Saturday, November 11, 2017

No bars allowed: when Ambridge was dry--or at least supposed to be

"What was the most surprising thing you've learned about Ambridge from your research?" Lois Himes, a librarian at Laughlin Memorial Library, who died on October 17, asked me earlier this year.

I had to think about Lois' question for a while, but then the answer came to me with absolute certainty, and no other fact about Ambridge I've discovered so far even comes close: the most surprising thing I've learned about Ambridge was that it was once dry. Dry as in alcoholic beverages could not be sold legally. And I'm not talking about just during the Prohibition years; I'm talking about the first 50 years of Ambridge's existence.

At least it was supposed to be dry for 50 years.

Yes, Ambridge, where long-time residents still boast about the number of bars the borough had back in the day when the mills employed thousands of hardworking, thirsty workers. I've heard the claim there were once 200 or so bars where millworkers could stop for a shot and a beer on their way home, no matter what shift they worked. Or maybe on their way to work, although the mills frowned on that.

"Steelworkers in corner beer parlor. Ambridge, Pennsylvania"
John Vachon
January 1941
Library of Congress

Yes, Ambridge, which people proudly claim once held the Guinness World Record for being the town with the largest combined total of bars and churches per capita. (But although I wouldn't be surprised to find that Ambridge indeed once may have had bragging rights to such a record, I've searched the Guinness database and could find no entry for Ambridge or "bars and churches." Nor have I been able to find evidence of any similar kind of official record elsewhere.)

In addition to all the bars, there were dozens of ethnic social clubs that supported themselves with their liquor and beer sales, made all the more lucrative because they were open on Sundays when the bars couldn't open.

"Bar at Catholic Sokol Club. Ambridge, Pennsylvania"
John Vachon
January 1941
Library of Congress

To be clear, not all of the area within the current boundaries of Ambridge Borough was dry, only the original Ambridge, located on land once owned by the American Bridge Co. and later sold through the company's real estate arm, the Ambridge Land Co. That property, which became the borough's First and Second Wards, extended from Big Sewickley Creek on the south to the current 8th St. (then called Bryden Rd.) on the north, and from Park Rd. on the west to Merchant St. and Duss Ave. on the east. I'll refer to it as the "dry area."

I think I first came across the startling information about the dry area in 2014, when I found a news clipping of a car in front of Ambridge's old Davis Hotel, in one of Bill Bowan's albums in Ambridge's Laughlin Memorial Library's archives. The clipping was one of the "Looking Back" photos the Beaver County Times once did from time to time.*

Group showing off car, George S. Capp at far right
at Davis Hotel, 1913
300 Merchant St.
Beaver County Times
July 9, 1984
courtesy Laughlin Memorial Library archives

I'm sure the focus of the original photo was the car--not common in 1913 Ambridge--and the group of men posing with it. But information about the photo, probably provided by Bowan since he was the one who had submitted the photo for publication, included this:
The hotel was almost on the boundary line of Harmony Township on Beaver Road. On the east side of Beaver Road was the township, where liquor sales were permitted.
The location of the hotel was controversial because Ambridge prohibited liquor sales before World War I...But its proximity to the Harmony Township boundary allowed liquor sale in the Beaver Road and Third Street area.
Well, that was a startling bit of Ambridge history. I've been looking for more information about Ambridge's dry area ever since. What I've found since 2014 has gaps, leaving important questions unanswered--including the big one, "Given the legal restriction against the sale of liquor, how did the southern end of Ambridge end up with so many bars long before 50 years had passed?!"

I am continuing my search, but here's what I know so far:

I've mentioned my research about "dry Ambridge" to a few people who have an interest in Ambridge history, and none knew about the restriction on liquor sales. And they'd immediately jump to the conclusion that the Harmony Society, once the owner of the land, was responsible for the alcohol prohibition. But while the Harmony Society's members may have practiced celibacy, they were not adverse to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The Harmonists were famous for their winemaking skills. In addition, they owned a brewery and a distillery.

Although I haven't seen the legal document that created the dry area, it's pretty clear from newspaper articles that the liquor restriction was at the behest of the American Bridge Co. American Bridge's interest in keeping bars out of Ambridge was obvious: they didn't want their workers coming to work under the influence or lose workers to alcoholism. Newspaper articles show that over many years dating back at least to 1904, American Bridge made a practice of challenging liquor licence applications in the Ambridge area, even applications coming from areas where liquor sales were legal, such as Ambridge properties to the north of 8th St. or in Harmony Township.

As far as I can determine, the dry area's liquor restrictions were put in place in 1903, so before Ambridge was incorporated in 1905.

