A pint of whiskey for a sick cow, a tablespoonful for a teething baby, and a quart of brandy for an ailing mother were some of the many reasons Spanish Fork citizens sought exceptions from the city-wide prohibition of alcohol that went into effect in the year 1900.
On January 25, 1900, the city council of Spanish Fork passed Ordinance No. 43, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors within the city limits. However, despite the ban on selling and manufacturing alcohol, the city council of Spanish Fork was well aware that spirituous liquors, like whiskey and brandy, were common remedies for sickness, and daily aches and pains. Which is why Ordinance No. 43 allowed for the purchase of alcohol as long as it was for “medical, scientific or mechanical purposes.” Individuals seeking alcohol for medical purposes were required to purchase it through a licensed city druggist. A licensing process that required a druggist to acquire a petition signed by twelve land-owning voters, who could vouch for his good moral character. Druggists could only sell alcohol to those who had received a proper diagnosis, had acquired a prescription for the exact dosage needed and who had signed a statement promising the alcohol would only be used for the exact medicinal purpose prescribed.
The city druggists were then required to file all of the prescriptions for alcohol filled in that month with the Spanish Fork City Recorder, thus being entered into the official government record. In addition, the druggist had to keep a log of all alcohol sold, and the name of the person it was sold to, which was made publicly available upon request to anyone wishing to view a list of those who were seeking exemption from the city’s strict prohibition. The law also provided that if a relative of an alcohol-seeking patient claimed that the alcohol was being consumed as a beverage instead of as medicine, the druggist would not be legally allowed to sell the medicinal alcohol to that patient.
Spanish Fork’s efforts to ban alcohol in the early 20th century were not uncommon. Many Utah cities had passed municipal prohibition ordinances long before Spanish Fork, which was seemingly a regional holdout. Fellow Utah County towns like Lehi and neighboring Springville passed their prohibitory liquor laws in the 1890s. Springville city council members wanting to stem the tide of alcohol pouring into their town often sent representatives to Spanish Fork to ignite the town’s efforts to ban alcohol.
Utah cities were not unique in seeking prohibition; calls for temperance had been common throughout the nineteenth century, but early efforts stalled during the Civil War. In the years following the war, efforts to revive the movement were rekindled across American towns, but seemed to gain traction through municipal legislative action in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Grassroots prohibition efforts led by temperance unions and clubs helped to rally local support. In Utah County, the Springville and Spanish Fork area shared an active Women’s Christian Temperance Union that met regularly to share speeches about the merits of prohibition. Central Utah WCTUs, like the Payson chapter, even created parade floats to bring attention to the cause. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union would have likely had a strong presence in local Utah politics, especially after women received the right to vote upon statehood in 1896. Temperance was a rallying issue for many women who felt that easy access to alcohol caused overindulgence, which wreaked havoc on the home, causing domestic abuses and family neglect.
Prohibition was not without its critics, and there was much debate in and around Spanish Fork over its merits. Opponents of the ban stated that people seeking alcohol would find it legally available in nearby towns, bringing their drunkenness back home, where the local police would have to deal with the expenses of enforcing the law without any of the benefits of the licensing fees brought in by local saloons. Most major political parties running candidates in Spanish Fork at the time favored a regulatory approach to alcohol by writing laws limiting its consumption to certain people, on certain days, under certain circumstances. In addition, officials preferred collecting as many fees as possible through licensing and fines. However, a group of political candidates running for Spanish Fork municipal office in 1899 decided to break with the major parties and ran on the promise to ban alcohol in Spanish Fork. The group swept the 1899 election and fulfilled their promise only days after taking office in January the following year.
Enforcing prohibition proved extremely difficult for the cities that had passed prohibitory ordinances, including Spanish Fork. Ironically the town of Lehi, which had passed its prohibition ordinance years before, overturned it in the same year Spanish Fork implemented its own. Cities found it challenging to prevent the acquisition of alcohol as long as it remained available in nearby towns. City laws had limited applicability and were only enforceable within the incorporated boundaries, and at the time there were vast amounts of unincorporated land between towns, which enterprising saloon owners were quick to take advantage of. After Spanish Fork banned alcohol in 1900, a local saloon owner decided to move his establishment a few miles out of town to the unincorporated area between Springville and Spanish Fork, where neither city’s prohibition laws had any effect.
Spanish Fork City repealed its alcohol prohibition ordinance in 1902, following the election of a new city council. The newly elected council opted for a more regulated approach by requiring saloons to operate within a restricted set of hours, only serve adults, and be closed to the public on Sundays, and of course be subject to strict licensing fees. However, proponents of prohibition continued to pursue their efforts at the county and statewide levels, finally finding success when Utah enacted a statewide ban on alcohol in 1917. Ultimately culminating in the 1919 passage of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting alcohol nationwide, which in many respects, repeated many of the same lessons learned decades prior during the local government experimentations in alcohol prohibition.
- Spanish Fork City Ordinances. Accessed from Utah Division of Archives Series 29050
- Spanish Fork City Minutes. Accessed from Utah Division of Archives Series 84963
- Spanish Fork Administrative Records. Accessed for Utah Division of Archives Series 30455
- Lerner, Michael A. 2011. “Going Dry: The Coming of Prohibition” HUMANITIES., Vol 32, No 5 (September/October 2011)
- Powell, Allan Kent. 1994.“Prohibition.” Utah History Encyclopedia
- “Think Prohibition Here is Not a Success” The Springville Independent. November 4, 1897
- “Spanish Fork Department: Local Brevities” The Springville Independent. February 17, 1898
- “Citizens Prohibition Wins” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 9, 1899
- “Spanish Fork voted in favor of prohibition” The Springville Independent. December 14, 1899