What is it about the Prohibition era, known to 1920s social critic H.L. Mencken “as the 13 awful years” from 1920 to 1933, that continues to fascinate people with little interest in other history?
There have been movies, plays and books by the hundreds. And currently there is even an exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia that takes us back to that “era of wonderful nonsense” where, according to legend, everybody made bootleg in the basement and hung out in smoky speakeasies.
But it wasn’t only in Al Capone’s Chicago where the 1920s roared. The Lehigh Valley had its share of high jinks with newspapers full of “feds” busting stills in the countryside and former Allentown breweries turning to near beer and ginger ale.
Although Prohibition legends make interesting reading, the record is actually a little duller. Many people in the Lehigh Valley during Prohibition never tasted bootleg liquor or entered a speakeasy. They quietly supported the law and-especially when it was first enacted-hoped it would do what its supporters had promised, which was to create a sober and more law-abiding society.
But they are generally overlooked in the flamboyant popular culture of the era that was bent on “having a good time.” It wasn’t only the flaming youth that danced the Charleston at the Hotel Traylor’s roof garden restaurant in Allentown who thought Prohibition was a mistake. General Harry C. Trexler, Allentown’s leading citizen, told a Philadelphia newspaper reporter in 1928 that all Prohibition had done was “take the liquor trade out of the hands of respectable citizens and turned it over to the worst elements in society.”
For many it was clear from the start that Prohibition was not going to be popular in the Lehigh Valley. One Allentown doughboy who had not yet been sent back home at the end of World War I wrote to a friend, the manager of Allentown’s Lyric Café, asking if it was true that Prohibition had been enacted. “If it is true,” the soldier said, “I am staying over here, because there is plenty and it is pretty strong stuff too.”
A local newspaper columnist recorded in 1921 in a humorous way what he observed as the local public reaction to the 13th amendment. “If all of the energy expended in Allentown ‘making your own’ could be concentrated, there’d be enough generated to change the course of the Jordan in a few hours.”
One of the many folks in the Lehigh Valley who saw Prohibition up close and personal was William “Bud” Tamblyn. A furniture design artist in Allentown in the 1920s, he was one of the many people in Lehigh County who, by his own testimony, regularly flouted the law every chance he got.
“Now the roadhouses out in the country were not bad,” Tamblyn recalled many years later. "At least you knew the homemade applejack wouldn’t kill you or make you blind. But the hangovers from it had quite a kick.” Other memories of that era included going up to the steps of apartments that then lined Lawrence Street, now Martian Luther King Drive. “You would walk in and there was a party going on with somebody actually mixing booze in the bathtub with alcohol poured out of a bottle.”
Tamblyn carried the ultimate accessory of the young 1920s male: a hipflask. It was quite common at the time to go into the best restaurants in the region and find on each table a bottle of sparking soda of one sort or another. Popular locally was “Frontenac Pale," made by a former Allentown brewer.
Tamblyn recalled in particular coming into a popular hotel restaurant on New Year’s Eve in 1929 with several “three sheets to the wind” friends. The house detective was not too happy with their behavior. But he made no attempt to stop them from using their hip flasks.
Whatever the opinion of the vast majority of the population, the press in general seemed to regard the whole effort to try and enforce the Prohibition law as, at best, a bad joke. Several Allentown city councilmen were told by the Prohibition agents that they were going to stage a raid on a still in an abandoned factory and invited them to come along.
When they got there the bootleggers and their still were apparently long gone. The newspaper account the next day described the botched raid as an embarrassment for both the councilmen and the agents. Perhaps trying to prevent a similar event, the federal agents refused to give out any information about a raid that was rumored to be about to take place in rural Lehigh County. The press mocked this attempt at secrecy as “reminiscent of some Greek letter fraternity rite.”
Allentown and Lehigh County were not alone in facing problems during the Prohibition era. South Bethlehem in particular was known up and down the east coast as a haven for beer drinkers in that era. Mencken and his editor Alfred Knopf decided to stop for some after hearing a production of Bach’s Mass in B-Minor by the Bach Choir. Knowing that the word “seafood” was common cover for a speakeasy, Mencken approached a building with those words on its front. As they got to the door a small peephole opened with only an eye visible. It was only when Mencken held up his score of the Bach Mass to prove he was not a Prohibition agent that they were admitted. After two steins he and Knopf ran to catch their train to New York.
By the early 1930s it had become clear Prohibition was not working. On the night it was repealed people celebrated in many ways, Mencken, by way of irony, did so by drinking a large glass of water.