When famed directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick announced they were making a documentary about Prohibition, producers at Pioneer Public Television thought it appropriate to make a companion documentary specifically about Prohibition in Minnesota.
Appropriate because the National Prohibition Act of 1919, usually called the Volstead Act, was partly written by Andrew Volstead, one-time mayor of Granite Falls and congressional delegate to the United States House of Representatives from Minnesota, from 1903 to 1923.
On Wednesday evening "Volstead Fever: Prohibition in Minnesota" and a preview of Burns' "Prohibition" were shown at Bootleggers Supper Club in Granite Falls. The screening was preceded by a panel discussion with PPTV Producer Brandon Wente, Granite Falls Historical Society Treasurer Mary Gillespie, and Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow at the Minnesota 2020 think tank. The panel discussion was moderated by Lee Heen, CEO of PPTV.
Photo by Steve Browne
Dustin (left) and Trevor Brau, owners of Brau Brothers Brewing Company, contributed their perspective to the documentary.
"When we heard Burns was doing it, it sparked the idea, but we gave it our own local flavor," Wente said.
Wente conducted interviews through March to June of people who had family stories to tell about Prohibition and relied heavily on input from Gillespie, one of the curators of the Volstead House museum in Granite Falls, Egerstrom, who has written extensively on the cooperative movement in Minnesota, John Berends, owner of Bootleggers Supper Club, Ted Marti, fifth generation owner of August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, and Dustin and Trevor Brau, owners of Brau Brothers Brewing Company in Lucan.
Gillespie said she wanted to dispel several misconceptions about Volstead. To begin with, he was not a teetotaler and did take an occasional drink. Volstead did not want to be remembered for the Volstead Act, but for the Co-operative Marketing Associations Act. This legislation, called the Capper-Volstead Act, gave cooperative associations certain exemptions from anti-trust laws, and is sometimes called "the Magna Carta of cooperation."
"As memories (of Prohibition) dim, he can be given credit for what he wanted to be given credit for - the cooperative movement," Gillespie said.
Egerstrom, contributor to more than 20 books about cooperatives, called Prohibition a "passing quirk of history," and said Volstead's enduring legacy was the cooperative movement.
Wente interviewed Marti and the Brau brothers to compare and contrast the Prohibition experience from the perspective of a 105-year-old brewing operation and a five-year-old enterprise.
During Prohibition, the Schell brewery kept in business making and bottling soft drinks and non-alcoholic malt beverage. Non-alcoholic beer was made by putting brewed beer back into the vats to boil off the alcohol. Because they actually had beer on the premises, the brewery was under almost constant supervision by federal agents.
Dustin Brau related how his family and many other rural families had a tradition of brewing home made beer on their farms throughout the 13 years of Prohibition.
Interviews with John Tillemans of the Silver Dollar Bar in Ghent showed the importance of recording history according to Gillespie. In 1934, the Silver Dollar was the first bar to open in the state after Prohibition was repealed. The bar closed two months after the interviews were filmed.
"Certain stories you have to get to," Gillespie said, "or it's a lot harder to get to them."
Summing up the panel discussion, Heen said the lesson of Prohibition was ultimately about civil discourse.
"There were two sides," Heen said, "they couldn't agree and nobody was interested in compromise."
"Volstead Fever" will premiere on PPTV at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 2, followed by Act 1 of "Prohibition."