The Pittsburgh Press, writing about a court case involving the liquor licenses of Ambridge bars in 1938, said that "The American [Ambridge?] Land Co., in turning over that section to the borough in 1903, specified in the grant that no liquor be sold there for 50 years." (Pittsburgh Press, April 30, 1938)

But that legal restriction didn't keep astute entrepreneurs from seeing and seizing the opportunity presented by Ambridge's dry area. Hence, the location of the Davis Hotel, which wasn't in dry Ambridge, but conveniently across Merchant St. from it. And that hotel wasn't the only such business.

In 1904, American Bridge Co. made "strenuous opposition" to granting liquor licenses to five Harmony Township businesses: two for retail licenses, two for wholesale licenses, and one for a brewery. "The deeds of all lots sold in Ambridge contain a clause prohibiting the sale of liquor on the property for 50 years, but several persons have applied for licenses just on the border of the town, where there are no restrictions regarding liquor." (Pittsburgh Press, March 29, 1904)

Yes, in real estate, it's location, location, location!

Ambridge Hotel
Eighth and Merchant Sts., northwest corner
circa 1905
courtesy Ambridge Borough

Location also may explain the seemingly odd site chosen for the Ambridge Hotel when it was built in 1905. It wasn't built in rapidly developing, but dry, Ambridge, which would have placed it nearer the train station, and would have been conveniently located for the growing number of potential guests. And the new hotel didn't join the other businesses clustered in the area that once was the Harmony Society's village of Economy, from 12th Street and north. But rather the Ambridge Hotel was built on the northwest corner of Merchant St. and Bryden Rd (now 8th St.), just a stroll across the street from dry Ambridge, making the hotel the first--and for years the only--Merchant St. business from that northern corner of Bryden Rd. to 12th St.

While liquor sales were always legal in the parts of Ambridge other than the dry area--except, of course, during the Prohibition era (1920 -33)--when were liquor licenses first issued in the dry area? I don't know the answer to that.

I do know that by 1938, there were 30 - 38 businesses in the dry area asking for renewal of their liquor licenses, which means their liquor licenses must have been issued before 1938.

The issue of liquor licenses in the dry area was hotly debated in early 1938. At the time, the "liquor trade" in the dry area reportedly employed 300 people with a payroll of $4,000. The claim was made that the only way to permanently settle the question of legality of liquor licenses in the dry area was by securing a release from every property owner there. (Daily Citizen, February 13, 1938)

And what role did the Borough of Ambridge play when liquor licenses were issued in the dry area before 1938? Again, I don't know. But I do know that in 1938, the Borough was adamantly on the side of the dry area businesses asking for their licenses to be renewed.

From the April 15, 1938, Daily Citizen:
Ambridge borough council will back liquor dealers of the first and second wards to have their licenses renewed despite restrictive property deeds, it indicated last night by voting a resolution against license refusal in the area.
The council said refusing to renew the licenses would "cripple businesses, lower property values and decrease borough revenue from licenses and taxes."

The Liquor Control Board wasn't swayed by the argument about the economic impact of closing bars in the dry area. The LCB refused to renew the liquor licenses of 36 bars in the dry area "after it was discovered" that the 1903 land grant "had specified no liquor be sold there for 50 years." I would have thought the LCB would have "discovered" the deed restriction before 1938, because American Bridge would have told the LCB about it before the licenses were issued, but I need to find information to confirm that.

However, the LCB's decision was quickly reversed in court based on a similar case in Philadelphia that had been decided in favor of the liquor licensees. Plus, the judge reasoned, "the denial of licenses to reputable merchants in the restricted area would allow bootleggers to invade the territory." (Pittsburgh Press, May 1, 1938)

But even after that court decision, American Bridge continued to object to liquor licenses. As late as November 1948, the "restriction against taprooms...under a 1903 property deed" was cited as one of the reasons local clergy and the ever-determined American Bridge Co. opposed the transfer of a liquor license from 348 Maplewood Ave. (also in the formerly dry area) to 398 Park Rd., across Park Rd. from the company's large office. (Daily Citizen, November 19, 1948)

I'll continue to look for information to fill in the current gaps in the history of liquor licenses in the dry area, and I will update this article if I find anything important. If anyone can supply any of missing information about the dry area, please let me know.

* In 1920, the Davis Hotel was sold to Divine Redeemer Church, which used it for its grade school until 1961. I wonder if the hotel was sold because Prohibition made running it a lot less profitable than it had been when could sell liquor. The building is now used by Karnavas Vending Co.