Sunday, October 1, 2023

New History Museum Exhibit Examines Hampton’s Role In Prohibition

HAMPTON—On November 1, 1916, just four months before the U.S. Senate voted to join the efforts overseas in World War I, Virginia breweries and distilleries closed their doors as the state began an experiment in Prohibition. From that date until 1933, state inspectors and federal agents attempted to stem the flow of illicit alcohol to the public.

According to the Hampton History Museum, Hampton’s relationship mirrors Virginia’s as a whole, but Hampton’s prohibition story is also uniquely distinct in many unexpected ways. Its newest exhibit, “Teetotalers and Moonshiners, and Hampton’s Prohibition Story,” will tell some of those tales.

The exhibit combines content from the Library of Virginia’s 2017 exhibit, “Teetotalers and Moonshiners: Virginia’s Prohibition Experiment,” with research and artifacts from the Hampton History Museum.

“The Library of Virginia’s exhibit did more of an overview of the state and Virginia’s role in Prohibition enforcement,” said Luci Cochran, executive director of the Hampton History Museum. “We thought it would be a great way to tell our story, because Hampton certainly reflects some of the state’s history, but is really distinct in a variety of ways and has some unusual stories.”

For example, Cochran pointed out that Phoebus used to be called “Little Chicago” because of its ties to bootlegging and organized crime during Prohibition. Reportedly, “Baby Face” Nelson, America’s public enemy Number One after John Dillinger was killed, was reportedly hiding out in Phoebus at one point during the Prohibition era.

But according to Cochran, the exhibit is not as deep, dark, and depressing as history can sometimes be.

“We dive into the history of alcohol, basically up until Prohibition, and then what happened during Prohibition,” said Cochran. “For example, in Colonial America, people drank a lot of alcohol. It was at a time when the purity of the water was a little questionable and not always trusted, so alcohol was regularly consumed at meals and in social settings.”

Prohibition also affected a number of different industries including the farmers who grew the grains for distilling as well as the local saloons. The new exhibit dives into personal stories of those involved, including the rise of speakeasies to meet the demand of those who wanted a drink when drinking was forbidden.

One of the few legal ways to buy alcohol was by prescription for “medical use,” providing lucrative additional income for physicians and pharmacists. Farmers who could no longer sell their excess corn, wheat, and potatoes to distillers turned to producing moonshine.

“I think it was Will Geer who said something about restricting drinking with prohibition, and that everyone was drinking as a result,” said Cochran. “I’m paraphrasing, but he said we should restrict education instead, because then we’d be the smartest country in the world.”

The exhibit, which opens to museum members on Friday, February 3 from 5:30pm to 7pm and to the general public on Saturday, February 4, runs through February 4, 2024. The Hampton History Museum is located at 120 Old Hampton Ln. in Hampton.

Admission to the museum is $5 for adults; $4 for children ages 4–12; free for children under 4; $3 per person for groups of ten or more; and $4 for seniors, active military, and active NASA. For membership/donation information, click here.

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