In Our Backyard: The Checkered History of Alcohol in Loudoun

By Larry Malone

Part 1 of a 2-part series

The people of Loudoun County have had a robust relationship with the alcohol industry for centuries. In 1774, two years before the start of the Revolutionary War, George Washington signed a deed allowing John Mercer to operate a distillery as a part of his mill in Aldie. Recognizing the financial success of the Aldie distillery, Washington built his own near Mount Vernon.

Of course, farmers and settlers in Loudoun brewed their own beer and hard cider, and distilled their own liquor long before 1774. Remember, at the time, alcohol in its many forms was often a safer alternative to the available water, and even potable water could not be safely transported. In 1620, the Mayflower put ashore at Plymouth Rock instead of Chesapeake Bay as planned, because they were running out of beer. They weren’t throwing raging keggers; they just needed something safe to drink.

Despite the long history of liquor production in Loudoun—or perhaps because of it—the county’s relationship with the alcohol beverage business occasionally has been a rocky one. In the early 20th century, pro-Prohibition groups were exceedingly active in the county, and were a major force in Virginia becoming a “dry” state in 1916, three years before the 18thAmendment to the Constitution—Prohibition—was adopted, outlawing the production, sale, and distribution of alcohol across the nation.  

In Our Backyard

The WCTU and the PEA in Loudoun County 

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873 in Hillsboro, Ohio, was particularly strong in Loudoun. Beyond its links with Prohibition, the actual focus of the WCTU was temperance in all things in life—not just liquor. It strongly opposed the use of tobacco, advocated a vegetarian diet, and actively promoted many humanitarian causes. Note that in the poster, the heroine brandishes an axe, but modestly rides sidesaddle, mixed metaphors reflecting women’s evolving societal roles at the time.

Local chapters of the WCTU were called unions. While unions worked closely with the state and national organizations, they were largely autonomous, and could choose to work for reforms they believed would be beneficial in their local communities.

Loudoun County was home to several WCTU unions: The Lincoln WCTU founded in 1878, the first local union in Virginia; the Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Hamilton in 1894; and the Purcellville WCTU in 1913. The Lincoln WCTU was the most active union in Loudoun, and one of the most active in the State, remaining so until 1965.

The Virginia statewide WCTU was organized in September 1882 in Richmond. Sarah Hoge, a member of the Lincoln WCTU, was a founding member and elected president of the Virginia Chapter, remaining president until 1938. Over time, she grew the statewide WCTU membership from fewer than 1,000 to close to 11,000.

The WCTU was not the only pro-Prohibition force active in Loudoun. In 1878, while Mrs. Hoge was forming the Lincoln WCTU, her husband, Howard M. Hoge,a minister of the Society of Friends atLincoln, established, and was elected president of, the Prohibition and Evangelical Association (PEA) ofLoudounCounty. Unlike the WCTU, membership in the PEA was open to both genders.

As the first order of business, Mr. Hoge and the PEA in 1878 organized a temperance rally in Dillon’s Woods, just south of the main business district in Purcellville. This rally became an annual summer event known as a “Bush Meeting.” In the early years, stakes were driven into the ground, crossbars  installed, and bushes put on top to form the roof, hence the name “Bush” meeting. At the time, the local paper announced that “The Good Templars of Loudoun County held a Bush Meeting in Dillon’s Woods at Purcellville…,” with the group proclaiming, “We shall endeavor to make this a Grand Religious Temperance Demonstration.”

With this and similar posters the Women’s Christian Temperance Union hoped to usher in a noble new world of national sobriety

Each summer, thousands of people gathered near the Purcellville train station to participate in a multi-day rally, intending to foster public pressure to outlaw the production and consumption of liquor. The Purcellville rally eventually became the largest such event in Virginia. According to a 2009 monograph by Debbie Robison in Northern Virginia History Notes:

Thousands of people came to the bush meetings in Purcellville. Crowd estimates were often in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 visitors. Many came by train from Washington, D.C. In 1894, it cost $1.55 round trip to take the train from D.C. to Purcellville. Special rates and excursion trains were provided for the event each year. People also came on horseback, in buggies and carriages, and by stage.Meetings lasted from a few days to a week or more.

