Beloved Beer: Germans, Yankees, and Prohibition in Ann Arbor, Michigan


Germans have long enjoyed and venerated alcohol. When the Irish missionary Columbanus first encountered Germans in the early seventh century, he happened on a ritual sacrifice of beer.

Even after the Germans became Christians, most religious leaders followed the biblical view of alcohol as part of God’s bounty. Martin Luther was fond of beer and wine: he occasionally got drunk, and he used the tunes of popular drinking songs for some of his hymns.

Such was the tradition behind missionary pastor Frederick Schmid, who came to Michigan in 1833 to plant congregations among the state’s German immigrants. But Schmid, who founded both Zion Lutheran Church and Bethlehem United Church of Christ, quickly learned that other local ministers had much stricter attitudes toward alcohol. Repulsed by the widespread preference for hard liquor and the habit of going on drunken sprees, many advocated an outright ban on drinking.

In June 1834, Schmid was approached by a local Presbyterian minister. Would Schmid use his authority to persuade Ann Arbor’s Germans to follow Presbyterian temperance tenets, which forbade not only alcohol but even coffee and tea?

Schmid replied that it was not necessary for a Christian to submit himself to such a yoke. People with the Holy Spirit within them would not drink too much nor misuse the gifts of God. Jesus, Schmid added, drank wine.

The clash of cultures that began that day would last almost a century. The Germans arrived in Ann Arbor amid a great temperance movement among native-born Americans-one that would culminate in nationwide Prohibition in 1920.

Most German settlers saw matters much like Schmid. Their attitude is enshrined in the constitution of Freedom Township’s Bethel Church, in which only heavy drinking is condemned. In the churchyard is a gravestone with the date “February 31st.” According to former pastor Roman Reineck, farm families would visit with the stonecutter as he worked. They’d bring some hard cider or wine, and by the end of the day the date didn’t matter.

In the townships, where German were the majority, such socializing was of little concern. But the German love of alcohol was a much bigger problem in Ann Arbor. Between 1868 to 1918, city directories record 221 different places dispensing alcohol, more than half of them owned by German Americans.

Edith Staebler Kempf (1898-1993) told stories about the nineteenth century saloon run by Charlie Behr. Professors, lawyers, and well-to-do German farmers went there. Behr also served food, and by Kempf’s account, there was never any rowdiness.

The Yankees-Michiganders whose families had come from New England or New York State-might have ignored Germans selling beer to other Germans. But Ann Arbor’s student population was a different matter. Most U-M students of the era came from Yankee families and grew up in Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian homes, where teetotalism was enforced. On their own in Ann Arbor, some reveled in their newfound freedoms-including the freedom to drink.

In the beginning, the University of Michigan kept a close eye on students. They lived on campus, had a 9 p.m. curfew, and were required to attend compulsory chapel twice a day to hear sermons given by faculty members, who were mostly ordained Protestant clergy.

That changed when Henry Philip Tappan took over as university president in 1852. Tappan had visited research universities in Prussia, and he began recruiting faculty on the basis of scholarship, not church affiliations. Tappan also abolished the university’s dormitory because he wanted students to be more independent and live off campus, like students in Europe.

Tappan himself drank wine with his meals, and he didn’t care if students drank beer. He did speak out against distilled spirits, but this hardly satisfied the more conservative faculty and regents.

Free from the authority of parents and the university, students turned to alcoholic hell-raising. In 1856, student mobs attacked German drinking places in the “Dutch War.” The conflict began when Jacob Hangsterfer ejected two rowdy students from his beer hall. They returned the next night with friends armed with knives and clubs. When Hangsterfer refused to serve them free drinks, the students broke open kegs and barrels and destroyed furniture and glass.

Soon after, six students climbed through a window at Henry Binder’s hotel and saloon and helped themselves to drinks set out for a German ball. Binder could grab only one of the students and held him hostage. The others got reinforcements from campus. When Binder demanded $10 for the stolen refreshments, the students attacked with battering rams. With the brick walls giving way, Binder set his huge dog on the students. But the students’ dogs killed Binder’s dog. Then the students went to get the muskets they used in military drills-at which point Binder wisely released his captive.

Called on the carpet by the regents, Tappan emphasized the university’s continuing requirements for daily chapel and Sunday church attendance, as well as other evidence of a moral student body. He also called for enforcement of a new city ordinance prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors and to people who were drunk. But the following year, a former student died after drinking at Binder’s saloon and a friend’s room.

Tappan joined temperance-minded townspeople in pressuring city council to informally agree that no liquor licenses would be granted east of Division Street, creating a “dry line” to shield the campus area. But Tappan lost points with the regents when he refused to take a personal temperance pledge. Though he elevated the university to national stature-raising enrollment tenfold, laying the foundations of the law and engineering schools, and much more-the regents were more concerned with his perceived moral failings. They fired him in 1863.

In Tappan’s place, the regents appointed a Methodist minister and professor of Latin, Erastus Haven. The Presbyterian Church hosted Haven’s inauguration. At the ceremony, a regent made a point of detailing Tappan’s “sinful” behavior.

