Savannah’s Prohibition Museum: History And Our Love-Hate Relationship with Alcohol

    Savannah, a historic party town of the U.S. South and one of five cities where you can still get a carry-out cup of booze, is home to two new 2017 thematically related attractions: the American Prohibition Museum and the Ghost Coast Distillery. If your immediate thought is I'll have a drink to that, you should consider putting these sites on your bucket list for your next visit to Savannah. In this post, we'll focus on the museum.

    If you like the notion of learning the history of an inflammatory subject (:>), you'll be happy to know you can relax while you learn and order a genuine era-centric drink in a mock Speakeasy. But there's more – much more. My son Tom and I set out to find out the details about this fascinating piece of Americana recently.

    The Entrance to the Museum

    Entrance to the American Prohibition Museum
    Entrance to the American Prohibition Museum

    The museum is the brainchild of Historic Tours of America. Before you enter the nearly 6000 square foot building in the City Market area of Savannah, you’ll discover quickly why they chose this town as the site for this museum.

    A plaque on the outside entrance wall notes England’s King George II decree of the First Act of Alcohol Prohibition in America in Savannah in 1735.

    The First Act of Alcohol Prohibition in America — Savannah — 1735
    The First Act of Alcohol Prohibition in America — Savannah — 1735

    Here’s What’s Inside

    When you cross the threshold at the entrance, you’ll note much thought and effort went into assembling this place. A large mural of McCurdy’s saloon embraces you on your left with two striking yet contrasting images: Dry movement protesters and, Wet movement activists. This sets the stage for your self-guided tour.

    McCurdy's Saloon: the display at the entrance of the American Prohibition Museum
    McCurdy's Saloon: the display at the entrance of the American Prohibition Museum

    A staircase to the right of the entrance leads you up into the Roaring Twenties. Costumed helpers make it easy for you to ask questions as you wander. Some of these folks are students from the Savannah College for Arts and Design (SCAD) working on their acting skills.

    Steps with quotations
    Steps with quotations

    There are fourteen exhibits presenting many wax figures, dioramas, four autos of the period, a theater, and a functioning Speakeasy. Interactive shows, framed videos that present unique talking pictures, newspaper clippings, and era signs complement layouts.

    A Walk Through The Exhibits

    Depicting events from the mid-1800s leading to Prohibition (1920-1933), the museum presents the story of Americans love-hate relationship with spirits.

    The risers on the steps leading to the displays at the top of the stairs bear two famous quotes of the period:

    “First you take a drink,
    then the drink takes a drink,
    then the drink takes you.”
    ~F. Scott Fitzgerald~ 

    “Temptation is the Devil…
    looking through a keyhole.”
    ~Billy Sunday~

    The landing between the first and second museum floors features a wax exhibit display of children catching liquor in buckets as it is poured down street gutters. This occurred after the passing of the 18th Amendment to enact Prohibition. “Talking pictures” of Lillian M.N. Stephens and Adolphus Busch place you in the debate between the “Wets” and “Dries.”

    Children collecting liquor from the gutters
    Children collecting liquor from the gutters

    Historic Events For Historic Times

    Voter Suppression

    Ladies celebrating Prohibition
    Ladies celebrating Prohibition

    With the entry of the US into WWI, the 18th Amendment to pass Prohibition passed quickly in a process many cited as undemocratic. That’s because men fighting overseas could not vote. Absentee balloting and the instant, worldwide communications we enjoy today were non-existent public services during the era.

    Protestors over the vote for Prohibition
    Protestors over the vote for Prohibition

    Activist Billy Sunday preaches against the use of alcohol calling consumption a sin. A placard displays this quote:

    “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn cribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

    ~Billy Sunday, stated hours before Prohibition passed~

    Widespread unemployment and crime

    Displays portray how thousands of farmers, brewers, distillers, coopers, distributors, truck drivers, warehouse workers, and clerks lost their jobs during Prohibition. Distillery closing led to moonshiners and home stills becoming the norm.

    A moonshiner wax figure exhibit whispers instruction for making white lightning. Another display shows a woman with a mini-still on her stove making moonshine.

    Mama making home brew moonshine
    Woman making home brew moonshine

    A placard displays this rhyme:

    “Mother’s in the kitchen washing out the jugs,
    Sister’s in the pantry bottling the suds,
    Father’s in the cellar mixing up the hops,
    Johnny’s on the front porch watching for the cops.”

    Homemade brew accounted for 40 percent of all alcohol made during Prohibition.

    The Medicinal Medicine Movement

    Within the first six months of Prohibition, 15,000 doctors and 57,000 pharmacists applied for licenses to prescribe whiskey to treat everything from sprained ankles to old age. They raked in $40 million writing prescriptions and were favorite guests at household socials.

    Race Poisons Poster
    Race Poisons Poster

    Walgreens grew exponentially from sales of “medicinal” alcohol. From just a few outlets in Illinois, the chain grew to over 600 stores in 30 states during Prohibition. News articles and memorabilia present details about the use of medicinal alcohol during the era.

