“I closed the dance halls in Edmonds and have been after the bootleggers roughshod!”
— Alice Kerr (Edmonds mayor, 1926)
On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was officially repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. This prompted a nationwide celebration in which bottles of champagne were jubilantly popped open, mugs of beer were clinked together, and endless rounds of “Happy Days Are Here Again” were sung at newly-opened bars all across the country.
The demise of Prohibition was especially celebrated in Edmonds, which had been without any legally available alcohol for almost 25 years. Illegal booze, on the other hand, was never in short supply here during the Roaring ‘20s, much to the chagrin of local law enforcement.
The Early Years
Going back to its early days, Edmonds was a rough-and-tumble town full of men who worked hard at the town’s shingle mills but wanted to enjoy some fun during their off hours. Under normal conditions, such a market demand would typically result in a robust vice industry.
In Edmonds, however, the pursuit of any illicit fun was tempered by a rather powerful strain of Protestant puritanism. This was first seen in the early 1890s when the town’s first dance hall was shut down and rebuilt into a Methodist church.
By the turn of the century, Washington state had passed a “Sabbath Breaking” law which prohibited most businesses from operating on Sundays. More commonly known as “blue laws,” this church-backed legislation was mostly concerned with clamping down on any Sunday drinking, dancing, or gambling.
Many towns in the state were strict about enforcing this law, while others took a more lackadaisical approach. Edmonds took the blue laws quite seriously; in 1905, local saloonkeeper Morris Rogers was arrested and jailed for serving drinks on a Sunday. Proprietors of other morally questionable establishments also found themselves with involuntary stays at the Edmonds jail thanks to blue law violations.
While Edmonds never had the same levels of vice as Seattle or Everett, our downtown boasted a couple of saloons, as well as a smattering of billiard parlors, card rooms, dance halls and boarding houses. Even the Edmonds Athletic Club on Dayton Avenue (now the Masonic Lodge) had a pool table and card room inside that were always in heavy use.
Despite their popularity, some of the town’s more morally-minded residents had developed a deep disdain towards such establishments, viewing them as being hotbeds of degeneracy. It was no big surprise, then, that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) enjoyed swift popularity here when they established an Edmonds chapter in 1908.
Within a short period of time, the WCTU became an integral part of the Edmonds political machine and began an active campaign to eliminate the town’s liquor trade.
On a statewide level, the temperance movement sought to eradicate booze by holding special “local option” elections in which each individual town could vote in favor of going dry or not.
Edmonds held a “local option” election on November 8, 1910, and after all the votes were tallied, the town’s citizens voted 151-114 in favor of banning alcohol anywhere within the city limits. Bellingham, Everett and Anacortes also voted to outlaw liquor, though would later reverse their decisions.
Several years later in 1915, Washington State Initiative No. 3 was voted into law, which banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol statewide. Edmonds, of course, had been dry since 1910, so the new state law had little effect here.
By this time, all the town’s saloons had long since closed, though there were still a handful of pool rooms and dance halls. The Beeson Building, in particular, was known for hosting lively dance parties, and it was around this time that the area’s first roadside inns began popping up along the town’s periphery.
The first of these to open was the White Horse Tavern. Located in a former hunting lodge, on what is now 220th Street, the illegal drinking establishment would help usher in a new era of illicit resorts.
Opened by Bob Farley — an ornery, gun-slinging outlaw straight out of the Wild West — the two-story building featured dancing and drinking on the first floor, while certain other carnal activities were rumored to have taken place upstairs. As a result, the White Horse was the site of several police raids.
In one instance, undercover sheriff’s deputies surreptitiously visited the place and later reported that they “drank whisky by waiters at the inn and jazzed to the strains of a rag-time orchestra.”
In 1919, the police swept in one night and arrested Farley after finding 96 quarts of booze on the premises. During yet another memorable police visit, a drunk customer at the bar started to become belligerent and threaten other patrons with a knife, prompting Farley to casually pull out a pistol and shoot the man.
Such incidents provided endless fodder for the local papers, generating salacious headlines that would eventually prove to be a harbinger of things to come for the Edmonds area.
The Roaring ‘20s
Jan. 17, 1920, marked the beginning of federal Prohibition when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially went into effect. Washington state had been dry since 1916, so the effects of the new federal law were not immediately felt, although it wouldn’t take long for things to begin heating up.
The first major liquor bust in Washington state happened just a few months into Prohibition, and would take place here in Edmonds when federal agents arrested a gang of bootleggers who were caught unloading a shipment of booze at nearby Meadowdale Beach.
