Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1933: Michigan governor buys booze after Prohibition era ends 

By: - December 30, 2021 6:06 am

Gov. William Comstock in 1935 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On Dec. 30, 1933, Gov. William Comstock, a Detroit Democrat, celebrated the repeal of Prohibition by buying the first bottle of whiskey sold afterward.

It was a very different time in America. A gallon of gas for an automobile was about 10 cents a gallon; a loaf of bread averaged at 7 cents and a pound of hamburger was 11 cents.

Responding to a period of perceived decadence, prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

Michigan was a national leader in the effort, banning alcohol three years prior to national Prohibition action on May 1, 1917.

But some state residents became bootleggers and smugglers. Others made their own liquor and beer. Thousands of speakeasies operated in Detroit. The city’s proximity to Canada, about one mile of waterway, made smuggling via the Detroit River a continuous operation.

Coleman A. Young, a future state senator and Detroit’s first Black mayor, wrote in 1994 in “Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young” about those days when he as a young boy provided cover and escape for river smugglers. He was born in 1918 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and moved to Detroit with his family in 1923.

“The Coast Guard patrolled the river constantly, and the bootleggers had adopted the technique of smuggling small loads that they could dump into the water at the first sign of the law,” Young wrote. “We considered it no great misfortune that they often had to unload just before they reached the shore. Our job was to mark the spot and then dive there first thing in the morning. Turning the whiskey into cash was no problem at all …”   

Michigan was also the first state in the nation to ratify the 21st Amendment, which officially repealed Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.