Party still holds out for Prohibition

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GEORGE ORMSBY was barely 16 years old on April 7, 1933, the day that Prohibition died. Seventy-three years later, he still thinks the abolition of beer and liquor was a pretty good idea.

“All you have to do is look into some of the records during Prohibition,” said Ormsby, a plumbing inspector from Aston, Delaware County, who twice ran for vice president on the Prohibition Party ticket. “People had more money in the bank, home ownership increased and crime decreased.”

Today, as brewers around Philadelphia and across America mark the anniversary with Brew Year’s Eve parties, the last, few members of the Prohibition Party still hope for drier days.

“We believe that Prohibition is coming back,” said Earl Dodge, 73, the head of the Prohibition Party, who has run for president six times and will probably run again in ’08.

Dodge, of Lakewood, Colo., points to trends in lower alcohol consumption, tougher DUI laws and growing health consciousness as signs that Temperance is on the way back.

“We even have our first nondrinking president in the White House since Taft in 1908,” he said.

Formed in 1869, the Prohibition Party is the third-oldest political party in America, after the Republicans and Democrats. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created the familiar elephant and donkey emblems for the two major parties, symbolized the Prohibitionists with a camel.

Though its focus was always anti-alcohol, the party – even by today’s standards – was remarkably progressive. Women’s suffrage, free public education, antitrust enforcement, labor protection and prison reform were on the party platform before the turn of the century.

In the 1910s, two Prohibition candidates were elected to Congress and a third was elected governor of Florida. In 1904, Venango County in western Pennsylvania elected 204 Prohibition Party candidates to local office.

The ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 was the party’s last, great moment. Troubled by images of Al Capone and speakeasy drunkenness, thirsty Americans voted to repeal the Prohibition after 13 years and the party evaporated.

“After the Prohibition was adopted, the progressive element left the cause,” said Jim Hedges, 67, a longtime party member from Fulton County, Pa.

“After repeal, the Prohibition Party became aligned only with conservative Christians,” said Hedges. “Today, the party gets a bad rap.”

Indeed, today’s members seem quaintly out of step with 21st-century America.

Ormsby, for example, said: “I never myself had a drink of alcohol. My parents were old-time Methodists. They didn’t believe in smoking or drinking or dancing or working on Sunday. I live pretty much the same way, though I do work on Sundays on occasion.”

Hedges, by contrast, describes himself as an environmentalist who opposes the war, a member of the Prohibitionists’ “left wing.”

He also represents one of the party’s few modern highlights. In 2001, Hedges was elected the Thompson Township tax assessor, the first Prohibition Party candidate to be elected to office in nearly 50 years (though he quickly notes he ran unopposed).

Lately, the Prohibitionists have been tangled in fights over control of the party and its meager finances.

Dodge said his mailing list of supporters has fewer than 1,000 names. In 2000, he managed to collect all of 208 votes for president.

The aging party leader believes he might attract “1 or 2 million votes” if voters were permitted to register as Prohibitionists in all 50 states. Unfortunately, he said, “Even when we’re on the ballot, the news media puts us in the same category as political parties that want to protect rights of aliens or some other screwball group of vegetarians.”

Hedges said that, as older party members die off, the party is headed for “oblivion.”

But even if they’re not around to see it, the Prohibitionists believe, some day, America will see the light and once again ban alcohol.

“It’s not going to be another amendment to the Constitution,” Dodge said. “What we think is going to happen is that, because of health reasons, the FDA is going to get control and eventually shut it down.

“I don’t think there’s any question we’re moving in that direction.”

Technically, the Prohibition didn’t end until Dec. 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. But for brewers, the more significant date is April 7, 1933. That’s the date Congress – following passage of the Blaine Act amendment to the Volstead Act – OK’d the sale of 3.2 beer.

To mark the occasion, Victory Brewing in Downingtown yesterday re-released its Throwback Lager, an old-style lager similar to Schmidt’s. It’s available on draft at a select number of taverns in the Philadelphia area.

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