Bill Kirby began his career with The Augusta Chronicle 40 years ago and has held just about every job in the newsroom. He and his wife Carla spend their spare time doting on their West Highland terriers, Lil' Bow Wow ("Buddy") and Snoop Dog. He writes several local columns each week, as well as YouTube videos on local history called "Kirby's Augusta." From 1998 until 2001 he was editor and publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Over a 40-year newspaper career he has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards for reporting, editing, column writing, editorial writing, sports writing, business writing, investigative reporting, layout and design.
Posted August 30, 2009 07:26 am

Drinks all around

What was the drunkest city during America's Prohibition?

 Our town.

That was the charge made in 1930, and no one seemed to challenge it.

During a speech in Athens, Walter Liggett, a prominent newspaperman of the day, told his audience that the federal alcohol ban was so commonly ignored in Georgia that the state should actually be considered ``wet.''

``In Augusta, I discovered that one out of every 22 persons is arrested within 12 months for being intoxicated,'' Mr. Liggett said, ``which gives the city the unenviable reputation for having a rate of drunkenness higher than that of any other city in the United States.''

The allegation points out a situation that divided Augusta through most of the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1920, six months after the 18th Amendment alcohol restrictions went into effect, The Chronicle dutifully reported that the federal action seemed to have little impact.

But as time passed, the reality began to creep into the news. Perhaps a lot more Augustans were enjoying their liquor than anyone had been led to believe.

In October 1922 this newspaper reported that Prohibition had faltered and federal agents termed the city ``wide open.''

By June 1924, a law enforcement inventory of Augusta counted ``80 lewd houses, blind tigers, gambling dens and `dope joints.'''

After a decade, Prohibition became so ineffective that Councilman R.E. Allen suggested in 1932 that the city go ahead and license the 500 speakeasies in town, so it could make some money during the height of the Depression.

The city followed Mr. Allen's lead and began authorizing beer sales. The county, however, refused, confusing the police and almost everyone else.

Finally in December 1933, federal Prohibition was abolished.

But, this being Augusta, things were not quite so easy. Georgia law still made the state ``dry.''

When city leaders began to issue liquor licenses, alcohol opponents appealed to Gov. Gene Talmadge. He declined, calling it a ``local matter.''

Federal agents also stepped aside and Augusta's police remained perplexed over what to enforce.

The whole mess apparently attracted national attention. William H. Fleming, a lawyer representing the sober crowd, pointed to an account of the dispute in The New York Times, which he claimed tarnished our town's reputation.

Finally, on Christmas Eve 1933, Judge A.L. Franklin ordered the city to quit granting liquor licenses.

Things quickly seemed to sort themselves out.

In January, The Chronicle reported, Augusta's speakeasies began paying federal taxes, although they were technically forbidden by the state to operate.

Several bootleggers were quoted as saying their business was unaffected by the controversy.

And in March 1934, Augusta welcomed several thousand visitors for the first-ever Masters Golf Tournament.

We can assume they had a good time.