MODESTO — In the early days of Modesto, on a morning walk down Front Street (todays Ninth Street), you would find coming out of the saloons that lined the street the gamblers, prostitutes, drunks and anyone else who was drawn in. Some residents of Modesto didnt care for what was occurring on and around Front Street, and for those ills they had a solution, which would come before the voters in 1912.
Throughout the 19th century, supporters of the temperance movement sought a prohibition against alcohol consumption. They believed that many of the evils of society so routinely displayed on Front Street could be cured by banning alcohol. As a first step in 1912, they put on the ballot an initiative that would close all the saloons in Modesto by banning the sale of liquor licenses. With the initiative on the ballot the battle lines were drawn prohibitionists on one side, saloon owners on the other.
Election day was set for July 10, and the anti-saloon supporters held meetings in Modesto to rally their supporters. The biggest rally was at the courthouse plaza. An overflow crowd heard David Rose, former mayor of Milwaukee, deliver a speech that was well-received by the saloon opponents. The saloon owners held their own rallies and made certain every eligible voter who patronized their bars understood what was at stake. On election day, both sides pulled out all the stops to make sure they got out all their supporters and did whatever they could to hurt the opponents chances.
The anti-saloon side held a procession in downtown Modesto, described by historian George H. Tinkham as a spectacular parade. It was made up of scores of women in automobiles, women, men and children on foot and a division of babies in baby buggies. On the other side, the booze was flowing in the saloons, and the liquored-up residents were sent out to vote. Making sure to leave no stone unturned, they also printed fliers claiming the anti-saloon sides motto was Down with the liquor traffic, down with the Sunday baseball, down with the Sunday theater, down with the Modesto pool rooms. You could threaten a person in early 1900s Modesto with the loss of a lot of things, but threatening baseball in those days was tantamount to spitting on the flag. The fliers were having an effect on the voters, and the temperance folks had to head to the printers and turn out a flier denying those charges.
In a close race, 2,134 votes were cast and the temperance side won by 40. In 10 days time, Modesto would be a town without saloons, nor would any licenses be issued for them in the future.
Though defeated, the owners were not idle. A lawsuit was brought claiming that the council could regulate a saloon, but could not refuse them a license. The effort failed. A recount was called for. The number of votes won by the temperance side was was reduced by 35. Ten days later, most of the saloons closed. According to the San Francisco Call of July 12, 1912, Several of the saloons will remain open as soft drink places.
The last night was marked with considerable revelry [with] the substitution of red lights for white in the word water in Modestos electric arch. The saloons would reopen eight months later when the case was appealed from another county and the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.
In July 1917, another anti-saloon law was passed by a majority of 250. With the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibition became law in 1920.
Sources: George H Tinkham, History of Stanislaus County (1921); Evening Herald (Klamath Falls, Ore.), Oct. 22, 1917; The San Francisco Call, Dec. 20, 1912; and The Labor World (Duluth, Minn.), Nov. 13, 1917.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.