by Stacey Mleczko
photography by Isela Peña
The Circle K across from the University of La Verne is commonly referred to as a convenience store. The new Heroes restaurant in old town is a bar and grill. Caffé Allegro on the next block offers a sidewalk setting and serves red wine to customers, and Warehouse Pizza, 100 feet from all three, serves beer to families gathering for a meal together.
La Verne has not always catered residents with alcohol so readily. Long before the existence and abolishment of the 18th Amendment, organizations, politicians and community members protested the thought of alcohol entering the streets of La Verne. Nevertheless, small liquor stores and saloons like Lopez Liquor opened sparingly across the tracks, rendering it acceptable for the Latino population to indulge in spirits, to the dismay of some, and introduced stumbling workers to the isolated community. J.H. Timberlake said in his book, “Prohibition and the Progressive Movement,” “The influx of foreigners into our urban centers, many of whom have liquor habits, is a menace to good government. . . [T]he foreign born population is largely under the social and political control of the saloon.” Such was the thinking that contributed to prohibition-era mandates.
Prohibition of the early 20th century hit the city hard, closing existing saloons and rallying temperance groups like that of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for support. At its birth in 1874, the women, stereotypically described as normally quiet housewives, were said to drop to their knees in prayer in local saloons until owners surrendered their bottles and licenses. Today, the WCTU is the oldest, continuous voluntary women’s organization in the world. At its height, the organization exempted 250 communities of alcohol within a three-month time span.
The La Verne WCTU chapter fought downtown restaurants and businesses, making it difficult to obtain an alcohol permit. University of La Verne Head Librarian and alumnus Dr. Marlin Heckman remembers a time when the WCTU rallied up against a market now occupied by the Lutheran Thrift Store on the corner of Bonita and D streets. He describes having to walk past the liquor store on the way to chapel when he was a college student. He shared thoughts of irony that the two entities set dead against each other could exist on the same block. Evelyn Hollinger, the late official city historian, related when Warehouse Pizza first applied for its liquor license. “The owner put the application up in the back alley in an effort to hide it from the protesting women, and it almost worked.”
That is the way many La Verne residents felt at the time. Up to the 1950s, a majority of the residents of La Verne belonged to the Church of the Brethren, the Church that founded the University of La Verne. The Church of the Brethren since its founding held a “thou shall not drink” conviction, but that was strengthened after Prohibition. In 1935, the Church approved an Annual Conference resolution titled, “The Liquor Problem and Temperance.” This resolution reasserted its position favoring total abstinence. “We pledge cooperation with other institutions organized to remove the curse of beverage alcohol from the country we love.”
The WCTU knew it would not completely ban alcohol from existence, but the women also felt they carried a responsibility to try. Helen Herbst, La Verne resident and member of the La Verne Church of the Brethren, was a member of the Union, and she says she remembers trying to stop stores and restaurants from obtaining alcohol permits within close proximity of schools and churches. “They wanted to put up a liquor store near a school, and we tried to stop it from happening, but it went in anyway. After that, I felt there were more important things to get done than fighting liquor stores.” Helen’s realization spread throughout the group, and other members seemed to share her discontent. The city and its regulations seemed to outgrow the ability of the deteriorating La Verne Union. Industrialization stole potential members and coerced young women into the work force, leaving volunteer organizations like the WCTU as low priorities.
She agrees with other members who say the WCTU did not have much of an impact. “I do not think we had much of an influence. We were a group of about 60 women, and we did our part by taking a booth at the fair where we handed out flyers and bits of information. But we were never far from a beer booth, and it seemed a bit funny; I always wondered why,” says Herbst.
Frank Lambert, son of a Methodist minister and a retired professor at Occidental College, believes the Union was a success. “The organization had noble motivation. It was an aid to prohibition, and, in small towns it was a roaring success. “My mother was a member of the Glendale Union, and I am proud of it. Before the 1910s, the organization made a lot of difference, but its voice was little heard after Prohibition was enacted. It was simply an organization whose time had passed.” Without the local Union in an active state, the city of La Verne has evolved as most all communities have. Eight restaurants and businesses legally dispense alcohol to paying customers in a one-block stretch of old town La Verne alone. Heroes Bar and Grill and Nick’s Place are more prominent landmarks than the Church of the Brethren or the Lutheran Thrift Store. In passing the ever-crowded Miss Donuts, one never says go past Generations Antiques and take a left at Sigal Diamonds.
Generations, indeed, have passed since La Verne knew no sins of alcohol. The city now solicits businesses serving alcohol to increase revenue. Tony Spencer, co-owner of the newly opened Heroes Bar and Grill, says, “The city wanted us to come down here. I think the main reason for that was to bring more business downtown; it should be making more business for everyone.” Spencer says a restaurant that serves alcohol is an important option when people go out to dinner. “It also helps to be the only restaurant in downtown La Verne with a hard liquor license. I am surprised there aren’t more down here.” The process of applying for a liquor license no longer requires undercover efforts that tempt applicants to secretly display their applications, avoiding trouble from advocate groups like the WCTU. Spring 2001, Casa Garcia, a Mexican restaurant that now inhabits the red and white curtained building adjacent to Warehouse Pizza, proudly plastered its application in the front window and successfully garnished a license.
Kenny Schonfeld, owner of Warehouse Pizza, justifies the sale of beer and wine in his restaurant. “Most of our beer and wine business is with a meal, so we don’t get much of a drinking crowd.” He says not being able to sell alcohol would disable his business and drive his customers elsewhere. “It is real common to drink beer with pizza. I don’t know that I would want a full bar, but if I couldn’t sell beer, my customers would probably go to a pizza place in a neighboring city that does sell it.”
Maybe that is where the problem lies. Society and its members require that the city accommodate the relatively recent acceptance of alcohol in culture. Should the city be so accommodating? If it is not, will residents stay in La Verne? The fact is, alcohol has entered a gray area. There are still people who refuse to accept it, and there are now people who embrace it with open arms.
Will the WCTU or prohibition ever exist again? Lambert says, “It couldn’t work. Education doesn’t work. The generality is that anything complex is difficult to carry out. The more people there are, the harder it is. I was raised not to drink, and alcoholism is a tremendous problem in this world. Alcohol has its place in society, and I know that. Moral and ethical values need to come from home.” Herbst remembers raising her children with the standards of the WCTU. “We weren’t supposed to allow them to drink at all. We received a little paper and a white ribbon that meant I was committed to teaching them not to drink.”
The University of La Verne is part of the community’s livelihood, and it is the one remaining bit of history that displays the dry borders that used to exist. As a dry campus, the University restricts any and all persons from using alcoholic substances on campus grounds. Even residence hall students over the age of 21 cannot be intoxicated while at school or in this case at home. Dean of Student Affairs Loretta Rahmani says, “Is there alcohol on campus? My answer is unequivocally, ‘yes.’ Are we doing anything about it? Absolutely.” Rahmani says ULV has adopted a new two strikes policy. “Statistics are showing a decrease in occurrences, and they help us determine repeat offenders so we can get them help. Rahmani says, “I am very happy to be working at a dry campus. I’ve worked at large wet campuses in the past, and alcohol runs amuck. The consequence of alcohol is a societal issue; it’s larger than ULV and La Verne.”
“Reform is so difficult,” says Lambert. “Anything good is complex and very difficult to maintain and so easy to destroy-so delicate and difficult to balance it can’t hold up to greed and individual desire.”