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A Much-Abridged History of Denver, as it Relates to Drinking

In 1919, the states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment and Congress adopted the Volstead Act, which made Prohibition the law of the land. An historian charged with writing a history of Denver as it relates to drinking would be excused from thinking that the city’s residents were a sickly lot back then. Taking advantage of a loophole in the Volstead Act, Denver issued over 16,000 prescription forms that allowed physicians to prescribe up to four ounces of alcohol to any patient that had a “medicinal need” for the same.

Denver’s religious congregations jumped through another loophole and routinely claimed “sacramental” exemptions from the Volstead Act, which that allowed them to continue to use altar wine and other spirits, perhaps doing wonders for church attendance at the time. In anticipation of the broader effects of prohibition, in 1917 Denver had the foresight to issue permits to almost 60,000 of its citizens who claimed a personal consumption exemption from laws that were then in effect, allowing each of them to consume two pints of wine and the equivalent of a 24-pack of beer every month.

Colorado’s agricultural heritage contributed to the efforts to keep a steady flow of alcohol into Denver and throughout Colorado during Prohibition. Moonshiners and other illicit Colorado producers used the state’s sugar beet crop to distill grain alcohols under monikers such as “Sugar Moon” and “Leadville Moon”. By 1932, when Prohibition was repealed, enterprising citizens could find alcohol for sale in Denver on almost every street corner. The city’s denizens no doubt raised a hearty cheer on April 7, 1933, when Coors restarted beer shipments from its Golden, Colorado brewery.

Fast forward to the modern era. By last count, Colorado has more than 200 microbreweries and brewpubs that produce their own craft beers and ales. Many of those breweries produce fewer than 50,000 cases of beer per year (which is likely far less than the amount of beer spilled in a single week at any national brewery). Do Denver’s and Colorado’s attitudes toward Prohibition teach us anything about current drinking practices?

Residents of other cities and states certainly took advantage of the Volstead Act’s exemptions, but little data can be found that allows a comparison of Denver’s and other cities’ reliance on those exemptions. Denver had slightly more than 250,000 residents in 1920. As noted, in 1917, 60,0000 of those residents (i.e. almost one-fourth of the city) claimed a personal consumption exemption, allowing them to consume generous quantities of wine and beer every month. The city’s and state’s enterprising citizens also used locally-grown sugar beets to make their own potent potables. If nothing else, Denver’s Prohibition-era history reveals a creative mindset that will search out and find creative ways to quench a thirst. The city’s new microbreweries and brewpubs are just continuing this tradition with new formulas, flavors and tasting rooms that cater to an ever more selective clientele.

The Denver Microbrew Tour will give you a new perspective on the city’s thriving beer and brewing culture and history. Feel free to contact us if you’d like more information or if you want to schedule your own tour with us. Eighty years has passed since the repeal of Prohibition, and you can enjoy the city’s microbrew offerings without looking for a Volstead Act exemption to keep you above the law.


You’ll Need a Beer or Two After You Hear This Lost Piece of Denver History

 

More people than ever are choosing to move to Denver because of its amazing beer, weather and access to recreation. One of Denver’s can’t miss spots is Cheesman Park. It’s a beautiful and seemingly serene place where Denver residents can play sports, enjoy picnics or just take in the beautiful views of downtown Denver. But if most people knew Cheesman Park’s dark history, they might not see it as such a relaxing place.

In the late 19th century, Cheesman Park was a huge cemetery called Mt. Prospect Cemetery. Many Chinese immigrants as well as members of the Society of Masons were buried there. In 1890, congress authorized the city to vacate Mt. Prospect Cemetery and for the land to be converted into a park. Families were given 90 days to remove the bodies of their loved ones to other locations. Many fringe type people buried in the cemetery weren’t moved because they had no families to speak of, so in 1893 Denver contracted undertaker E.P. McGovern to remove the remains. McGovern was to provide a new coffins for each body and then transfer it to the Riverside Cemetery at a cost of $1.90 each.

To make more of a profit, McGovern dismembered many bodies and crammed as many as 3 bodies at a time into child sized coffins. Body parts and bones were literally strewn everywhere in a disorganized mess. Onlookers helped themselves to items from the caskets. Many Denver residents believe that Cheesman Park is haunted, and some have complained of experiencing erie pockets of cool air when walking through the park in the middle of summer.

Ready for a few beers now? The Denver Microbrew Tour is a guided walking tour through downtown Denver, Colorado’s historic LODO (lower downtown) and Ballpark Neighborhood districts. The tour includes beer samplings at severalmicrobreweries and a localtap room, everything you could want to know about beer, a coupon for a pint of your favorite beer on the tour, and local Denver history. For more info on The Denver Microbrew tour, contact us today!

 


An ethnic history of Denver, as it relates to drinking

 

Ethnicity is a key to the history of Denver, and at the center of ethnicity are the saloons each group established, clustered around Larimer St.

