Omaha has its own storied history with Prohibition.
Nebraska went dry in 1917, more than a year before the rest of the country, and stayed dry for a year after the rest of the country.
Max Sparber, a research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, said prior to Prohibition, Omaha was a brewery town. The city had three major breweries — Metz, Krug and Storz — and the Willow Springs distillery.
These industries produced a large amount of alcohol, which put Omaha in a contest with Nebraska at large. At the time, Nebraska was largely a conservative and dry state. As a state, Nebraska was opposed to alcohol, while “Omaha wanted alcohol to be cheap and available,” Sparber said.
The temperance movement encouraged people to abstain from alcohol, and Sparber said this was not without reason.
“There was a lot to encourage people to be an alcoholic back in those days,” he said.
Bars would offer free lunches to those in attendance. Those who weren’t making much money could go in and pay a dime or nickel for a drink and eat what they needed to. Alcohol was easily available and inexpensive.
Slowly, laws were passed that constrained the use of alcohol. Bars were not allowed to be open at certain hours. And statewide Prohibition was enacted in 1917.
But breweries kept brewing. Sparber said political boss Tom Dennison protected these industries. They didn’t have to hide. In 1929, there were 1,500 drinking establishments in Omaha.
At the time, Sparber said, Omaha had a few very successful industries: the railroad, the packing industry and “vice.”
Vice was semi-legal for a long time, Sparber said. Gambling was legal, and illegal sex work was mostly ignored.
“Dennison made a lot of money off of that,” Sparber said.
There was such a big demand for alcohol that homemade liquor was manufactured quickly, sometimes with illegal materials. Wood grain alcohol, which can be deadly or make you go blind, was used. Alcohol could be dangerous, so it was necessary for the illegal drinker to go to a reputable establishment, Sparber said.
Homebrewing of beer continued to be legal, he said, but it could not be sold.
With the onset of the Great Depression, people wanted to drink, Sparber said. And the government needed to tax alcohol for the revenue. Even the temperance movement shifted by 1932, encouraging people to drink responsibly instead of advocating a ban.
The reason Prohibition ended in Omaha was the reason it ended everywhere else, Sparber said. It was a disaster.
“It encouraged crime. People never stopped drinking.”