Back to the immersive 1920’s, famed evangelist Billy Sunday is railing against “King Alcohol,” loudly proclaiming Savannah as the wickedest city in the world. Life-size re-enactments of the many facets of prohibition from the massive attempts to rid the sinners of demon drink to the creative efforts of moonshiners to replenish the loss greet you around every corner. Political cartoons lining the walls elucidate the conflict: what caused prohibition, how people responded to it, got around it and eventually over-rode it. Vintage newsreels for example, of a coast guard vessel chasing a rum runner boat further bring the era to life.

Political cartoons on both sides flooded the newspapers. Photo by Victor Block.

As I made my way through, I was mesmerized by how clever the whole presentation was. “Moderation is the key, not prohibition,” says August Busch, of the famed Anheiser-Busch Company. Literally says! He’s just a picture on the wall before he starts talking. And then gets into a fiery debate with a lady of the Temperance League several picture frames down. They really go at it. How can you not delight in such an imaginative historical spectacle!

Al Capone and his ilk thrived during prohibition. Photo by Victor Block.

The 18th Amendment prevailed enabling barrel bashing and bottle breaking while the economy itself tanked. People out of jobs, taxes lost, manufacturing hobbled pretty sobering news, I’d say… But there were those who thrived. Al Capone, for instance. Also Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Moran and their compatriots.

Observed Capone: “When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”

So many people were put out of work while temperance prevailed. Photo by Victor Block.

A separate observation came from famous raconteur Will Rogers: “During prohibition it was said tailors would ask customers what size pockets they wanted: pints or quarts. “And others found ways around the restrictions. Pharmacists issued prescriptions for liquor for “medicinal purposes.” Take three ounces every hour for stimulant until stimulated. Doctor’s Orders.

And, of course, moonshiners across the country reaped in the prophits from the grain alcohol produced secretly at night. Ergo, the famous moniker. Another of the life-size exhibits had one such backwoods culprit talking directly to us about his business. Eerie and effective!

The tour ends at a nondescript wooden door somewhat imposing but what kind of Prohibition Museum would it be without a speakeasy. Immediately, you know you need a password. A knock brings a small open slit in the door with a pair of menacing, shifty eyes behind it and a growl that says, “Who sent you?” The temptation, of course, is to say, “Al did,” until you notice scratchy chalk marks close by with Al crossed out and an admonition to say Gus. So you say Gus, and the voice behind the eyes mumbles something and then says okay. And in you go. The menu includes a long list of libations famous at the time and the modern versions they most represent. I had a Mary Pickford and my husband, the much-revered prohibition Boilermaker. Apparently fancy cocktails were the norm as bartenders had to get creative in order to mask the taste of poor-quality liquor. But at least these drinks were legal!

Prohibition-era cocktails flowed easily throughout the speakeasy. Photo by Victor Block.

Throughout the bar, not surprisingly, are newspaper headlines announcing the end of prohibition: Happy Days are Beer Again and Sober City Hails Liquors Return. And apparently, the ramifications of that era exist today at least according to the museum. There’s a whole section celebrating the fact that moonshine runners were the origin of Nascar. Not entirely sure how I feel about that particular legacy….

And like every other museum tour in the world, there is a gift shop with the de rigueur t-shirts that say: “Alcohol will not solve your problems (but neither will milk)” and “Technically speaking, beer is a solution.” Some teetotalers might regret the failure of the Prohibition Era but for one, a Fireball aficionado, certainly do not. For more information, contact americancruiselines.com; americanprohibitionmuseum.com.

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