These days, the beautiful Yakima Valley is known for its acres of farmland devoted to producing the highest quality hops and wine grapes in the nation. Simply put, it’s Wine Country and Hop Country, which residents of this fine community are proud of.
However, that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, in the early 1900s, not all Yakima County residents were pleased with alcohol. So much so that just four years before the U.S. Constitution was amended to ban the making, shipping and selling of “intoxicating liquors,” Yakima County and all of Washington were already dry, thanks to a state law that foreshadowed prohibition itself.
The Early Beginnings of Prohibition in Yakima
Beginning during the state’s territorial days, there was tension in the Valley between those who enjoyed making and drinking alcoholic beverages and advocates of temperance who wanted to ban its sale and consumption. No sooner had the territory been organized in 1853 than Washington’s first temperance society was quickly formed by the Reverend George Whitworth, a Presbyterian minister from Indiana who also founded Whitworth University in Spokane.
Not two years later, the first effort to enact alcohol prohibition in the territory went to Congress in 1855, but it failed. Eventually, lawmakers banned liquor sales within a mile of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1979, but it only applied to Whitman, Spokane, and Stevens counties. Allegedly, the law was passed in an effort to protect railroad workers from saloonkeepers who might take advantage of them during their travels.
Fortunately for Yakima County, they were not included in this initial prohibition, where the Northern Pacific’s arrival at what is now Union Gap was ceremoniously ushered in with six barrels of whiskey that revelers drained shortly after stepping off the trains. When present-day Yakima was established as the location for the railroad depot in the Valley in 1885, it already featured 15 saloons and one church within just four short months of its inception.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with advocates of temperance, and in June of 1904, prohibition supporters held a convention at the Yakima County Courthouse to organize a political party and elect delegates for the Washington State Prohibition Convention. As these “drys” worked to become more organized, they were able to place more pressure on city officials and government leaders, along with placing anti-alcohol issues on ballots.
Yakima Starts to Crack Down on Alcohol Sales Before Prohibitions Passing in 1916
Reluctant to forfeit substantial revenues from saloon owners due to permits, licenses, and sales taxes, local Yakima authorities hesitated to declare the county completely dry. Still, there were those in favor of prohibition in the region to appease, so they began to take action by actively apprehending certain bootleggers and conducting raids on clandestine establishments known as blind pigs or speakeasies as they’re most commonly referred to.
In 1909, the legislature granted communities the power to license local saloons, similar to today’s marijuana operations, which allows cities to regulate the industry through zoning ordinances or business license rules.
Although the sale of alcohol was still legal prior to this legislature, for a while, during these uncertain times, it was illegal to sell it to Indigenous people. Typically, the institution of laws forbidding the sale of alcohol to tribal members was only enacted upon at the request of tribal leaders. However, in some instances, jurisdictions imposed them on their own accord.
After the passing of the 1909 legislature, arresting bootleggers who sold alcohol to those of Indigenous descent became a top priority throughout the still-wet county. A total of 56 bootlegging convictions rocked Yakima County that year, with 47 of these convictions being found guilty of selling alcohol to Native Americans.
Things only seemed to worsen and further anti-alcohol sentiment when, the following year, the region got a visit from Carrie Nation, a zealous temperance advocate who was known far and wide for single-handedly smashing saloons with a hatchet. In May of 1910, she spoke to 800 people at a Methodist church. Thankfully, and much to the relief of North Front Street’s saloon owners, the “Hatchet Granny” did not wield her trusty weapon at any point while visiting.
She did, however, hand out miniature hatchets as souvenirs while urging people to push the legislature to enact a total, statewide prohibition and not allow state lawmakers to continue their pattern of leaving it to local authorities to determine if a community would bar alcohol sales, a decision she proclaimed to be a cowardice act.
Bootleggers Scramble to Avoid New Laws and Alcohol Regulations
So while local authorities were focusing on alcohol sales to tribal members and Carrie Nation was off campaigning for a ban on sales altogether, some of the county’s popular licensed saloon owners were attempting to avoid paying taxes by delivering and selling alcohol to private homes rather than in their saloons.
Eventually, an Internal Revenue Service inspector arrived in Yakima County to investigate. This ultimately led to the accumulation of enough evidence to charge several of the saloon owners. Though they could have dragged the tavern proprietors into court with official proceedings or yanked their saloon licenses, it was instead decided that those involved would pay $300 in revenue taxes to settle the debts.
Prohibition is Put on the State Ballot and Finally Passed for Washington
In November of 1914, lawmakers found themselves once again putting prohibition on the state ballot, and this time, it passed with 53 percent of the vote statewide. In Yakima, the vote was at 58 percent. The measure went into effect on January 1, 1916, which meant that Washington enacted prohibition before alcohol was outlawed nationwide on January 17, 1920.
Afterward, the only liquor available in Yakima County was to those with import licenses who could bring it in, being allowed only two quarts of hard liquor or 12 quarts of beer every 20 days. Of course, medicinal alcohol was still allowed, which surprisingly spurred an increase in drugstores across the state.
Three years later, the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 13, 1919, and officially enacted on January 17, 1920.
Prohibition is Repealed in Yakima County
The arrival of prohibition on a national level further put a damper on wine grape production, but ironically and in a strange twist of fate, it may have also helped the industry. Initially, it threatened the hop industry because banks were reluctant to lend to hop farmers who had lost their primary market. As a result, it seemingly dried up the commercial winemaking market, but since limited home-brewing and winemaking were legal, an early interest in home winemaking survived until prohibition was repealed in December of 1933.
Afterward, the first bonded winery in the Northwest was founded on Puget Sound’s Stretch Island and by 1938, there were 42 wineries located throughout the state. These days, the beloved Yakima County is home to more than 90 wineries and has transformed into an area rich with agricultural history and presence. With its development into a premier wine destination, the drinks are no longer shunned but raised in solidarity as we toast to the delicious brews that can only be found here in the Yakima Valley. Cheers!