    Walgreen Medicinal Alcohol Display
    Walgreen Medicinal Alcohol Display

    The Growth of Organized Crime

    Another exhibit portrays the rise of organized crime with the underground trafficking in alcohol during Prohibition. There’s no loss of authentic era detail. The display includes Tommy guns and mob crime-related paraphernalia.

    Criminal Lineup, son Tom second left, author Karla, right
    Criminal Lineup, son Tom second left, author Karla, right

    Bloody wax figures of a couple and driver shot to pieces in a high-class Pierce Arrow car depict the horrific and common violence of the time. On the wall behind the display is a quote by Al Capone: “I make my money supplying a public demand.”

    The Rise of the Roaring Twenties and the Era of the Speakeasy

    Mob control of Speakeasies was common during the era. And for the first time in American history, women took up prominent roles by working outside the home at Speakeasies as servers, cigarette servers, bartenders, and escorts. A Jazz club display portrays the changing role of women in a society known as the Roaring Twenties as they throw off the bonds of being homemakers.

    Flappers dance to the Charleston. Want to learn how to do it? Instructional dance steps lie before you painted on the floor. You can simulate these dance steps and watch your progress in a mirror built into the wall before you.

    Flapper-Novel Womens dress style, 1920's
    Flapper-Novel Women's dress style, 1920's

    A non-descript door lit with a dim barn light reveals a hidden opening to whisper a code to an attendant for the entry into the Congress Street Up Speakeasy. A darkened room dominated by a warm wood bar and spirits on glass shelves along a brick wall makes you feel you are indeed in the Roaring Twenties.

    Entrance to Speakeasy
    Entrance to Speakeasy

    The menu in the Speakeasy consists of twelve cocktails, including the Chatham Artillery Punch, a Mary Pickford, French 75, and the Twelve Mile Limit! Tom ordered a Ward Eight composed of Old Overholt Rye, grenadine, lemon, and orange. A barmaid in a period costume served his exhilarating drink. You can opt to purchase a drink at the Speakeasy when you buy your entrance ticket.

    Following the Speakeasy is a room dedicated to the founding of NASCAR.

    “Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racers ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose a load of whiskey and you go to jail.”

    ~Junior Johnson, NASCAR legend~

    Moonshine Runners: The Origin of NASCAR
    Moonshine Runners: The Origin of NASCAR

    The final room is a midsize theater with a continual run 15-minute video exploring Prohibition’s lasting effects on American history drawing analogies with current events in the US.

    You pass down steps loaded with imagery of Savannah and Prohibition as you exit the museum. A gift shop awaits at the bottom. A Historic Tours of America trolley is stops right outside the museum offering a hop-on-hop-off tour of Savannah.

    Savannah—Spigot of the South
    Savannah—Spigot of the South

    Get the Full Story at the American Prohibition Museum

    Mindful of Savannah's flamboyant role during Prohibition, Historic Tours of America, opened the American Prohibition Museum in May 2017. This place isn't just a tourist attraction. It's a priceless piece of Americana that will trigger critical thought and reflection by all who visit. There's nothing else like it in America.

    The American Prohibition Museum
    209 West St. Julian Street, Savannah, GA 31401, next to Ellis Square in City Market and close to two parking garages—Whitaker Street and Robinson
    Hours: Open daily· 10 am – 4:15 pm (except St. Patrick’s Day!).
    Phone: (912) 220-1249
    Cost: Adults, $11.56, Children, $8.67

    * A drink in the Speakeasy is an extra $8.00 if available while you are touring. The Speakeasy is open after museum hours through the Trolley Stop Gift Shop from 5:30 pm -11 pm Thursday and 5:30 pm – 1 am Friday and Saturday.

    Historic Tours of America trolley outside the museum
    Historic Tours of America trolley outside the museum


    The American Prohibition Museum:

    Up Next

    Come with us on our alcohol-related journey in Savannah as we tell you about the Ghost Coast Distillery. It's the first distillery to open in Savannah since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

    Also, bookmark your calendar for May 2018. That’s when our feature-length story about Prohibition will come out in Links & Libations magazine, a segment of the Live Eco Style Network.

    Photos and Credits:

    All images of and quotes from the American Prohibition Museum are by the author taken with the courtesy and permission of Historic Tours of America.

    Local Restaurants

    If you're hungry, there's many good restaurants nearby the museum. Check out Vinnie Van Go-Go's just a quick walk away for some great pizza.

    Coastal Georgia has some great restaurants. We live here. We know. Check these places out the next time you're driving on I-95.

    Skippers Fish Camp, Darien, GA (Exit 49 off of I-95)

    The Sunbury Crab Company, Sunbury GA (Exit 76 off of I-95)

    The Millhouse Steak House, Brunswick, GA (Exit 38 off of I-95)

    Sal's Neighborhood (New York) Pizza, St Simons Island, GA (Exit 38 off of I-95)

    Fox's Pizza Den, Brunswick, GA

    Some Great Places to See

    Three Great Spots Along The Georgia Coast For Birdwatching Sunbury GA (Exit 76 off of I-95)