Among the men arrested that night was a Seattle cop by the name of Roy Olmstead. He would subsequently be fired from the police force, prompting his embrace of the illegal liquor trade as a new career path, and within a couple years he would emerge as the “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers.”
While the Meadowdale liquor bust would serve as Puget Sound’s inauguration into the Prohibition era, it would also put the spotlight on the fact that our beaches were being heavily used by regional bootlegging operations.
From Richmond Beach and up to Smuggler’s Cove in Mukilteo, the local waterfront was dotted with various landing spots used by rum-running ships that were smuggling booze in from Canada (where alcohol was still legal).
Once these shipments of booze landed ashore, everything would be quickly loaded into waiting cars and then transported down to various Seattle nightlife destinations, thus establishing the Edmonds shoreline as an important hub in the local booze trade.
By the mid-1920s, many of the town’s residents had reached their limit on all this perceived lawlessness. Places like the White Horse Tavern were making a mockery of the local justice system and all the liquor smuggling certainly wasn’t helping matters.
On November 30, 1924, a group of concerned citizens convened at an undisclosed location, and with the town’s election just a few days aways, decided that a change in the town’s leadership was urgently needed.
The next day, a large batch of fliers were distributed throughout Edmonds announcing the candidacy of Mrs. Alice Kerr, who was now running for mayor at the request of “an earnest group of representative citizens of Edmonds wishing a change of city administration.” Up to that point, Mayor M.C. Engels had been running unopposed for the position, so the 11th-hour candidacy of Alice Kerr was quite the bombshell.
For many, Engels was viewed as being too tolerant towards vice, while Kerr was known as a staunch law-and-order type. And while Kerr did not run an active campaign due to her last-minute candidacy, she openly criticized Engels’ brand of mayoral permissiveness, telling a church audience, “There has been too much booze, too many pool hall disturbances and too slack an administration of the law here for the public good.”
On Election Day, after Edmonds residents had cast their votes, Alice Kerr beat the incumbent mayor by an extremely narrow margin, 163-159. She was 66 years old when she took office in January 1925, and was the first female mayor to be elected in the Pacific Northwest.
The election had made clear that law enforcement was a top priority here and Kerr was happy to deliver results. The first public address she gave as mayor was titled “Disregard For Law,” where she proposed a 9 p.m. curfew for minors and gave a stern warning to anyone thinking about speeding around in their automobiles: “Drive slow and you will see Edmonds; drive fast and you will see our jail!”
In her first year as mayor, she clashed with the Edmonds City Council after complaints had been raised about dances that were being held in the Beeson Building. This, in turn, led to a showdown over the town’s pool halls and card rooms in which Kerr wanted to outlaw such places while the council was adamant about keeping them open. After a series of contentious back-and-forths, the city council ultimately vetoed the mayor’s attempts to close them down.
Despite this political setback, Kerr maintained a sharp focus on shutting down the local liquor trade, telling reporters, “Our worst lawbreakers are the bootleggers. Being right on the Sound and 11 miles from Seattle, we have them unloading the booze all the time.” She added that it was the bootleggers who “give the youth their hell’s brew.”
Meanwhile, as the town’s politicians were battling over a few relatively benign dancehalls and pool rooms, the real excitement was taking place on the new Seattle-Everett Highway (Highway 99) when the area’s first roadhouses began sprouting up.
The first to open was McKenzie’s Bungalow Inn, which opened in 1926. Located where Country Farms Produce now sits, the opulent nightclub offered private rooms, each with their own fireplace.
Others would soon follow, including Doc Hamilton’s Ranch (opened by legendary Seattle speakeasy owner, Doc Hamilton), the Jungle Temple No. 2, and The Maryland Inn.
All these places were generously stocked with top-shelf booze courtesy of local bootlegging rackets, and offered ample amounts of drinking, dancing, and gambling which made them extremely popular destinations for those in search of some forbidden fun. By this time, the White Horse Tavern had changed its name to the Olympic Tavern and remained an active part of the local nightlife scene.
Naturally, such an ostentatious display of illegal entertainment quickly gained the attention of local law enforcement, who wasted little time in trying to shut everything down.
On Dec. 31, 1927, as revelers gathered at nearby nightclubs to ring in the new year, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s department were joined by federal agents, and together they conducted a large-scale raid at five of the most popular roadhouses.
Somehow, many of these places managed to later re-open, though that did not stop the police’s determination in trying to close them down. In 1928, the Jungle Temple was raided and over 100 people were arrested on liquor and gambling charges. Another raid at McKenzie’s Inn resulted in over 150 arrests.
