It was 85 years ago this week that the era of Prohibition, referred to by President Herbert Hoover as “the Noble Experiment,” came to an end.
On Dec. 5, 1933, the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which made the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal in the U.S., became official in the form of the 21st Amendment.
In January 1920, the long push of the “Dry” movement, supported by groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and, even the Ku Klux Klan, became law after Congress passed the 18th Amendment.
“The advent of Prohibition was hailed by the majority as the solution to most of the problems of mankind,” wrote Malcolm F. Willoughby in the book, Rum War at Sea. “Little did the American people foresee the insuperable problems which Prohibition was to engender, or the Frankenstein which born of the 18th amendment!”
Prohibition certainly had its share of “Dry” supporters on Cape Cod, but many on the remote peninsula quietly prospered. Bud Cummings of Eastham and Provincetown sea captain Manny Zora were among those who did quite well for themselves running in contraband liquor from the offshore stretch known as “Rum Row.”
By the early 1930s, support for Prohibition had waned considerably, and the handwriting was on the wall.
“There’s a lot of talk about repeal,” Zora recalled his syndicate boss telling him in 1932, in the book, The Sea Fox. “If that fellow (Franklin) Roosevelt gets in I’m afraid the party’s going to be over.”
“It was like an automobile assembly plant had been shut down,” Cummings told Don Sparrow of the Eastham Historical Society many years ago. “People were out of work and the fun was over.”
Cummings, who originally moved to Eastham to become a farmer before turning to rum running, then opened and ran the Aquanon, an Orleans nightclub. He also became a gold miner and prospector in Alaska, and ran an import-export business in Mexico before returning to Eastham to become a builder and selectman.
Still, Cummings said, he would have gladly continued the potentially deadly rum running game, even without pay, simply because “it was so much fun.”
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Read more about rum running on the Outer Cape in Don’s book, A Brief History of Eastham: On the Outer Beach of Cape Cod, from The History Press.
Don will be the instructor for the history class, Cape Cod Contraband: Rum Running and the Era of Prohibition, for the Open University of Wellfleet, on Friday mornings (10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) from Jan. 18 to Feb. 15. Registration begins Dec. 14.