The Drive for Prohibition

"Arise At Once": The Drive for Prohibition in San Antonio During the First World War

by Dr. James B. Seymour, Jr.
Cy-Fair College

The Texas Constitution, written in 1876, outlines the manner to eradicate beer, wine and liquor in the Lone Star State. Rather than allowing state-wide prohibition, it specifically gives counties, towns and cities exclusive power to decide whether or not to ban alcoholic beverages, in what is known as the county-option or local option method. Employing this definition, prohibition swept through north and central Texas from 1893-1908. Many rural communities went dry, usually overcoming significant opposition to prohibition centered in the more urban county seats. By 1908, Texas contained 152 dry counties, 66 partially dry counties, and 25 completely wet counties, including Bexar County. By 1910, the Texas prohibition movement had reached the limits of the county-option plan, as the number of wet and dry counties remained fairly constant year after year. Prohibitionists attempted to enact state prohibition by amending the Texas Constitution, but the proposal went down to defeat in the 1911 referendum. Existing medical and moral arguments against alcohol, which were employed in the pre-World War I struggles, proved incapable of dislodging demon rum from all of Texas, especially urban areas.

The rhetoric of American prohibitionists shifted following the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914. Drys manipulated wartime propaganda into their calls to eradicate alcohol, such as questioning the loyalty of German-Americans and arguing that only total prohibition would relieve critical food shortages. Wayne Wheeler of the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, for instance, considered brewers and distillers the “enemy in the home camp,” vowing that “no quarter should be given” to them in the fight for prohibition. Deets Pickett, another national dry leader, contended, “If it is fanaticism to feel an intense and burning hatred of the license system which hinders the soldierly efficiency of our men at a time when the nation is in danger, then we [prohibitionists] are fanatical...” In Texas, the dry movement increasingly capitalized on military concerns to persuade citizens to adopt prohibition. Especially after the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, anti-alcohol forces argued that only completely banning beer, wine and spirits would keep American military personnel pure in the fight to save democracy.

During the military build-up during the Great War, Texas received more cantonments, or training camps, and other military installations than any other state. Federal leaders cautioned Texans to maintain a pure—meaning alcohol, sex and gambling free—environment for men and women in the armed forces, or risk losing military facilities to more compliant states. Texas prohibitionists predicted dire economic and social consequences if the state broke this sacred trust and allowed drunken debauchery to run rampant. While a combination of patriotic and economic incentives convinced certain Texas counties, such as McLennan and Dallas Counties, to ban alcohol, alcohol interests proved too entrenched in other areas, especially Bexar County, for the local option to work. To eradicate alcohol from the remaining districts, Texas prohibitionists eventually relied on state and federal measures.

As part of the mobilization effort that took place in the spring of 1917, the Army built sixteen cantonments around the nation to train newly inducted men for war, with four of these bases built in Texas. In addition, the Military Draft Act, which selected men for service, prohibited the sale of alcohol to uniformed service personnel, to maintain their fighting capabilities. Secretary of War Newton Baker emphasized that cities that received military installations had special obligations to service members. Baker outlined his concerns in a public letter addressed to state governors. He contended, “...[We] are bound as a military necessity to do everything in our power to promote the health and conserve the vitality of the men in the training camps,” continuing that “We cannot allow these young men... to be surrounded by a vicious and demoralizing environment...” He announced, “I am determined that these camps, as well as the surrounding zones within an effective radius, shall not be places of temptation and peril.” Baker then threatened, “If the desired end cannot otherwise be achieved, I propose to move the camps from those neighborhoods in which clean conditions cannot be secured.” His uncompromising stance provided a significant economic motive, as well as explicitly patriotic reasons, for counties such as Bexar to enact prohibition.

San Antonio, home to seven breweries and over 270 saloons, presented a special problem for the Department of War. After Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, the city experienced a massive influx of troops, as it served as a staging ground for the southern military district in the Punitive Expedition. During the mobilization from 1916-1917, the War Department established a new tent city, called Camp Wilson, for national guardsmen in San Antonio, while Fort Sam Houston, a regular military base, developed into the largest military post in the United States. As the number of military personnel increased in the Alamo City, the vice situation deteriorated. The War Department heard increasingly lurid accounts of saloon-keepers, prostitutes, and gamblers flocking to the region to prey on service personnel. Military officials and federal administrators worried the vice situation, including rampant drunkenness, undermined the fighting capabilities of the American armed forces.

