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The Volstead Act in Douglas County

The Volstead Act in Douglas County

Natalie Kammerer

The Volstead Act, the infamous piece of legislation also known as the National Prohibition Act, went into effect 101 years ago this week. The state of Nebraska had actually gone “dry” as early as 1917, as a result of the state’s overall sympathy with the temperance movement. Generally speaking, however, the city of Omaha was less enthusiastic about outlawing the production, transport, and sale of alcohol for political, economic, and cultural reasons.

There were rules on the books regulating the circulation of alcohol throughout Nebraska well before the large-scale temperance movement of the late 1800s–in fact, the first one was applied in 1835, almost twenty years before Nebraska officially became a territory. This first law prohibited supplying Native Americans with alcohol (as a means to prevent them from drunkenly attacking traders and settlers in the area).[1]

But by the 1890s, when temperance had become a hot-button political issue and the threat of prohibition began to loom on the horizon, many inhabitants of Omaha were still uninterested in the cause. There were 226 saloons listed in the 1890 Omaha City Directory (compared with 224 retail grocers). Many of them were family businesses owned by community members. And by the late 1910s, when Congress was voting to pass the 18th Amendment, the number of saloons had grown and the city was also home to three well established family-owned German-style breweries – Krug, Metz, and Storz – as well as the Willow Springs Distillery, all of which kept the city of Omaha in good supply. Other smaller brewing companies in town included Pabst Brewing, Lemp Brewing, South Omaha Brewing, and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. Each of these producers ran saloons, as well.[2] Not only were Omahans accustomed to good alcohol—both the production and sale industries were significant local employers.

Interior of Jake M. Gehrig’s saloon, a typical pre-Prohibition establishment at the intersection of Maple and Military in Benson. Andy Schaefer and E. Walt Kuerten stand behind the bar, ca. 1910. Photo Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

With Prohibition, some of the businesses were able to stay afloat—the Willow Spring Distillery and Storz Brewery, for example, switched to producing near beer (a non-alcoholic or low-alcohol malt beverage), soft drinks, and ice. Krug halted operations until Prohibition was repealed, but Metz closed its doors (they would re-open again briefly under new ownership in the 1930s).[3] Some saloon owners were able to shift gears, converting their establishments to restaurants.

That’s not to say that Omaha went truly “dry” during Prohibition. In fact, national prohibition was considered a “flop” in Omaha.[4] The era marked the peak of Omaha crime boss Tom Dennison’s reign—he established the Omaha Liquor Syndicate to monopolize the city’s bootleg market. And it was quite a market. He also had quite a good working relationship with Omaha’s police force, and many establishments were able to continue selling liquor under his protection. A 1929 survey claimed that “at least 1,500 places, including many drug stores, sold liquor.”[5] Dennison’s out-of-town connections included Al Capone of Chicago and Tom Pendergast of Kansas City. Despite the breadth of his power over Omaha’s operations, it was ultimately his role as the invisible hand behind the fight against Prohibition in the city that led to his downfall.

Harry Lapidus was an Omaha businessman who owned a restaurant supply company, the Omaha Fixture and Supply Co. He was a pretty strait-laced, reform-minded citizen, and his son-in-law was the state’s assistant attorney general. He was also good friends with Robert Smith, clerk of the Douglas County District Court. When, one night in late 1931, Harry Lapidus was found near Hanscom Park, hanging halfway out the driver door of his car with three bullets in his head, there was little question in many peoples’ minds who was behind this murder. It also wasn’t much of a surprise that there was hardly any investigation into the murder, and the details remained hushed for several years.

There was certainly violence in Omaha, and much of it was related to bootlegging and the Dennison machine.[6] But this was the first time they had targeted an uninvolved citizen. In a letter Robert Smith sent to Omaha’s various newspapers shortly after Lapidus’s death, we wrote, “If this thing is allowed to go on, no one will be safe…I shall insist in the future as I have in the past that I have a right as an American to demand that my government function; and from this course I shall not be driven by intimidation or threat.”[7]

From the Omaha World-Herald. December 31, 1931. p. 7.

It was Robert Smith’s son, Edson Smith, an assistant US attorney working in Omaha, who brought charges against Dennison and fifty-eight of his associates in 1932. They were tried for 168 various crimes committed during the previous decade. It ultimately ended in a hung jury, but the trial had brought enough visibility to Dennison’s activities that public opinion shifted significantly, and he fell out of favor. The political tickets he backed in the 1933 city elections lost and he died in California in 1934. That same year, Prohibition was struck down in Nebraska (one year later than the 21st Amendment repealed it nationally).


[1] Fisher, Joe. The Liquor Question in Nebraska, 1880-1890. Thesis, Municipal University of Omaha, 1952. p. 5.

[2] Thompson, Patrick. “Tied Houses: A Lesson in Omaha’s Saloon History.” Restoration Exchange, 2017.

[3] Mihelich, Dennis. “Omaha’s ‘Big 4’ Brewing Families.” Douglas County Historical Society, 2020.

[4] Larsen, Lawrence and Barbara Cottrell. The Gate City: A History of Omaha. Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder. 1982. p. 183.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hansen, Matthew.”Hansen: 1931 slaying of businessman Harry Lapidus helped pry Omaha from mob’s clutches.” Omaha World-Herald. March 9, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

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