By Norman V. Kelly
April 7, 1933 marked a glorious day in the history of Peoria, Illinois, and it came under the heading of The Cullen-Harrison Act. That all sounds kind of boring doesn’t it? But if you were here in the old river city April 6, 1933, you would have had yourself a blast. At the striking of midnight, April 7, 1933 a mighty roar went up in Downtown Peoria, Illinois. A smiling, excited crowd, mainly men and certainly young boys were awaiting the signal that BEER was legal to drink. The sad truth was that there was very little beer to drink, but the crowd gathered anyway in more of a celebration than a drinking spree.
It was not until about 6:30 that morning of April 7, 1933 that the beer trucks began to rumble into the city and make their way to the taverns and retail liquor stores around town. During the night the boys got pretty loaded; after all, during Prohibition booze was easy to come by in Peoria, Illinois.
The crowds broke up to surround the trucks, and the drivers found themselves in the middle of a frenzied yet friendly mob. A case of beer sold from $2.50 a case to $2.75 plus a dollar deposit. The warm beer was guzzled right there, the moment eager hands grabbed the bottles. Horse drawn wagons, busses, trucks and airplanes were used to bring the wet gold into town. Out at the airport at 9:17 that April morning, a Pan American plane landed and was immediately surrounded by the cheering men. Case after case was unloaded and the plane also carried a huge bottle of beer for the Governor of Illinois.
Out of this insane picture of beer drinking, gulping and pure frenzy, came the one thing Peoria wanted and needed more than anything else…and that was jobs. The Great Depression still had its grip on Peoria and the very next day, bartenders, cooks, truckers, railroad men, and dozens of other businesses took on a brand new bright look of joy. The bright glow of employment…jobs…wonderful jobs. The lights in the saloons, taverns and the old soft drink parlors glowed through the night getting ready for a new life. The brewers lit their fires and the lines formed for employment in good old Peoria brewery jobs. Finally the day had come.
The truth was that the Cullen-Harrison Act was a far cry from the end of Prohibition, but it was a nice deep chink in the Volstead Act, and the people of Peoria, Illinois knew that Prohibition was coming to an end. The Cullen-Harrison law amended the Volstead Act to allow 3.2 percent beer and that was a glorious moment indeed. Remember, The Vostead Act defined alcohol at .5 percent per volume, or ‘colored water’ as Peorians called it. The warm beer they were drinking was only 3.2 percent beer but those that drank it were as intoxicated with sheer joy as they would have been ‘with the real stuff.’ Finally, FDR signed into law the 21st. Amendment ending Prohibition in the United States on December 5, 1933. Now that allowed good old Peoria Whiskey to be distilled, and the excitement was infectious, I can tell you that. Quickly Hiram Walkers announced that they would build the largest distillery in America right here in Peoria, Illinois.
The 21st. Amendment gave the States the right to decide their own fate as far as the sale and manufacturing of alcohol was concerned. Of course that is why within many states we have wet and dry counties. Peoria took a mighty leap forward in recovering from the effects of Prohibition and the Great Depression during 1933. And…as was our history since 1834, we did it on the shoulders of Whiskey and Beer. So, this week, pause a moment and drink a toast to Cullen, Harrison and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Upon signing the bill the great man was heard to say, “ I think this would be a good time for a beer.” Amen, Mr. President.
Editor’s Note: Norm Kelly is a historian, author and beer drinker.