A history of Utah’s bizarre liquor laws
December 5, 2008
This January, Summit County’s hospitality businesses are hoping to see a major change in Utah law: the end of mandatory club memberships to serve hard alcohol. Ironically, as pundits continue to draw comparisons between the economic situation now and that of the 1930s, the repeal of private club rules may roughly coincide with the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933.
Businesses often complain about a stereotype that one cannot buy a drink in Utah. But it was Utah that drove the final nail in Prohibition’s coffin by becoming the 36th state to ratify the repeal and thereby tipping the balance. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears to have given its blessing to the repeal of club laws back in September, church leaders in 1933 were deeply antagonistic to the way Utah’s delegation voted.
The details of the start of Prohibition are far less obvious, however, and sound more like Utah history from Bizarro World. Utah was actually one of the last states to implement statewide-prohibition of alcohol (in contrast to county-by-county policies) before the 19th amendment took effect in 1920. The Legislature passed measures several times, but Mormon-Governor William Spry (1909-1917) always vetoed them, resulting in the loss of his party’s nomination in 1916. Even LDS Apostle and Republican Senator Reed Smoot opposed statewide prohibition on the grounds that the resulting tension between backers and opponents would be bad politically.
In 1916, Simon Bamberger, not a Mormon, ran for governor with one of his major platforms being statewide-prohibition by August 1917. He banned alcohol from his own properties including the Lagoon resort in Farmington. Once elected, he told the Legislature that prohibition was to be their top priority. the summer of 1917, alcohol producers and vendors were selling their inventory at nearly any proposed price to empty supplies. According to Hal Compton at the Park City Museum and Historical Society, 20 saloons on Main Street Park City dropped their prices until they were finally giving it away before midnight.
In 1919, the state quickly ratified the 19th amendment to the Constitution prohibiting alcohol across the nation. For the next 16 years, alcohol could still be found in Utah, but one had to be in the know. Druggists, hotels, pool halls and even candy shops frequently had secret stores available upon request. Alcohol was distilled locally, usually in isolated canyons where the equipment was out of sight except to sheepherders. McHenry Canyon housed one for Park City saloons. Like the rest of the state, the numerous Park City saloons were converted to pool halls or soft drink parlors where alcohol was served "under the counter," Compton explained.
By 1932, Americans were growing weary of the impossibility of enforcing prohibition and the growth of organized crime. Ending prohibition became part of the platforms of both political parties with Franklin D. Roosevelt pledging to end it immediately. LDS Church President Heber J. Grant supported prohibition as an apostle and became the church head in 1918. He said in 1930 that it was one of the greatest benefits that has come to the people of the United States and that millions were benefiting and millions of homes were being saved.
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Faced with changing winds, Grant made his opposition to Roosevelt known and supported the re-elections of Republicans Herbert Hoover and Sen. Smoot. Both lost in a nationwide Democratic wave as voters demanded change. As promised, Roosevelt pushed the end of prohibition and by February of 1933 the 21st Amendment had passed both houses of Congress.
By that fall, 33 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the 21st Amendment and a special convention was called for November at which the remaining states were to pledge a position. President Grant said that he believed the church would see many more drunkards if the law changed. He pled for members to vote against a repeal.
Despite his best efforts, Utah did vote for a repeal. The Utah delegation to the convention waited for Ohio and Pennsylvania to express favor before becoming the 36th state, thereby earning the distinction of being the deciding vote.
President Grant was greatly offended by the vote and said so frequently throughout the remainder of his presidency and life.
As late as 2003, President Gordon B. Hinckley made reference to Utah’s repeal of prohibition in a talk titled "Loyalty," in which he related President Grant’s disappointment at being ignored.
In contrast, Mormon-governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. is so supportive of a repeal on club memberships in 2009 that he is drafting a bill himself. It’s widely understood that his motivation lies in support for tourism.
Sharon Mackay, spokesperson for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said the membership rule started because after Prohibition was over only fraternal organizations and places like country clubs were given liquor licenses. Because the rules were designed to pertain to private clubs, it made sense to legislators to follow the precedent, she explained. Mackay said she hears a lot of business owners say the repeal is needed to make Utah more "normal" and erase the incorrect belief that Utah is a "dry" state.
Kevin Henry, general manager at the Wasatch Brew Pub, said the repeal of club laws is on everyone’s mind. He said traditionally about half of potential customers walk out the door when they find out they need to pay a state-mandated "membership fee" to purchase a drink.
Andrea Hewson, owner of Bunny’s in Coalville, said the memberships create a divisive situation between visitors and the businesspeople trying to serve them. She said the membership rules have also made it difficult for her to define the type of business she runs. Hewson said she sees Bunny’s as a grill, a place where families can come after recreating at Echo and Rockport reservoirs. She also wants to serve drinks, and doesn’t understand why lawmakers in the past have made it so difficult for those initiatives to co-exist.
"It’s good for everybody all around. The law has been divisive between customers and owners. It’s just another barrier, a thing between us that causes people to move out," she said.