The saloon feuds of Owen Township: Road to prohibition (1911-1918)


With Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Marshall now in office, lawmakers repealed the County Option Law, replacing it with the Proctor Law, in March 1911, that reverted to city, township and ward options for rendering communities dry.

The Jackson County Commissioners determined that the county could have one saloon per 500 residents. Seymour could host 15 taverns and Brownstown six. Temperance advocates realized they could not muster the votes required to block saloons in Seymour. In any case, they could not prevent the flow of alcohol.

A Seymour Daily Republican article admitted that “just about as much liquor has been sold in Seymour” illegally in the last two years as before the prohibition went into effect. Even soft drink parlors had been openly violating the law.

Saloonists wasted no time in applying for the coveted licenses. The county granted 15 liquor licenses for Seymour in May 1911. Another license was granted in Dudleytown. Jackson County became wet again.

Prohibitionists, however, scored wins in three township elections: Brownstown, Vernon and Carr. However, this unfreezing of liquor licenses did not extend to Kurtz.

Almost overnight, the Davis clan became the most prominent bootleggers of Owen Township. Grover Davis and Allen T. Davis, both prominent pro-saloon advocates, were grandsons of prohibitionist Elisha L. Davis.

In January 1912, Grover C. Davis applied for a saloon license in Kurtz. The county commissioners denied Davis’ application on grounds “that Davis was not a fit person to receive a license.” As if to prove his detractors correct, Davis was arrested a few months later for writing fraudulent checks on Freetown State Bank.

In February 1913, a remonstrance defeated Allen T. Davis’ saloon license, but the county officials had not heard the last of him. In May, Davis was charged with running a blind tiger and gambling operation.

Speakeasies became so plentiful that former Kurtz resident and reverend Z.F. Gorbet called on citizens of Kurtz, Goss Mill and other nearby communities to take a day off of work and go blind tiger hunting.

In March 1915, Allen T. Davis again was arrested for running a speakeasy, and in May 1915, he was found guilty, fined $50 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. In August, Sheriff Van Robertson, Deputy Ed Snyder and Marshall John Russell raided Allen T. Davis’ restaurant in Kurtz and found a barrel of beer in the icehouse, one in the barn and “a number of bottles packed on ice in an ice cream freezer.”

In January 1916, Davis pleaded guilty and was fined $50 and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

In 1916, if you wanted to drink legally in Jackson County, you had to go to Seymour or Dudleytown.

Nearly a year before the U.S. Congress passed the 18th Amendment that enacted national prohibition, Republican Gov. James P. Goodrich of Indiana signed into law a statewide ban on alcohol on Feb. 9, 1917, just one month after taking office. After a century of struggles, Hoosier prohibitionists had finally won the greatest battle of all. On April 2, 1918, Indiana’s statewide prohibition on all alcohol went into effect.

Jackson County pro-alcohol advocates accepted defeat with less than a whimper. Seymour, one of only two towns in the county to still serve alcohol legally, transitioned peacefully.

“Booze was given a quiet farewell here at 11 o’clock Tuesday night. At that hour, those who had remained in the saloons to drink their final toast to John Barleycorn filed through the doors into the streets,” read the Republican.

But as always in Jackson County, when the legal alcohol spigot was shut off, a bootleg tap opened up. According to the Republican Freetown columnist, “more whiskey is being consumed here now” than when “there were two saloons in this town.”

On Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect. Owen Township had already been dry for 15 years.

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