Winnetka Spirits Part 2: Blind Pigs, Roadhouses and Change
Gazette Article by: Becky Hurley
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2012
In our last issue we explored the early history of drinking in Winnetka, from the 1869 Village Charter banning the sale of “spirituous liquors” to the spirited support for Prohibition from Winnetka organizations and residents. Long after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Winnetka chose to remain “dry,” not even allowing the sale of liquor in grocery stores until 1982—almost 50 years later.
Still, many Winnetkans found their way to a drink once in a while—even in their own village. First, Winnetkans with a cooperative physician could obtain brandy and whiskey from pharmacies, even though The Messenger (Winnetka’s newspaper) pointed out irritably in 1914 that modern physicians rarely used either as actual medicine.
Second, Winnetka had its share of low-class speakeasies, known as “blind pigs.” This colorful term comes from the 19th century when bars would skirt anti-liquor laws by charging customers to see an attraction such as an animal and then throw in a “complimentary” drink.
In a 1915 Messenger column titled “Why Blind Pigs?” the author was indignant: “We know they are there. We see old men and young men going home intoxicated from the effects of liquor purchased at these places, and we know of homes ruined and degraded because of this miserable traffic, and yet we as a community seem utterly indifferent.” The police made arrests, but through the “weakness and instability of public opinion” juries and judges dismissed case after case.
Where were Winnetka’s speakeasies? According to building management, there was once one on the lower level of 715 Elm Street (now Neapolitan) and there may well have been one in the basement of a house on Church Road.
Third, there was liquor to be found in many private homes. Winnetka’s Village ordinances, like the Volstead Act, allowed the possession of liquor in one’s private dwelling “provided,” as the 1932 Winnetka ordinance said, “such liquors were lawfully acquired, and are for the personal consumption of the owner…his family and his bona fide guests.”
<img src=”images/139t.jpg” class = “center” />
~Chicago Prohibition Agents dispose of illegal brew, 1921.~
But as the years of Prohibition went on some of those possessors began to hide their private stock behind fake walls. One example is in the beautiful house on Sheridan Road designed by Mayo and Mayo and built for the glamorous couple Henry and Louise Windsor, where there is a hidden bar adjacent to its 1931 Palm Room.
Where did the liquor come from? Some probably came into “No Man’s Land,” a notorious segment of unincorporated land between Wilmette and Kenilworth (now Plaza del Lago in Wilmette). No Man’s Land housed a speakeasy and dance hall and had easy access to the beach where the Capone gang reportedly brought in liquor by boat. No Man’s Land was so disreputable that when its Miralago Dance Hall caught on fire on March 8, 1932, the fire departments of Kenilworth and Wilmette let it burn to the ground.
Winnetkans intent on having a drink did not always stay quietly at home. One long-standing destination was of course Chicago. Before he died last year, Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. remembered that when his class graduated from NTHS he and some friends went to “some hot spot in Chicago.” It was in the late 1930s after Prohibition was repealed, but they were all under age. As Mr. Nielsen recalled, they made the mistake of having the “littlest guy” go into the place first and when he was rejected as under age, all the others were rejected too.
Once Prohibition was repealed, however, residents of Winnetka and its “dry” neighbors mostly just headed to taverns in the wet suburbs just to the west. Some of these taverns became favorites of Northwestern University students, and Rosalie Clary, a longtime Winnetka resident, recounted what she knew of the more memorable places. According to Rosalie, the lucky student who had access to a car had instant friends to accompany him on Friday and Saturday nights, when the curfew was 2:00am. The closest place to campus was the Little Club, now the Charcoal Oven, on Golf Road just past the Skokie city limits. Its most notable feature was the beer labels on the ceiling. The boys would put the wet labels on their wallets and throw them up to the ceiling, where the labels would hopefully stick.
Ma Shram’s tavern was on Grosse Point Road across from Rush North Shore Hospital. It was shut down for selling liquor to underage drinkers (the law was 18 for women and 21 for men.) By contrast, the bouncer and waitresses at The Hideout were famously vigilant. Located just off Dundee Road and Skokie Boulevard on a small street behind a junkyard, it was a favorite watering hole for NU students.
Bob Muhlke, a former racecar driver, had a tavern at the southeast corner of Grosse Point Road and Dempster Street. He was so successful that he built a more elegant restaurant and bar at the corner of Golf Road and McCormick Boulevard, where he had a dance floor and hosted live bands on the weekends. Another popular bar was the Bit and Bridle, on Harms Road just north of Dempster Street, where patrons danced amidst a décor of taxidermy.
Because sorority and fraternity houses did not serve Sunday dinner, students would frequently head out to a tavern to eat. One popular place was Hackney’s on Harms, at that time a bar with a few booths on the opposite wall. Another favorite was the Willow Inn, again, just past the village limits of dry Winnetka. It was a typical tavern with the bar in front and a small dining room behind. Northfield had a number of bars to satisfy thirsty Winnetkans, including the original Happ Inn on the northwest corner of Happ and Winnetka Road, and Seul’s Tavern in downtown Northfield, which opened in 1949 and was recently sold and renamed Stormy’s.
In 1978 the owners of two local restaurants, The Indian Trail and The Monastery, spearheaded an effort to repeal the prohibition on alcoholic sales in Winnetka. Winnetkans voted down the resulting referendum by a vote of 1258 to 1073, but change was in the wind. After Village President Gwen Trindl sent a letter to all Winnetkans calling attention to the good reasons for repeal (including the fact that residents were eating out frequently, but going elsewhere, and that the village was having trouble attracting and retaining groceries and restaurants) on March 16, 1982 by a vote of 3090 to 1194 the voters approved a referendum officially making the village “wet” for the first time in its 113-year history.