In Search of Lost Spirits: Prohibition in Rochester, Pt. I


Ninety-Seven years ago this month, Rochesterians were experiencing the nascent stages of that “noble experiment,” Prohibition.

The 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol in the United States, went into effect on January 17th, 1920. News of the impending law did not prompt a spate of binge drinking in Rochester in the weeks before its enactment, nor did the city witness a steep decline in alcohol consumption following its implementation.

Rochesterians for the most part, did not give up alcohol in the face of Prohibition, they just found more creative (if illegal) ways to obtain it.

Some industrious citizens took it upon themselves to shore up their own sources of alcohol, cooking up home brews and (sometimes dubious) liquors in the bathrooms, attics and basements of their private residences.


An underground whiskey still at 15 Saunders Street


Others established larger scale brewing and distilling operations, turning handsome profits in the process.

William Rund, whose family later founded the Rund restaurant chain, ran one of several breweries that existed in the area. Rund’s operation produced 400 gallons of beer a week. He was able to gross 80,000 dollars a month, in part by buying the silence of Prohibition agents at a weekly rate of 2,000 dollars.

In addition to spawning a pirate industry of alcohol manufacturers in Rochester, Prohibition also witnessed the development of a league of alcohol smugglers. Rochester’s lake access and proximity to Canada, where alcohol still flowed freely, turned the city into a major bootlegging hub.

Both imported alcohol products and domestic beverages found their way to a host of makeshift taverns across the city.

Many of these locales were the same places where Rochesterians had enjoyed alcoholic beverages prior to Prohibition. Some reinvented themselves (on the surface at least) as soft drink emporiums in the wake of the 18th Amendment, while others maintained their saloon status–at least from a titular standpoint–for a number of years.

Fifty-Five businesses were still listed as “Saloons (Soft Drinks)” in the Rochester City Directory in 1924. It wouldn’t be until the following year that the word “Saloon” was dropped entirely from the publication’s pages.


1922  City Directory listing


1924 Directory listing




While former saloons and restaurants formed the bulk of Rochester’s alcohol dispensaries, speakeasies also sprung up in a range of commercial and residential properties throughout the city. Apartments, houses and garages served as makeshift barrooms as did hotels, social clubs, barber shops, cigar stores and groceries.

One 1931 raid uncovered half a barrel of beer in a Monroe Avenue establishment fronting as a bookstore.

The spring of that year proved to be one of the wettest seasons of Rochester’s “dry” years. In the month of March alone, Prohibition agents raided 24 speakeasies, dismantled 4 breweries and dumped 120 barrels of beer (the equivalent of almost 30,000 pints!) into Rochester’s sewers.


Rochester Property Clerk Joseph Sheridan pours confiscated liquor down a sewer, 1921.

Many speakeasy proprietors found the minimal fines and temporary closures they endured after raids to be negligible compared to the money they were raking in selling illicit hooch. And often enough such potent potable peddlers were able to curry favour with local law enforcement agents for a fee. Some police officers were in fact patrons of the very illegal institutions they were charged with eliminating.

In June 1932, four deputy sheriffs were suspended when they were discovered drinking in an East Main Street speakeasy at 10 in the morning, uniforms in tow. Sheriff William C. Stallknecht indicated that he had warned the deputies to “keep out of such places except in performance of duty.”

But much to Sheriff Stallknecht’s dismay, “such places” were ubiquitous in Rochester—one Exchange Street speakeasy was but a stone’s throw from the RPD’s  headquarters—and the numbers of federal men charged with their elimination, were few.

When the Eighteenth Amendment was finally repealed on December 12th, 1933, the event was met with little fanfare in Rochester, undoubtedly in part because most residents hadn’t had to forego Prohibition’s forbidden fruits entirely, if at all.

As one speakeasy owner later recalled, “I don’t think it was such a celebration. Hell, the saloons in Rochester were wide open anyway!”


-Emily Morry





Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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