Alcohol prohibition in Colorado (1916–33) was a Progressive Era experiment, based on reform-minded and religious sentiments, to completely ban the sale and transport of alcohol. While the intention of reformers was to reduce violence, drunkenness, and crime, outlawing alcohol instead created more issues than had been anticipated.
Prohibition in Colorado predated national prohibition by four years, and ended only months before national prohibition was also repealed. As it was elsewhere, the prohibition era in Colorado was marked by a sharp increase in organized crime, public flouting of laws, black markets, law enforcement and government corruption, and a growing distrust of Progressive politics. Despite the failure of prohibition as a movement, it introduced the state to new social and economic opportunities for women and fundamentally changed the way the public drank alcohol.
During the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59, most mining camps and early towns used saloons as places for government, suppliers, grocers, and other official functions. Later, saloons served as locations for labor union meetings, money caches, and places where immigrant miners could buy foreign-language newspapers. They were also hot spots for gambling, boxing, and prostitution.
Because the rough-and-tumble saloon scene was a feature of its early communities, Colorado soon saw a push for alcohol prohibition. Legal and moral arguments for the control of liquor existed as early as the mid-1860s, when Colorado was still a territory. Conscious of the region’s saloon culture, some towns were established as totally dry from the get-go, including the agrarian communities of Greeley (Union Colony) and Longmont (Chicago-Colorado Colony) in the early 1870s. However, the idea of turning the entire state dry did not gain traction until the end of the century. A state law passed in 1889 outlawed the sale or delivery of alcohol to American Indians. Further efforts to ban alcohol in the state followed this precedent and often corresponded with antiurban, anti-immigrant sentiments.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, reform-minded Progressives often saw alcohol as the source of many problems. There was a popular belief among prohibitionists that alcohol was a slippery slope: one sip could lead to a lifetime of physical and financial ruin. They believed that alcohol consumption led to labor unrest and moral degeneracy. Reformers saw saloon culture as a product of urbanization and immigration, and hoped to keep Colorado free from what they called “un-American” activities. Several leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were also prominent members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and their stance on banning alcohol was based in strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments. They felt as if their frontier state were being overrun by unskilled foreign laborers whose taste for drink made them dangerous and unsettled.
Many of the antialcohol Progressives were also women with newly acquired voting rights, and they were especially concerned with drinkers and gamblers who left their families impoverished. Colorado men opposed the 1877 referendum on women’s suffrage out of fear that women would vote for prohibition. By the time women gained the right to vote in 1893, many men had changed their stance and had taken up the cause of prohibition as a quick fix for society’s ills. It was no longer a gendered issue but, rather, a unifying Progressive issue.
As a step toward full prohibition, antialcohol Progressive voters first worked to make drinking a male-only activity, reinforced by strict Victorian ideas of womanhood. These sentiments led to a 1901 law that prohibited women from entering saloons, working in areas that served alcohol, or purchasing alcohol. When saloon owners challenged the law, arguing that it was at odds with women’s suffrage, it was upheld by the state and federal Supreme Courts.
In 1907 the antiliquor campaigns of the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League led to a state local-option law for prohibition, allowing cities to vote on whether to go dry. By 1909 Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Aurora, and Greeley used this law to ban alcohol within a mile of their borders.
The biggest divide over the legality of alcohol was between rural towns and urban areas (including mining camps). Besides Denver, the strongest antiprohibition counties included Teller, Mineral, La Plata, Ouray, Chaffee, Alamosa, and Garfield. All of these counties were home to major industrial centers, especially mining and smelting operations. They were also home to larger numbers of non-Protestants as well as higher numbers of immigrants than lived in the counties voting to go dry.
Prohibition Takes Effect
During the years leading up to prohibition, the WCTU, KKK, and Anti-Saloon League held several public demonstrations, toured the state with their campaign, spoke directly with lawmakers, campaigned door to door, and maintained a strong public presence to demand the banning of any and all alcohol. By 1914 the WCTU gathered enough signatures to get a prohibition referendum on the ballot. Donations from industrial leaders such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who gave large contributions to the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League, aided the prohibitionist campaign, while a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment at the start of World War I stoked suspicions that German American brewers were leading an anti-American conspiracy. The culture of alcohol remained strong in Colorado, but there was not an organized campaign to keep it legal, and it was instead overpowered by the famous Progressive drive to “organize and agitate.” Called Measure 2, the prohibition referendum passed on November 3 with 52 percent of the vote.
On January 1, 1916, statewide prohibition of alcohol went into effect, four years before the federal Volstead Act brought prohibition to the entire country. The Volstead Act used language similar to the earlier Colorado prohibition referendum. For example, both defined “intoxicating liquor” as any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. Both laws also banned the sale and transport of all alcohol, even for religious purposes. Thousands of breweries and saloons went out of business in Colorado, and many others scrambled to convert to soft drink parlors. By 1917 statewide prohibition had closed as many as 1,615 saloons and 17 breweries in the Denver area alone.
Enforcement and Corruption
As in most states during prohibition, the problems of enforcing an alcohol ban became obvious within the first year of the law. Aside from closing cultural hot spots and other businesses that served and sold alcohol, dry laws quickly proved difficult to enforce, especially on individual citizens. Early on, Governor William Ellery Sweet appointed “dry agents” who routinely broke civil liberty laws in order to enforce prohibition. Colorado also became home to corrupt law enforcement practices. For example, many soft drink parlors still sold alcohol and simply gave free liquor to officers to stay in business. In addition, caches of liquor taken in raids on speakeasies and stills would often disappear from police evidence rooms.