The Department of War realized it needed concrete information, instead of rumor, to evaluate the situation in San Antonio. To that end, in late 1916, Secretary of War Baker sent Raymond Fosdick, who would head the Committee on Training Camp Activities during the First World War, to investigate alcohol and vice conditions and report his findings. Fosdick found widespread incidents of debauchery and vice, which hindered troop strength. After receiving his report, Baker warned San Antonio to clean up its red light district or face the possible removal of its military bases. After receiving his ultimatum, the city reacted swiftly, shuttering brothels, saloons, and gambling dens in its segregated, or red light, district to comply with his edict. When the United States withdrew its forces from Mexico, the army closed the temporary base at Camp Wilson and reassigned many of the other men to different locations. Consequently, San Antonio allowed the vice trade to reassert itself.

After the American declaration of war in 1917, San Antonio lobbied for and received one of the sixteen military cantonments established in the United States. Named Camp Travis for the defender of the Alamo, the government purchased land from San Antonio banker George Brackenridge and ordered its completion by September 1, 1917. Residents of the Alamo City prided themselves on receiving the cantonment and understood its importance. As the San Antonio Express explained, “San Antonio is pre-eminently the ideal military training center of America. The stamp of Government approval has been set upon it, the preference for San Antonio as a military training center has time and again been affirmed by military authorities.” The encampment also brought responsibilities for the moral purity of the troops. As liquor dealers and saloon keepers opened their doors to service personnel, the local alcohol and vice situation worsened, and military authorities protested lackadaisical enforcement of existing laws. Further, they called for a local option election to remove demon rum from the area.

Speaking before an interdenominational Protestant assembly of fifty San Antonio area ministers, Major General John W. Ruckman, commander of the Southern Department of the Army, made clear his views about alcohol. Ruckman contended, “The liquor question must be solved first and the other vices [gambling and prostitution] will soon be taken care of, for liquor is the worst.” Thunderous applause met his advice to “...arise at once and make a tremendous drive on the saloon.” Before an audience at First Baptist Church, San Antonio, Ruckman later noted, “The liquor trouble is at the heart of San Antonio's vice troubles, and that's the place to strike.” He argued, “Anyone who places temptation in the way of a soldier or is engaged in commercial vice gives aid and comfort to the enemy and is a traitor to his country.” Ruckman demanded complete prohibition of alcohol as the only effective means to eliminate prostitution and gambling and ensure a moral atmosphere for training young men in the military. General Ruckman appealed to the patriotism of the citizenry in his message.

Secretary Baker also voiced concerns to local civic leaders about the alcohol and vice situation. Baker declared, the federal government placed the military personnel,

"…into the hands of San Antonio citizens as a trust. That trust the Government expects San Antonio to live up to in every particular, by creating for those soldiers such conditions of cleanliness and wholesomeness that will make it possible for the Government to send still larger bodies of men to the city instead of transferring them elsewhere."

He then threatened San Antonio with removing the troops, banning soldiers from entering the city, or declaring martial law, if conditions remained poor. Secretary Baker added an economic element to Ruckman’s patriotic motivations. The city would lose a profitable federal enterprise if it allowed vice, especially alcohol, to flourish.

Major Bascom Johnson, personal spokesman for Secretary Baker in Texas, headed the law enforcement branch of the Commission on Training Camp Facilities. Johnson repeated Baker’s economic admonitions to remedy the vice situation and charged the citizens of San Antonio with dereliction of duty in enforcing current vice laws. He contended previous promises to clean up the city had gone unfulfilled and urged local citizens to do their patriotic duty and rise up to pressure municipal politicians and law enforcement officials to fight the twin menace of alcohol and prostitution. Johnson reiterated threats to close the bases if conditions failed to improve quickly, again holding out the specter of an economic disaster if the city failed to act. Baker and Johnson gave San Antonio an ultimatum: choose the degenerate liquor industry or the patriotic military camps. The city would have to abandon one of them.

Major General John Ruckman assembled the commanders from all the military bases in his district to discuss the vice situation. In a joint statement, the commanders called for strict enforcement of existing dry laws, denounced vice in general, and alluded to dire penalties if the city failed to comply with their wishes. They concluded, “We hope the citizens and officials of San Antonio will take such action[s] as will make unnecessary any drastic action by the War Department relating to the concentration of troops here.” The message came through loud and clear; alcohol and military camps were incapable of co-existing.

Floyd McGown, a successful businessman, understood the combination of profitability and patriotism in the government’s ultimatum. In an advertisement in the San Antonio Express, McGown called for strong measures by civic and business leaders to eradicate vice. He observed, "These laws [about vice] ... will clean up and keep clean the City of San Antonio. Will the people demand it? Or shall we let the Government shame us because we lack the courage of our convictions as patriotic citizens? In that event the business man will lose the most. What will you do, Mr. Business Man?" McGown called on the business community to pressure politicians, many of whom were beholden to the liquor industry, to place patriotism and general economic concerns above this special interest by passing a county prohibition law. McGown’s conclusions converted some wavering wets into the dry ranks.

After meeting with Secretary Baker in Washington, D.C., Sheriff John Tobin expressed views common to newly converted prohibitionists. Tobin assured Baker that vice would be strongly fought and reiterated the need for prohibition during the war to his fellow citizens. "For more than one hundred years," Tobin declared, "San Antonio has been wide open. ...Then came the soldiers. Seeing the opportunity for great business and high prices, the merchants quickly changed from the wide-open idea to the closed-town idea, although many wouldn't want this idea worked out in normal times." Tobin realized the economic benefits of the military camps far outweighed the profits of the saloons, and strove to convince others to agitate for reform.

Despite public awareness of the situation and repeated efforts to hold a local option election, the wets, especially the Retail Liquor Dealers' Association, proved too powerful in municipal politics. San Antonio never called a local option election during this period. Instead, the wets made a series of incremental changes to existing conditions designed to preclude abolishing alcohol. At the behest of the Retail Liquor Dealers Association, for example, city commissioners offered a $25 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of bootleggers who sold alcohol to military personnel. The Association then convinced city commissioners to prohibit the sale of liquor, except as individual drinks in saloons. Mayor Sam Bell even led a delegation of liquor dealers to Austin to verify the legality of the law, and Acting Comptroller L.W. Tuttle ruled the city could restrict the sale of alcohol to single drinks. Through such measures, San Antonio wets forestalled local prohibition, relying instead on the enforcement of existing measures. The anti-prohibitionists strove to keep alcohol legal while maintaining the military presence. By deftly working the middle ground, they hoped to forge a compromise between absolute prohibition and full legality for alcohol. They would fail in the attempt.

Resistance to county prohibition in San Antonio played a large role in convincing the state legislature to enact a white zone law, which banned alcohol, gambling, and prostitution around training camps for American service personnel. Governor Will Hobby claimed, “The call is made upon our State by the chief officer charged with the responsibility of raising this army to adopt [a white zone law] ... [to] remov[e] from camp environment liquor and all influences which interfere with the training activities of the army.” Reflecting on the situation in San Antonio, he argued “ act providing for a ten-mile zone will put prohibition into effect in most of that portion of Texas where it has not been adopted by the people of the localities... [but it] is of no importance compared to that of providing the soldiers at these camps with surroundings ... conducive to a more potent and more efficient army.” If the localities refused to act, the state would impose prohibition on them and demonstrate its patriotism, as well as economic good sense.

Secretary Baker encouraged this notion in Texas. Writing to the governor, Baker attacked, “...these cities and towns [with] a small but very active minority who have been dead to all patriotic appeals and who have evaded all laws and regulations prohibiting the sale of liquor to soldiers.” Although Baker commented “... the San Antonio ordinance prohibiting the sale of liquor to be consumed off the premises...,” he still charged “the number of arrests for drunkenness of soldiers continues too high.” For Baker, the “only effective measure to control this liquor traffic is the establishment of zones of considerable size around military camps where no liquor is allowed....” With such assertions ringing in their ears, the Texas legislature responded by passing a ten mile, white zone law that went into effect on March 15, 1918 and finally eradicated brewed, fermented, and distilled beverages from Bexar County. Subsequently, W.P. Lobban, a San Antonio dry, noted the “...breweries have already begun to turn into creameries right in our own midst...”

Ultimately, only the state of Texas could bring prohibition to San Antonio. The economic and patriotic arguments that worked so well in locations such as Dallas and McLennan Counties failed in the Alamo City. The alcohol forces proved too entrenched in the economic and political life of the city to uproot, even during a national emergency. Thus, the prohibitionists could succeed in manipulating the economic and patriotic arguments to impose their measure on recalcitrant locations such as San Antonio only though state legislative action.


“The Constitution of the State of Texas,” 1996-1997 Texas Almanac (Dallas, TX: The Dallas Morning News, 1995), 438. The specific rules for prohibition, including amendments, are contained in Article XVI, section 20, paragraphs a-c.

Glynn Austin Brooks, “A Political Survey of the Prohibition Movement in Texas,” (Master’s thesis: University of Texas at Austin, 1920), 26.

Ernest Hurst Cherrington, ed. The Anti-Saloon League Year Book 1915: An Encyclopedia of Facts and Figures Dealing with the Liquor Traffic and the Temperance Reform. (Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1915), 2635.

Brooks, 27. These figures include unorganized dry counties attached to existing counties.

Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1973. Reprint. Austin, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 1992), 54-5, 56.

D. Leigh Colvin, Prohibition in the United States: A History of the Prohibition Party and of the Prohibition Movement, (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926), 422; Andrew Sinclair Prohibition the Era of Excess, with a Preface by Richard Hofstadter, (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1962), 119; James H. Timberlake, Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 164.

Justin Steuart, Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss: An Uncensored Biography of Wayne B. Wheeler, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, Co, 1928; reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970); 120 (page references are to reprint edition). Wheeler led the national Anti-Saloon League in the 1920s.

Deets Pickett, The Wooden Horse: Or America Menaced by a Prussianized Trade, (New York: The Abindgon Press, 1918), 21.

Gould, 224.

Dallas Morning News, September 11, 1917; Waco Times-Herald, October 21, 1917.

Fort Sam Houston Museum, Camp Travis: The National Army Cantonment at Fort Sam Houston, 75th Anniversary, 1917-1992, (N.p. [San Antonio?], by the author, n.d. [1992?]), 19-21.

Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 25-29; John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: the Draft Comes to Modern America (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 167. On May 20, 1917, Brigadier General George Bell, Jr. ordered all military personnel to wear their uniforms at all times and for all occasions. The El Paso Herald for May 21, 1917 contains his pronouncement.

Raymond B. Fosdick and Edward Frank Allen, Keeping Our Fighters Fit For War And After, with a special statement by Woodrow Wilson, N.p.: The Century Company for the Commission on Training Camp Activities, 1918), 193-194; El Paso Herald, May 28, 1917.

Fosdick and Allen, 193-194; El Paso Herald, May 28, 1917.

Fosdick and Allen, 193-194; El Paso Herald, May 28, 1917.

Raymond B. Fosdick, “The Program of the Commission on Training Camp Activities With Relation to the Problem of Venereal Disease,” Social Hygiene 4 (Jan., 1918), 75.

Jules A Appler’s General Directory and Householder Directory of Greater San Antonio, 1917. (San Antonio: Jules A. Appler, 1917).

"Zones of Safety: Texas Cantonment Cities Made Safe For Health and Decency,” The Survey: 38 (July 21, 1917), 349.

Prepared by the Fort Sam Houston Museum, Camp Travis: The National Army Cantonment at Fort Sam Houston, 75th Anniversary, 1917-1992, (N.p. [San Antonio?], n.d. [1992?]), 1-2.

"Zones of Safety,” 349.

Daniel R. Beaver, Newton D. Baker and the American War Effort, 1917-1919, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 220; Raymond B. Fosdick, Chronicle of a Generation: An Autobiography. (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1958), 135-136.

Fosdick, 136-137.

"Zones of Safety,” 349.

"Zones of Safety,” 349.

Camp Travis, 20.

Camp Travis, 19. The facility opened on September 4, 1917 and immediately began receiving troops. San Antonio Express, September 4, 1917.

E.B. Johns, Camp Travis and Its Part in the World War, (New York: by the author, 1919), 13.

San Antonio Express, September 9, 1917. San Antonio met all three criteria for cantonments: good climate, plenty of free land, and access to railroads. Camp Travis, 20.

San Antonio Express, January 3, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 3, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 14, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 14, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 11, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 11, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 5, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 5, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 5, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 5, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 5, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 6, 1918.

For example, the San Antonio Manufacturers' Association denounced alcohol, prostitution, and gambling, opining " was a duty of the better element of San Antonio [that it] owed to the country at large to see that the trust placed in the city by the Government is not abused..." San Antonio Express, January 9, 1918

San Antonio Express, January 20, 1918.

The San Antonio Express never reported a local option election held in the city in this period

San Antonio Express, September 25, 1917.

San Antonio Express, January 13, 1918.

San Antonio Express, January 28, 1918; January 30, 1918.

Gould, 232.

Journal of the House of Representatives for the Fourth Called Session of the Thirty-Fifth Legislature, Convened in Obedience to the Proclamation of the Governor February 26, 1918, and Adjourned Without Day March 27, 1918, (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones Company, 1918), 2.

Journal of the House [Thirty-Fifth], 3.

Journal of the House [Thirty-Fifth], 7.

Letter, Newton D. Baker to Will P. Hobby, February 19, 1918; reprinted in Journal of the House [Thirty-Fifth], 54.

Baker to Hobby, February 19, 1918, in Journal of the House [Thirty-Fifth], 54.

Baker to Hobby, February 19, 1918, in Journal of the House [Thirty-Fifth], 54.

Dallas Morning News, February 27, 1918; March 1, 1918; March 2, 1918; March 3, 1918; Gould, 233; Brooks, 137-138. Beaumont, Brownsville, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, El Paso, Fort Worth, Galveston, Houston, Laredo, Orange, San Antonio, and Wichita Falls, Texas towns that contained military facilities and were traditionally wet, went dry. Dallas Morning News, March 12, 1918.

San Antonio Express, February 2, 1919. Clipping, contained in Morris Sheppard Papers, Barker Center for American History, the University of Texas, Austin.