President Haven, however, had no better luck curbing the town’s rowdy students. In 1867, he informed the Ladies Library Association that Ann Arbor was “disgraced all over the country” as a “place of revelry and intoxication.” By 1871, stung by brawls, nighttime ruckuses, and destructive pranks, Ann Arbor voters elected a university faculty member as mayor. Silas Douglas promptly had the town marshal warn the saloons that a long ignored Sunday closing ordinance would be enforced.

Ann Arbor’s conflict over alcohol eventually became a statewide concern. The Michigan branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union issued a flyer in 1881 decrying the city’s saloons for making men “brutes.” The flyer lists thirty-seven saloon keepers by name, the great majority of them German Americans, and contends that “Ann Arbor would be better off morally, socially, intellectually, and in every other way, if this disgustingly long list of men would every one of them die with the small-pox within the next week.”

In 1887, Michigan voted on a proposed amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Ann Arbor’s heavily German Second Ward (today’s Old West Side) rejected it ten to one. The Yankee- and university-dominated Sixth Ward voted three to one in favor. It lost narrowly statewide.

Ann Arbor’s temperance forces finally achieved some success in 1902, when the informal dry area around the university became a part of the city charter. By 1908, eleven Michigan counties had enacted local Prohibition ordinances, and each year more and more counties joined them. In 1916, Michigan voters again considered a Prohibition amendment to the state constitution.The Second Ward still voted no, by almost two to one, but Ann Arbor as a whole voted for Prohibition, as did the state.

The late Ernie Splitt recalled the government inspectors arriving at the Michigan Union Brewery on Fourth Street on the day the state went dry, May 1, 1918. According to Splitt, everyone had a drink, even the inspectors. Then “the rest of the beer was poured down the drain. That was the saddest day of my life.”

Hordes of Michiganders headed for Ohio to get booze, leading Michigan’s governor to order state troopers to patrol the border. Cars ignoring their roadblocks were fired upon, and the governor was forced to declare limited martial law. A passenger was shot in the neck when a driver failed to stop for troopers on the highway outside Ann Arbor. But a search of the car turned up no liquor.

In 1918 congress approved the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages. It was ratified by the states early in 1919 and took effect in January 1920.

Prohibition did reduce heavy drinking, especially among the working class, in rural areas, and on college campuses. But it had the opposite effect among well-to-do Anglos.

Bootleggers and illegal drinking establishments largely ignored beer and wine, concentrating instead on more profitable hard liquor. Cocktails become chic.
It was estimated that 400 to 600 cases of whiskey were brought from Canada across the Detroit River nightly. Much of it then was driven to Chicago, usually passing through Washtenaw County en route.

One chilly April night in 1927, Ann Arbor police officers William Marz and Erwin Keebler stopped a car downtown. The driver had no registration, so Marz stood on the car’s running board to direct it to police headquarters while Keebler followed behind in their patrol car. Near headquarters, one of the passengers pulled out a gun and fired five times through the window, blasting Marz to the pavement. The car sped off. Fortunately, Keebler had insisted Marz put on a bulletproof vest.

When the police escalated their enforcement efforts, gangsters simply used their enormous profits to buy faster cars and more guns. Ordinary citizens feared being caught in the crossfire. They put American flag stickers on their windshields with the inscription, “Don’t Shoot, I’m Not a Bootlegger.”

With law enforcement officers frustrated by the bootleggers, they struck at the little man-in Ann Arbor, Metzger’s German Restaurant. In 1929, owner Bill Metzger was cited for selling hard cider and placed on probation for five years. He was fined $100 and couldn’t leave the state without the consent of the court. He, his vehicles, his business, and his home could be searched at any time without a warrant. To prevent any future instances of his cider fermenting, he could no longer sell cider at all.

Over the course of the 1920s, even non-Germans began to question Prohibition. They came to realize that they had only replaced the hated saloon with the speakeasy and the blind pig and began to think that the moderate German approach, drinking beer and wine, might be OK.

In the 1932 presidential election, Franklin Roosevelt ran as a wet candidate. As one of its first acts, the new congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment, repealing Prohibition. That April, Michigan became the first state to ratify it. By May, sale and consumption of alcohol were legal again in Ann Arbor.

The Michigan Union Brewery reopened as the Ann Arbor Brewery. Kurt Neumann, a longtime resident of “Cabbage Town,” as the Old West Side was known, recalled how men from the neighborhood would stop in, fill steins straight from a spigot, and sit around talking and drinking. Unfortunately, other locals weren’t as loyal to “Ann Arbor Old Tyme,” “Creme Top,” or “Town Club”-perhaps because it was all the same beer, just with different labels. The brewery closed for good in 1949.

In 1960, local voters finally permitted bars to serve liquor. In 1964 they replaced the century-old dry line with a smaller dry island around the university, and in 1969 even that was eliminated. Ann Arborites had repealed the last remnants of the Yankee crusade against alcohol.

This article originally appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer for September, 2009. More on Ann Arbor’s history, including photographs, beery and otherwise, may be found at a website:

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