“Alcohol is Poison.”
That is the first thing you see as you enter the American Prohibition Museum. Up the stairs and you begin a fascinating and informative journey into “one of the most controversial and influential time periods in American history…” As bourbon fans, we have read about the effects of prohibition on the industry but this is a more in-depth look at that part of US history.
The American Prohibition Museum, opened in 2017 in Savannah, GA. It is the only museum in the United States dedicated to the history of the Prohibition. It is owned by Historic Tours of America, which bills itself as “The Nation’s Storyteller.” The company operates a number of tours and historic facilities in seven cities in the United States including Boston, Washington, D.C and of course Savannah. If you have traveled to any of these seven cities you have most likely seen the Old Town Trolley Tours, which from personal experience, I can say are excellent and well worth the time. In Savannah you can purchase a Trolley Tour/Museum package of tickets.
The Museum consists of thirteen separate galleries and covers a period of about one hundred years, from the beginning of the temperance movement in the 1850’s to the start of NASCAR and the role that bootleggers played in its creation. The exhibits contain numerous artifacts, four vintage cars and a large number of pictures, old newspapers and displays. There is also a fully stocked speakeasy. Some exhibit rooms include docents to help answer questions. It is a walking tour, so you can take as long as you want. We found that it is almost too much information to take in on one tour. At the end of the tour there is a gift store.
The Carry Nation room was particularly interesting and very informative about her role in the temperance movement. It comes complete with hatchets and a wax figure of Ms Nation. She was a very imposing figure, standing six feet tall. Near the end of the room were a number of portraits of brewery owners of the time, including Adolphus Busch, Pabst, Stroh, Yuengling and others. All German, it was pointed out that there was a great anti-German sentiment after World War I. The portrait of Busch comes to life in this room and debates the merits of prohibition with the portrait of Lillian Stevens, a very prominent leader in the temperance movement. Basically Busch represented what appears to be a head-in-the-sand attitude of the brewery industry at the time, stating that the people of America would never vote for prohibition.
Other exhibits dealt with the selling of medicinal whiskey. Drug stores played a big role in providing these prescriptions to the public. One interesting fact that caught my eye was that Walgreen’s Drugs increased its number of stores during prohibition from 20 to 500 just because of medicinal whiskey sales. A number of original doctor’s prescriptions were on display.
A couple exhibits dealt with moonshining and the various ways people hid their liquor whether in cars or on their person. Displays included a car with a hollowed out rumble seat and a number of imaginative flasks including fake cameras, books, a Cornish Game Hen Flask and, my favorite the Pretzel Flask.
The most interesting exhibit to me was the one on organized crime. I really had no idea that the rise of organized crime and the mob was born out of prohibition. Al Capone and his crime network brought in over $100M a year during this period. The exhibit included many displays of crime related articles collected from the period. In addition, there is the “Criminal Lineup,” which includes life size wax figures of Bugs Moran, Al Capone and Machine Gun Jack McGurn. A guide is available to answer questions and take pictures if you want to stand in the lineup and hold tommy guns.
Once you leave the organized crime exhibit and proceed down the hall you come to a door requiring a password to enter. With the right password, the door opens into a real speakeasy, which is fully stocked. Period dressed bartenders will fix you a drink of your choice for an additional price if you desire. The menu includes a number of prohibition style cocktails and the bar includes a nice selection of spirits including bourbon. Beer and wine are also available. Patti and I both selected the Chatham Artillery Punch for our cocktail. Made with Old Forester Bourbon, Barcardi Rum, Korbal Brandy, lemon sugar and Champagne, the drink is named after the Chatham Artillery, which is the oldest military organization of record in Georgia, organized May 1, 1786. I found the drink a little sour for my taste but it is the drink of Savannah. A very nice atmosphere in this room that meshes with the rest of the tour. The speakeasy is open during museum hours and it is also open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings independent of the museum tour.
The final exhibits occur after the speakeasy and include information on the repeal of the 18th amendment and a room devoted to bootleggers, moonshine runners and the beginning of NASCAR. The moonshine runners used to get together and race each other to show who had the best car. NASCAR eventually grew out of these contests. One of the first famous NASCAR drivers was Junior “Fireball” Johnson, a former moonshine runner.
The American Prohibition Museum provides a fascinating and enjoyable tour through the period of prohibition. Tickets are $15 for adults and slightly below $10 for children. Tickets purchased online come with a discount and a ticket for a drink in the speakeasy is $8.
If you find yourself in Savannah, this tour is well worth the time it takes to walk through and take in the history.
Prohibition was an interesting part of American history. The 18th amendment is the only constitutional amendment that took rights away from citizens instead of guaranteeing them. It was the only constitutional amendment that has been repealed. Did it do what was intended? Well let’s see, people still drank liquor, the mob was born, the murder rate increased and bootlegging was rampant. Near the end of the tour we found this quote on the wall: