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Public television documentary may help correct blemished legacy of Andrew Volstead

Andrew Volstead served as a congressman from 1903 to 1923, when he was soundly defeated after gaining notoriety for his role as author of the Volstead Act which made Prohibition the law of the land. His interests actually lay more with such issues as legislation that made possible cooperatives. (Submitted photo)

GRANITE FALLS -- For George Boman, there is no question about how Andrew Volstead should be remembered.

"They were nice people,'' said Boman of Volstead and his wife, Nellie, and daughter Laura. Boman grew up on a farm owned by Volstead, and got to know him well enough to be called to serve as his pall bearer.

Volstead was a frequent visitor to the farm outside of Granite Falls, said Boman, 87, and was always interested in all things farming. "He was fun when he came,'' said Boman.

Hardly the picture of the Volstead that America knew in the 1920s, when he became vilified as author of the Volstead Act that implemented Prohibition.

Prohibition is the subject for a three-part, 5½-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that will begin airing on public television on Sunday evening.

Pioneer Public Television in Appleton produced its own look at Prohibition in this region -- and Volstead's legacy. "Volstead Fever'' will air at 6:30 p.m. Sunday as a prelude to the Burns' production.

Boman was part of an audience which gathered Wednesday at Bootlegger's Supper Club in Granite Falls to view the premiere of the Pioneer Television production and portions of the PBS documentary.

Boman's memory of Volstead is much closer to reality than the legacy that became Volstead's, and cost him his seat in Congress in 1923 and put him on the cover of Time magazine three years later.

"I realized how unfair that was,'' said Brandon Wente, producer of "Volstead Fever.''

Wente, speaking at the premiere, said that he realized that Volstead's own interests are better seen in his role as author of the Capper-Volstead Act. It made possible cooperatives.

It is hard to overstate the importance of cooperatives to Minnesota and our economy still today, according to Lee Egerstrom. He is the author of 16 books on cooperatives, a longtime agricultural journalist in Minnesota and today an economic development fellow at the Minnesota 2020 think tank.

Egerstrom, a Kerkhoven native, said there are currently 1,026 formally organized cooperatives in the state. Cooperatives play major roles in many areas of our economy. Cooperative credit unions and mutual insurance companies are among the many examples he offered, along with a lament: Few people ever learn about the Capper-Volstead Act or its lasting importance. "That is not understood,'' said Egerstrom.

By no means is Volstead understood, either. Mary Gillispie, a member of the Granite Falls Historical Society, said Volstead was not a teetotaler, and wasn't overly concerned when others drank.

The Republican congressman from Granite Falls was serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He was essentially drafted in his role as chairman to author the act.

It was Wayne Wheeler, leader of the temperance movement in the country, who succeeded in marshalling a political force of both conservatives and progressives to enact Prohibition. He was uncompromising in how the nation should deal with alcohol.

As the Ken Burns' documentary will emphasize, alcohol consumption was endemic in American society prior to Prohibition and the concerns of many temperance leaders were well-founded.

The documentary also notes the dangers of a uncompromising approach in politics and civil discourse, according to Les Heen, general manager of Pioneer Public TV.

"In their extremism, they eliminated all moderate support,'' historian Catherine Gilbert Murdoch is quoted in the documentary. "That's a really important political lesson that applies to a lot of different movements. You've got to bend a little if you're going to stay, to keep what you've got, or it is all going to come crashing down on you.''

Congressman Volstead was soundly defeated in his bid for re-election after Prohibition became the law of the land, but life did not come crashing down on him. Boman said he recalls how Volstead returned to a successful law practice, and until his death in 1947 at age 87, remained well-liked and respected by all those who knew him.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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