We Want Beer: Prohibition And The Will To Imbibe

Nobody could hazard a guess at how many thousands of mugs of beer had been served over the old mahogany bar at Weis Brothers Saloon. Bartender John Mich, who had manned the beer taps at the Milwaukee watering hole since the 1890s, probably could have come closest in his estimate if he had tried. But it seemed only a matter of trivia now for the 20 or so patrons gathered in the back room of the establishment. After all, there was a funeral at hand. They had come together to pay their final respects to their beloved old friend, John Barleycorn.

None in attendance was consoled by the fact that the dearly departed was a mere character of fiction, immortalized in song as the mythical personification of beer. On the contrary, as the ceremony began, some stifled tears, including Mich, whose moans and gurgles were loudest. With hands folded and heads bowed, the somber group encircled the casket, which was artfully decorated with floral tributes placed inside beer mugs and lit candles stuck in liquor bottles.

Saloon employee William Graf delivered the eulogy. “John Barleycorn was foully murdered,” thundered Graf, “and his body found in the back yard of legislation!”

The black-dressed pallbearers then carried John Barleycorn’s earthly remains out of the saloon to the nearby banks of the Milwaukee River. Accompanied by a soft chorus of “Sweet Adeline,” they lowered the casket into the water. (That his final resting place be eternally wet seemed only fitting.) Empty beer bottles, for lack of roses, were tossed in after the sinking casket. The loud splash of the saloon’s cash register being hurled into the river punctuated the ceremony’s conclusion.

The passing of John Barleycorn, of course, meant the demise of Weis Brothers Saloon and thousands just like it all over America. For beer drinkers everywhere, the taps would soon run dry. The year was 1919 and the nation had just ratified what later historians would call “the noble experiment.” Within one year, National Prohibition would officially be under way.

Dry Roots Run Deep

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