A former temperance town, Evanston gave alcohol a shot 50 years ago


Illustration by Paloma Leone-Getten

Evanston shifted from a temperance town to a “wet” city just 50 years ago.

Aria Wozniak, Senior Staffer

Fifty years ago, Evanston residents couldn’t buy or sell liquor in the city.

But now, the former “dry town” has become home to a range of restaurants and liquor stores that serve a variety of alcoholic drinks. Evanston’s identity as a dry town marked its commitment to maintaining moral authority and responsibility to protect its people from the dangers of alcohol. 

Frances Willard, the inaugural Dean of the Woman’s College at Northwestern, was a founding member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. NU predates the establishment of the city of Evanston, having been founded in 1851. In 1857, Evanston was founded. Willard became a tie between Evanston and the university’s community as the WCTU — originally founded in Cleveland, Ohio — became an influential power for temperance activity.

Northwestern founders modified its charter, prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the surrounding four miles from the city through the “Four Mile Limit” law in 1855.

Lori Osborne, director of the Evanston Women’s History Project, said temperance played a crucial role in a host of reform movements — among them women’s rights — in 19th-century America.

“Temperance was one of those things that people considered part of the moral issues,” Osborne said. 

According to Osborne, alcohol bottles in the 1850s weren’t labeled, meaning consumers couldn’t discern what ingredients were included. Osborne said this made temperance a women’s and family issue when people started consuming more alcohol around the Civil War time period. Headquartered in Evanston, the WCTU greatly advocated for the abolition of alcohol in the area.

But a gradual economic downturn in the ’70s prompted the community to reconsider its laws. Since many residents wanted to bring new hotels and restaurants to Evanston, the city voted in 1972 to approve a liquor ordinance allowing the sale of alcohol. 

“There was a lot of disagreement and it was a big community discussion … it wasn’t clear which way the community was going to go,” Osborne said. “The change was made very slowly and very gradually.”

The ordinance was created to boost economic growth, but with the slow development of businesses serving alcohol, Evanston continued to see competition from surrounding areas. For instance, Osborne said Skokie’s Old Orchard shopping mall created an economic drain — a problem Evanston still faces today. 

Currently, the city has established a 10.25% combined tax rate on general merchandise, including food, and a 6% liquor consumption tax. 

Daniel Kelch, owner of Core and Rind Hospitality, said these taxes impact businesses greatly. 

“You end up paying 16.25% on every drink that you order, which is an enormous tax,” Kelch said. “It’s a problem for the industry.”

He said there is discussion amongst businesses, specifically liquor stores, on reducing taxes by creating a 1% percent food tax added to the 10.25% sales tax and 1% tax on liquor instead of the current 6% tax. He said the city would generate more money through this plan, but restaurants would end up paying more. 

Kelch said that while he doesn’t mind the idea, he is hesitant because he predicts city leaders would increase the 1% tax in the following years. He said he’d rather keep the 6% tax because he does not feel confident in the city’s indications of fiscal responsibility. 

Michael Melnick, co-owner of the newly opened restaurant Mas Salud, said he understands the amount of liquor taxation because “everyone’s gotta get paid.” 

He said he thinks the city has a fair vetting process for restaurant owners who want to acquire liquor licenses. 

“They’re very detail oriented, you had to submit tons of stuff, but it seems like the city is kind of for (restaurants serving alcohol),” Melnick said. “They’re doing due diligence with it because they want to make sure you’re opening up the right type of establishment.”

As Evanston continues to grow and consider new opportunities, such as conversations about marijuana establishments, its past as a temperance town remains an influential part of history. 

Fifty years after legalizing alcohol sales, Evanston is now discussing cannabis dispensaries and bakeries. City Council recently approved a second cannabis establishment that will support the Restorative Housing Program.

“The idea that we were a temperance town that supported abolition, women and women’s rights … these three things made Evanston and it still influences how we are today,” Osborne said.


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Twitter: @ari_wozz

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