Monday, December 15, 2014

America’s “Stiffest Guzzlers”

At Christmastime in 1878, Montana’s territorial capital had been fixed at Helena, Fort Benton was the “Chicago of the Plains,” Butte was a struggling camp, and Miles City was a remote outpost serving brand-new Fort Keogh. Virginia City had lost its once substantial population and status. Captain Thomas Fuller, Collector of the U.S. Internal Revenue, reported on collections in Montana Territory. It was a report that some found disturbing and others relished.

The Central Beer Hall in Helena was one of Montana's many nineteenth-century drinking establishments.
Jorud, photographer. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives.
Revenues for the fiscal year 1877-1878 in the territory were approximately $25,000, an increase of $3,000. This increase was directly related to the consumption of beer and other spirits. Captain Fuller noted that no “vinuous or spirituous liquors” were produced in Montana. The revenue was from only liquors consumed and malt liquors produced. Twenty-one breweries were operating in Montana in 1878, a number greater than in any other territory. The New North-West of Deer Lodge observed on December 12, 1878, that Montana’s drinkers were the “stiffest beer guzzlers in America.” In addition to the breweries, Montana Territory had 600 total licensed “whisky saloons.” Further, Helena had 161 liquor licenses issued for the fiscal year, more than any other settlement in the territory. Butte came next with 60, Miles City with 54, Virginia City 44, Bozeman 39, Deer Lodge 36, Benton 35, and Missoula 29. There were 95 licenses issued to dealers along the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers compared to only 13 the previous year. Soldiers must have been among the hardiest drinkers.
The New North-West lamented that these statistics revealed Montana to be a “fearfully dissipated people” and encouraged the Good Templars (a fraternal temperance group) to work harder on the population. Territorial population in 1878 was approximately 25,000. According to these statistics, there was a drinking establishment for every 40 men, women, and children—including all the Templars!

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