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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Who are the Wets?

by Winthrop D. Lane

Who are the wets in Grand Rapids? It may seem surprising that there has not been more testimony adverse to prohibition, more denial of its alleged benefits. Those who speak favorably of prohibition in Grand Rapids and by favorably I mean admit that its effect has been on the whole good are not merely a majority, they are substantially the citizenry of the town. For this I, frankly, was not prepared. I expected to find an issue sharply dividing the community, not perhaps into equal parts, but at any rate a large and active minority.

I found, instead, a close approach to unanimity. There are, of course, those who are making and selling whiskey for gain; they are anti-prohibitionists. (It will not do to set down all those who make beer and wine in the home as opposed to prohibition, for many of them believe in it; their refusal to accept its application to themselves is no more difficult to explain than the occasional speeding of an automobile owner who is not opposed to regulations concerning speed.) Then there are the habitual and heavy drinkers, who cannot leave alcoholic beverages alone so long as they are obtainable. There are still a few people in Grand Rapids, bar-tenders and former saloon owners for the most part, who used to earn their livings in the liquor business and are still wet. If to these we add the people, very few, who still believe that prohibition is an unconstitutional interference with their liberties, we have enumerated about all the real opponents of prohibition.

There are, of course, some who believe that no harm would come from legalizing the sale of beer and light wines, but I found few who entertained this feeling ardently, and these few had no good words for the saloon. Here, then, are the wets. There remains the overwhelming mass of the population. I found a strong conviction throughout the city that a politician who would go before the people of Grand Rapids today on the drink question and attempt to bring the saloon back would get one of the worst beatings in the history of municipal politics in this country. So much for the city's point of view. The actual benefits of prohibition, in so far as they can now be seen, have been told in the testimony of those who have watched it and in the figures of social growth and change.

Excerpted from The Survey, November 6, 1920

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