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Our View: Colorful characters came out of county's Prohibition era (with gallery)

4:43 PM, Jul. 18, 2013  |  Comments

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Prohibition was hard on Wisconsin breweries. That might seem like an obvious statement - but given how much alcohol flowed across the U.S. throughout the Prohibition era, it is actually not so obvious. The problem for brewers was that moonshine could be made in small, portable stills in bathtubs or out in the woods, while brewing was still a large, industrial operation that was easy to detect.

As a result, most brewers turned to nonalcoholic "near beer" and soda to make it through the Dry Years from 1920 to 1933. The Stevens Point Brewery was one prominent example; it developed Point Premium Root Beer during Prohibition, and the brewery managed to stay alive throughout the '20s while many of its competitors folded.

As dancehalls became a popular recreation in the era, the usual practice for many people here was to drink near beer inside the hall, with frequent trips out to the parking lot to sample and share illicit moonshine.

The local history of the era was the subject of a fun, free-flowing (ahem) discussion hosted by the Marathon County Public Library on Tuesday. Marathon County Historical Society librarian Gary Gisselman presented slides and stories from the region's Prohibition-era history, including some little-known episodes.

? A dirty district attorney. It was an era that bred lawlessness, with law enforcement officials routinely looking the other way when it came to all things alcohol. At least one Marathon County district attorney went even further than that. On May 25, 1926, a banner headline across the top of the Wausau Daily Record-Herald proclaimed the indictment by a grand jury of District Attorney George W. Lippert on charges of "accepting bribes from moonshiners in return for immunity from arrest." He was further charged with conspiracy to sell and transport liquor and with tipping off moonshiners when a federal raid was coming.

Lippert would be found guilty and "sent to Leavenworth (federal prison) for his dastardly deeds," serve time in jail and then live out the rest of his days in Oregon, Gisselman said.

? An early female leader. Women got the vote in the U.S. in 1920. In 1925, Mildred Barber Abel of Marathon became one of three women elected to the Assembly - the first elected to the state Legislature in Wisconsin's history. And Barber, Gisselman said, got her political start as an anti-Prohibitionist when she ran in the village of Marathon in 1922.

What could a member of Marathon Village Board do to get rid of Prohibition? Well, not much. But it was certainly a message that connected with people. Being vocally against Prohibition, Gisselman said, "went a long way in Marathon County in 1922."

? Connections to Chicago gangsters. The stories of how mobsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger used the Northwoods of Wisconsin as a hideout spot are well-known. That's not so much a part of Marathon County's history, but it is not all that far north that dramatic scenes like the shootout at Little Bohemia played out during the Prohibition era.

The importance of local history is on our minds this week, following a troubling incident where vandals damaged 54 tombstones and monuments at Pine Grove Cemetery, including some that likely belonged to some of Wausau's founders. The history of the area is rich and fascinating. There's value and enjoyment in appreciating it, and that makes the pointless destruction of a historical site even more troubling.

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