Yet another option for obtaining alcohol during Prohibition was to make your own. At the time, a large swath of Edmonds consisted of rural farmland where moonshine stills proved to be quite popular.
As a result, many of these farmhouse distilleries were frequently visited by the police. This included a noteworthy raid in 1932 in which police discovered a 400-gallon moonshine still and a secret tunnel 150 feet long and 40 feet underground in the Maplewood neighborhood.
Despite all the roadhouses and moonshine activity, a more permissive attitude towards alcohol had developed in downtown Edmonds, as seen in the popular photograph of the Edmonds Uplift Society.
The 1932 image shows a group of local businessmen and civic leaders, no longer tethered to the dry movement, hoisting bottles of Rainier beer in the basement of the Beeson Building. It is a significant photo in that it represented a changing attitude towards alcohol in which Prohibition’s days were clearly numbered.
The End of Prohibition
As a precursor to the repeal of Prohibition, the Cullen-Harrison Act (which permitted the sale of wine and beer) was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 21, 1933. Prohibition had become increasingly unpopular throughout the country, and this was the first federal legislation which sought to loosen up some of the nation’s stringent liquor laws.
Beer was now able to be legally served under both federal and Washington state law, though Edmonds was still technically a dry town due to the “local option” election from 1910. Therefore, the Edmonds City Council held a special session to undo this and pass a new town ordinance legalizing sale of alcohol. Only one councilman opposed this ordinance and he angrily resigned from the council in protest soon after it was passed.
With beer now legal again, the Cozy Cafe became the first place in Edmonds to serve up frosty mugs of beer to thirsty residents. In August 1933, Edmonds voted in a 2-to-1 margin for the repeal of the 18th Amendment, thereby putting an official end to the town’s dry laws.
A few months later, the U.S. Congress ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively repealed the 18th Amendment. Prohibition was officially now over.
Soon after, Engel’s Lunch and Tavern would obtain one of Washington state’s first liquor licenses, followed by the opening of the R & T Tavern, which was run by Morris Rogers — the Edmonds saloonkeeper who was previously jailed for serving alcohol on a Sunday.
When it came to the issue of hard alcohol, the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) – which was formed immediately after prohibition was repealed – mandated that drinking establishments could serve beer and wine, but that hard liquor could only be obtained at state-sanctioned stores. In Edmonds, the Chandler-Swanson Drug Company (later Swanson Pharmacy), located in the Beeson Building, was the only place in town where high-proof alcohol was available.
By the 1940s, many of the local roadhouses had been closed down and any remaining ones became known as “bottle clubs” as they allowed their guests to bring in their own bottles of booze despite it being against the law.
As a result, many of these establishments found themselves were raided on a frequent basis for state liquor law violations. A few of these buildings are still standing today. This includes the White Horse Tavern, which is now known as Rosewood Manor.
In downtown Edmonds, Engel’s Pub is still serving drinks with the same liquor license that was assigned to it back in 1934. And, of course, the Beeson Building — the site of much of the town’s decadence over the years including a scandalous dance hall, the hangout for the Edmonds Uplift Society, and later as the town’s only liquor store — still stands and is the current location for several small businesses.
As for the fate of our one-time firebrand mayor, Alice Kerr, she only served one term but remained active in church and community affairs. She was 91 years old when she passed away on Aug. 10, 1949. A conference room at Edmonds City Hall was later named in her honor, and it would not be until many decades later that another woman would become mayor of Edmonds when Laura Hall was elected in 1992.
Kerr’s one-time adversary, Bob Farley, would later sell the notorious White Horse Tavern and move down to Tacoma, where he operated a popular speakeasy.
In 1936, Farley was arrested in Yakima after he shot another man following an 8-hour round of poker. Due to Farley’s lengthy rap sheet, he was convicted of 2nd-degree assault and sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence.
While it is doubtful that Farley will ever have a public space named after him, his outlaw spirit represents an exciting time in Edmonds’s history – back when rum-running boats regularly landed shipments of booze up and down our waterfront; active moonshine stills operated in what is now the town’s suburbs; and an entire circuit of illicit roadhouses operated on Highway 99.
A 25-year Edmonds resident, Brad Holden is a columnist for Seattle Magazine, is a contributing writer for HistoryLink.org (an online encyclopedia of Washington state history) and his work has also appeared in the Seattle Times. Holden has been profiled on KIRO and KOMO news, Seattle Refined, NPR, KING 5 Evening! and various publications. Holden’s trilogy of books related to local Prohibition history — including his latest book, Lost Roadhouses of Seattle — are available online and at bookstores.