Members of the governor’s “purity squads,” as newspapers called them, had an ambiguous legal status. These squads were often made up of men not formally trained as police officers. According to various newspaper reports, they viewed themselves as “crusaders” seeking to destroy the “demon drink.” These moral enforcers were known to frequently bust down the doors of people’s houses without warrants and arrest anyone on the premises, with or without evidence that they had been drinking. Suspected drinkers or bootleggers were sometimes tied to chairs and beaten, or otherwise publicly humiliated.
This activity prompted many complaints against the state’s Chief Prohibition Officer, John R. Smith, and his vigilante groups (often composed of members of the KKK). Smith was frequently sued for violating civil liberties and using extreme force, specifically against the Italian American and Mexican American communities. Progressive judge Benjamin Lindsey, who originally supported prohibition, openly expressed his disdain for how marginalized communities were targeted with brutal enforcement and given unfair trials.
Lindsey also lamented that wealthy Coloradans seemed immune to the dry laws. Indeed, the wealthy drinkers of Colorado worked with corrupt cops to ensure that they always had as much liquor as they wanted. Newspapers gawked at various instances of police eagerly partying with rich people, often sipping on liquor seized from poorer communities.
As a result of alcohol prohibition, Colorado saw the rapid growth of organized crime families in the 1920s and early 1930s. Notorious gangsters appeared all around Colorado—including Joe Berry, Joe Roma, Joe Varra, and Sam and Pete Carlino—each of whom made names for themselves through the bootleg liquor trade. Prohibition laws did not decrease the demand for alcohol, so the market for illegal booze skyrocketed. In 1924, during a series of prohibition sweeps in the Italian American community of Globeville, at least eighteen bootleggers were arrested over the course of a week, and more than half of them were women.
Opportunities for Women
Having previously been barred from the legal alcohol trade, women in Colorado took full advantage of new opportunities in black-market booze. They participated in both the consumption and creation of alcohol at unprecedented rates. During prohibition, Coloradans experienced a new diversity within spaces where people drank alcohol. Women and men of all ages now enjoyed an activity that had been primarily male.
Women held every sort of illegal job pertaining to booze during prohibition, from running kitchen stills to peddling booze, tallying sales records, and smuggling alcohol within and beyond borders. When police were tipped off to moonshine stills, they often found women operating them from their kitchens, a traditionally acceptable realm for women that served as a convenient cover.
Women also benefited from new opportunities in law enforcement. In the early 1920s, four women in Denver were appointed as deputy sheriffs to crack down on the alcohol trade. Throughout prohibition, several other police departments throughout the state benefited from hiring their first female officers. Edith Barker, a member of the WCTU, became Denver’s first accredited female police officer on May 2, 1920.
By the late 1920s, Coloradans seemed as eager to end prohibition as they had been to start it. In 1926 Colorado became the first state to hold a referendum calling for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. The referendum failed. The Denver Post hosted its own “Rocky Mountain Referendum on Prohibition,” in which the newspaper printed its own ballots asking readers whether they were for or against the continuation of prohibition. The consensus from 110,000 newspaper ballots was that Coloradans favored repeal. Because anyone could send in a newspaper ballot, The Post did not account for people who could not vote. This factor suggests that there was a strong sentiment to repeal prohibition in the state but that eligible voters still supported temperance after rejecting the official referendum.
After Colorado’s referendum, several other states, mainly in New England, began to agitate for repeal of prohibition. Soon several western states—including Arizona, New Mexico, and California—joined the call for repeal. Raymond Humphreys, chief investigator for the state district attorney’s office in Colorado, opined that “prohibition spawned corruption in law enforcement that undermined public confidence in the law as a whole.” By 1928 more than 12,000 liquor-violation cases were filed in the Denver courts, but only half of them had been heard. Clearly, the law had become a burden on the state’s executive and judicial branches.
In November 1932, Colorado voted once more on the repeal of prohibition, and this time repeal received 67 percent of the vote. Starting April 7, 1933, beer with a maximum alcohol content of 3.2 percent by volume could be legally sold in the state, though federal prohibition was still in effect nationwide. This loophole meant that beer could be bought and sold in Colorado, but it was illegal to travel with or ship it across state lines. Later that same year, the US Congress approved a constitutional amendment to repeal prohibition. By December 5, 1933, thirty-six states, including Colorado, had ratified the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing national prohibition.
According to the Rocky Mountain News, beer sales alone made the newly revived alcohol industry more than $200,000 (roughly $4 million today) on the first day of statewide repeal. Equipment manufacturers, laborers, and railroads all benefited from the end of prohibition. The News anticipated that in Denver alone, more than 1,000 retailers would be issued liquor licenses during April 1933.
As the industry revived, alcohol quickly became a part of the public lives of Coloradans again. Former Colorado breweries returned to beer production, including the Tivoli Brewing Company in Denver and Coors in Golden, which had relied on producing other products (such as porcelain and nonalcoholic beverages) until prohibition was repealed. Meanwhile, mobsters who had profited from the illegal status of alcohol had the rug ripped out from under them. They were eliminated by legal and regulated competition within a few months. No longer did the law prevent women and American Indians from entering places that sold alcohol, as the Twenty-first Amendment also removed prohibitive laws that targeted individual groups of people.
Since prohibition took legal hold on the state between 1916 and 1933, Colorado has thoroughly reclaimed its saloon roots through the tradition of crafting and imbibing alcoholic beverages. As a state, Colorado currently hosts more than 400 established breweries, including famous national brands such as Coors, New Belgium, Left Hand, O’Dell, and Breckenridge. It is the top US state in microbreweries per capita, and in 2019 Coloradans voted craft beer as their state’s most iconic drink. Colorado is also home to vibrant spirit industry (including Stranahan’s, Montoya, Woody Creek, and Laws), as well as a celebrated wine industry based largely in the Grand Valley.