1920-1929: THE ROARING 20s

Dry and dangerous

Beer raid
Beer raid
Fort Wayne Police confiscate illegal beer at a speak-easy during Prohibition in the 1920s.

Prohibition of alcohol set the tone for a modern age of change in the decade after World War I.

By KEVIN KILBANE of The News-Sentinel

There were days Walter E. Helmke's family didn't know whether he would come home alive.

Brewing, transporting and selling outlawed beer and liquor had become big business by the late 1920s in Fort Wayne and the rest of the United States. Some bootleggers would reach for a gun rather than be arrested.

Helmke, elected Allen County prosecutor in 1928, labored under death threats he took very seriously, recalls his son, Walter P. Helmke. The threats cast a shadow over the family, which lived under police guard.

"I can remember looking out my window (at home) and seeing the police cars out there," says Walter P. Helmke, whose son, Paul, is mayor of Fort Wayne.

From the boy growing up under police protection, to Women's Christian Temperance Union meetings, to men slipping into a speakeasy's back room for a sip of bathtub gin, Prohibition shaped life in Fort Wayne during the 1920s.

"The Noble Experiment," as it was called, created disagreement between spouses and within families. It divided the community into "drys" -- those for prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages -- and "wets" -- those against a ban.

Prohibition also created a subculture of moonshine makers, bootleggers and speakeasy operators set on quenching the public's thirst for beer, wine and liquor.

Prohibition took effect nationally Jan. 16, 1920, after ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Indiana's General Assembly, mindful of the temperance movement's strong support here, had made the state "dry" almost two years earlier.

Ministers, doctors and women's groups had pushed for Prohibition at the national level. They argued that drinking caused health problems and encouraged moral decay.

But Prohibition exacted a heavier price in Fort Wayne than in some other communities. Two thriving breweries called the Summit City home -- Centlivre Brewing and Berghoff Brewing.

Each company tried to shift gears once Prohibition became the law. For the first few years, both bottled "near beer," a beverage that tasted like beer but contained a much lower alcohol content. Berghoff also produced Bergo soft drinks. Centlivre began selling ice and leasing cold-storage space. But neither company could support the work force it had during the days before Prohibition.

Brewing continued in Fort Wayne, however. With legal taps cut off, many people took to making beer at home.

Older county residents recall their fathers or uncles stirring together malt, hops and other ingredients to make beer. After letting the mixture ferment in a large crock or jar, men would siphon the "home brew" into bottles, recalls Dale Schoch, 77, of Fort Wayne. In the 1920s, Schoch's family ran a small service station and auto repair garage off U.S. 30 west of Fort Wayne.

As a boy, Schoch remembers a neighbor man slicing open his hand one night as the man and Schoch's father bottled beer at home. Fearful they would be reported if they told the truth about the injury, Schoch says the men told hospital emergency room staff they had been bottling ketchup.

People who didn't make their own beer -- or those who preferred hard liquor -- sneaked off to roadhouses in the country and speakeasies in town. Most served food and legal drinks. But people in search of illegally bottled beer or moonshine whiskey typically would slip through a special door or entrance to be served in a back room.

Schoch remembers tagging along one day when his father stopped at such a place. Schoch bought a soft drink. His father drank two small glasses of what looked like water. When they got home, Schoch's mother, who didn't drink, asked him about their trip. He told her about buying the pop. He also told her about his father drinking "water," unknowingly tipping her off that his Dad had stopped for a little moonshine whiskey.

"I wasn't too well-thought-of that day by my father," he says. "I had told on him."

Supplying the roadhouses and speakeasies with beer, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages became big business. In major cities such as Chicago, the lucrative illegal booze and gambling trades brought power and millions in cash to mobsters such as Al "Scarface" Capone. Crime gangs battled to control turf, leaving hundreds of people dead.

Locally, stills boiled away in Fort Wayne basements as well as in Allen County farmhouses and barns. Beer fermented in crocks and vats. People used terms like "moonshiner," "bootlegger" and "rum runner" to describe the men who made illegal booze and hauled it from the bottling site to speakeasies and roadhouses.

Criminals tried all sorts of tricks to escape detection. Schoch remembers as a boy getting curious about the sparks flying from his father's welding torch much later at night than normal. When he wandered over to see what his Dad was doing, his father politely told him to leave.

"What he was doing was welding a false bottom on a big old four-door LaSalle or Buick," Schoch says. He learned later that the car belonged to a bootlegger from Chicago.

Although people widely flouted Prohibition, Fort Wayne, Allen County and federal police did make a steady string of arrests. City police confiscated such a big pile of stills, crocks and other liquor-making paraphernalia that the room in which they stored the evidence became known as "the Booze Room."

One of the biggest raids came July 9, 1931, when federal agents -- "revenuers," as some labeled them -- swept down on three Fort Wayne speakeasies and four roadhouses just outside the city. By the next morning, they had locked 24 people in jail.

The level of crime in Fort Wayne never reached that of Chicago and other large cities. But like the death threats against prosecutor Walter E. Helmke, enforcing the law could get dangerous.

On July 22, 1931, two federal agents working undercover arranged to buy some illegal liquor from known bootlegger George Adams of Fort Wayne. The two agents, backed up by two more agents in a second car, later tried to pull over and arrest Adams. But the heavily armed Adams gunned down three of the agents. Two died. A third was seriously wounded.

Police captured Adams a few hours later, and prosecutor Helmke announced he would seek the death penalty. But Walter P. Helmke says his father told him later that public sentiment ran so strongly against Prohibition, that the elder Helmke had a tough time finding people to serve on the jury. One prospective juror even told Helmke that Adams deserved a medal of commendation.

Though the facts showed the case to be cold-blooded murder, the jury returned a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. Adams walked free after serving only three years in jail.

By that time, talk already had turned to repealing Prohibition. The stock market crash of 1929 had plunged Fort Wayne and the rest of the country into the gray despair of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, thought repealing Prohibition would help stimulate the economy and put more people to work.

The U.S. Congress first approved allowing commercial breweries to make and sell 3.2 percent beer, about half the alcohol content of regular beer. Then came legalization of whiskey for "medicinal use."

Prohibition finally ended Dec. 5, 1933, with ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The repeal seemed to pass locally without celebration or toasting in the streets. Wire-service stories on the front page of the Fort Wayne News and Sentinel said snags in some states' liquor-licensing procedures had limited the supply of beer and liquor in many communities.

Centlivre and Berghoff breweries quickly resumed beer production here. Two members of the Berghoff family also started the Hoff-Brau brewery.

But within 20 years, Hoff-Brau would be closed, and Berghoff would be bought by Falstaff Brewing. Employees assumed ownership of Centlivre in 1961 and changed its name to Old Crown Brewing Corp. But it, too, folded about a decade later.

Like Prohibition, the hometown brands soon became just a memory.

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