There’s no better way to get a feeling for the origins of this town than via a history of Denver, as it relates to drinking. Early residents of Denver, no matter their ethnic origins, enjoyed a good beer. While all groups enjoyed beer, they enjoyed it most in the company of their own ethnic group, where they could relax and enjoy the comfort of their native languages and cultures.

Originally part of the Territory of Kansas, what became the Denver area was sparsely settled until 1858, when three different groups established settlements in the area. General William Larimer, a land speculator from eastern Kansas, jumped the St. Charles claim and staked his own one-mile square claim, renaming it “Denver” after the governor of the Territory of Kansas, James Denver.

Although Denver didn’t “pan out” as a mining community despite an initial flurry of activity, it grew rapidly as a supply hub once the Gold Rush began. General Larimer’s claim, and the saloons around Larimer St., were at the center of activity as immigrant communities found themselves at home in them. Various ethnic groups “relished their taverns as ethnic clubs and community centers for a wide range of social, political, and economic activities.”

By 1880, more than 1/3 of Denver saloons were German-owned. Inside these establishments, “customers could speak and sing German, enjoy German music and dance, read German newspapers and magazines, procure strudel and sauerkraut, and quaff German beer and wine.” The best-known of these German establishments was Turn Hall, established in 1889.

Germans were wealthy and politically powerful in Denver and enjoyed great influence until first, Prohibition in 1916, then World War II, diminished their influence. Because of their wealth and prominence in the saloon business of Denver, Prohibitionists targeted them, and many Germans lost their jobs in the liquor industry. Irrational hatreds related to the War made life even more difficult for Denver’s German population.

Nonetheless, Denver benefited from German music and culture — and enjoyed Bock Beer Day. In 1874, “Otto Heinrich ‘s saloon at Sixteenth and Larimer set the record for Bock Beer Day, serving some 3,000 glasses of beer, 50 loaves of bread, and 125 pounds of meat.”

Many Irish arrived as part of the railroad crews and settled in working class neighborhoods near the tracks. Also well-received, Irishmen soon established bars strategically placed between their homes near the tracks and their jobs. Irish saloons promoted Irish clubs and organizations, Gaelic literature, lectures and band music and distributed the Rocky Mountain Celt, the “only” Irish-American newspaper in the West.

By 1900, the Irish were less than 3% of Denver’s population, but they owned 10% of the bars. Irish political clout came from a triangular partnership between saloon owners, politicians and policemen. “Saloon-keeping Irish councilmen included James Doyle, John Conlon, Andrew Horan and William Gahan. Of these bartending aldermen, one of the most successful and long-lived was Eugene Madden. Madden served nine consecutive city council terms with strong support from his Larimer Street saloon and the nearby police department, where his brother was a captain.”

Like other ethnic groups, Jews found the liquor business relatively easy to enter. Albert Wongrowitz’s popular saloon and delicatessen, located next to a synagogue, was one of the first sources of kosher food. Despite anti-Semitism, Jewish immigrants, many originating from Germany, were successful in Denver. The fact that Denver elected a Jewish mayor in 1889 signified a relatively easier integration process. Blacks, Asians and Italians suffered from more violent and intensive discrimination.

Italians, recruited as cheap labor for the railroads and other industries, suffered from a more unwelcoming reception in Denver, but they, too, eased their entry by establishing saloons that served them as cultural centers.

Starting in tents and shacks in the bottomlands, and operating grocery carts and businesses, Italians, with the help of more well-established compatriots with whom they connected in the Italian saloons, eventually achieved success and moved into the tree-shaded neighborhoods of north Denver. Here they established popular restaurants and bars. Italians, who viewed consumption of alcohol as healthy, were largely unaffected by Prohibition, simply moving into their basements.

Finally, the Slavs (Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Serbs, Croats, Poles, and Russians, including many Russian Jews and non-Slavic Germans from Russia) established a significant community in Denver. By 1920, the Russians became the single largest group immigrating to Colorado.

The Slavs settled in Globeville, the smelter factory town just north of Denver. As had other ethnic groups before them, the Slavs enjoyed their many saloons in Globeville, not only for the beverages but as community centers. Like the saloons in other poor areas, these also served as banks.

Among the many cultural institutions that immigrant groups brought to Denver, saloons were perhaps the most numerous and conspicuous. They played a key role in bringing their customers into American life and into the life of the city. Few immigrant taverns reappeared after Prohibition, but the effects of these influential business qua community centers remain.

In 1988, it became legal in Colorado to produce and sell beer to retail customers on the same premises. The WynkoopBrewing Company ran a close race against Carver Brewery to claim the title as the oldest micro-brewery in Denver.

John Hickenlooper, founder of the Wynkoop Brewing Company and now governor of the state, looks back on those anxious early days. He remembers the all-consuming effort required to open Wynkoop first, which it did on October 18, 1988, selling 6,000 cups of beer at 25 cents each.

Today Denver continues to enjoy its beer in its many micro-breweries. For more information or to schedule a micro-brewery tour, please contact us.