In 1915, Minnesota’s Polk County voted to go “dry.” It was the end of a 25-year era during which East Grand Forks had enjoyed a booming business from across the river.
When ND enacted prohibition in July 1890, fourteen Grand Forks saloon keepers immediately moved across the river. Two years later, East Grand Forks boasted a brewery, a beer depot, and 33 saloons – 22 of which were located in the first block of DeMers Avenue. By 1909, the number of saloons was up to 48, along with twelve breweries and two wholesale distributors. When Polk County went dry in 1915, the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported: “It is understood that the East Grand Forks brewery…and the Kewold brewery at Crookston will continue in operation maintaining their business on the basis specified in the option act. If the… distributing stations maintain their position, a rather interesting legal battle is anticipated… One local brewery agent says shipments in a single month from one depot have aggregated as high as $50,000, with these shipments being made into the dry state of North Dakota.”
Ultimately, Polk County’s liquor businesses were given six months to get rid of their stock. Many just went underground, and for the next 18 years, “soft drink parlors” became fronts for illegal bars called speakeasies, with bootleggers supplying beer and liquor smuggled in primarily from Canada.
A lot of the Canadian liquor actually originated in Chicago, and local tradition has it that well-known gangsters like Al Capone were supplying East Grand Forks’ beer and liquor. During the ‘20s and ‘30s, slot machines were part of the speakeasy scene, with roulette, blackjack and poker games in the back rooms. The town now had a nickname: “Little Chicago.”
One high-class bar called Bobby’s Café was considered the best steakhouse west of Chicago. Whitey Larson’s Wonderbar & Café boasted the Nation’s first, stainless-steel, horse-shoe-shaped bar; it’s said Whitey’s had so many slot machines it felt and sounded just like a Chicago club. Kearnes & Walski’s was a professionally-run gambling operation featuring an elaborate mahogany bar and high-backed booths. East Grand Forks lost a lot of money when bars became illegal. To make up for money normally derived from liquor licenses, city police staged one or two local raids a year. Guilty bar owners paid their $200 fines in Municipal Court and then went back to business as usual.
East Grand Forks passed a city ordinance that allowed legalized beer parlors during the late 1930s, and the area between the DeMers Avenue bridge and Fourth Street took on new vigor. Discreet storefront signs gave way to so many flashing signs, Ripley’s Believe It or Not declared it the highest concentration in the world of neon lights in a three-block area.
Despite opposition from temperance groups, a Polk County committee gathered 3,000 signatures in support of once again becoming a wet county, and on August 1, 1947, residents voted 2-to-1 to reverse its dry option. The only catch was that, based on population, East Grand Forks could have only five license-holders. Intense competition ensued to see who of the 35 or 40 applicants would be chosen by city council. Whitey’s Wonderbar & Café was the number one selection and is the only one still in operation. In 1939, it was featured in the Saturday Evening Post and Time Magazine for its Art Deco design, but the ‘97 flood destroyed the building. Luckily, the famed “Wonderbar” and Art Deco interior were saved and reinstalled when they rebuilt three doors down.
Used with permission from: www.prairiepublic.org