In 1903,the Bush Meeting Tabernacle, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was constructed by Round Hill-based contractor Arch Simpson in Dillon’s Woods to accommodate the annual rally.

Purcellville’s Bush Meetings attracted some of the most prominent politicians and evangelists of the time. William Jennings Bryan, one of the best-known political speakers of the early 20th century, gave a version of his famous “Cross of Gold” speech here in 1913 when he was Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Sen. Harry Byrd and Gov. Westmoreland Davis of Morven Park were frequent orators. Oregon Evangelist Dr. E. J. Bulgin was a particularly popular speaker. In his early life he had been an agnostic, but now preached all over the country. He visited the Bush Meeting in 1924, offering stirring and powerful words to both intimidate and engage the faithful.

National Prohibition

Of course, Prohibition activities in Loudoun and Virginia were just part of the much larger national movement.

On Jan. 16, 1919, when Nebraska became the 36thstate to ratify the 18thAmendment, the rest of the country joined the “Noble Experiment” that Virginia began three years earlier. Virginia ratified the 18thon Jan. 11, 1918, becoming the second State to do so; Mississippi ratified it four days earlier.

The experiment did not go as anticipated. Violence, corruption, hypocrisy, disregard for the law, and moral outrage ensued across the country, Virginia, and Loudoun County.

Additionally, there was an intentional legal gap. The 18thAmendment and its enabling legislation, the Volstead Act, outlawed the production, transportation, and sale of liquor, but not its possession or consumption. Consequently, some wealthy individuals and private clubs were able to purchase sufficient supplies before Prohibition became effective to legally serve cocktails to their guests and patrons during the 14 years before Repeal.

Well before Prohibition, many farm families in Loudoun and throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains operated small breweries and distilleries for their own needs, and to sell to friends and neighbors. With Prohibition’s arrival, some of these operations grew much larger to meet a growing demand for a suddenly outlawed product.

According to Eugene Scheel’s article, Mountains Full of Moonshine, published by loudounhistory.org, a favorite location for selling the local product was the Broad Run Tollhouse, which can still be glimpsed as one crosses Broad Run on Rt. 7 near the Dulles Town Center. Before the tolls were removed in 1924, every car and wagon crossing the one-lane bridge had to stop and pay the toll. If a thirsty traveler wanted to pay an extra $2, it just might have been possible to find a pint jar to help smooth the journey. An extra $8 or $9 would bring a full gallon of refreshment.

On the ridge above Bluemont, an entrepreneur named Jess Tomblin made a strong corn whiskey and stronger apple brandy. So many people complained about the business to Leesburg Judge J.R.H. Alexander, the judge was forced to send the sheriff to investigate. However, as the judge himself was a frequent and loyal customer, he warned Tomblin before the raid to have only a few gallons on hand. The fine then would be about $10 and the business could continue with minor interruption. According to Mr. Scheel’s article, Tomblin’s business continued into the early 1940s.

Not unexpectedly, Prohibition brought homicides, some of them in Loudoun.On the early morning of Aug. 29, 1931, Lertie Holsinger killed his partner, 78-year-old Amos Jenkins, at the Broad Run Tollhouse. According to an October 2020 article by Mathew Annis in Ashburn Magazine, while the two men scuffled in Holsinger’s room, Holsinger shot Jenkins twice. At his trial, Holsinger claimed self-defense.The only witness to the shooting was the housekeeper,Janie Shugars. Her testimony substantiated Holsinger’s story, and the jury found Holsinger not guilty of murder. Archival records show that Holsinger subsequently divorced his wife and married Janie Shugars.

In another Loudoun incident, J.D. Lambert, a Leesburg-based Inspector for the Virginia Department of Prohibition Enforcement, was shot and killed in 1923 while raiding a still in the forest at Belmont Plantation in Ashburn. The shooter, known as “Mr. C,” was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Between 1918 and 1932, at least six additional Virginia enforcement agents were killed in the line of duty.

In Part 2: Women’s suffrage and the end of Prohibition

Larry Malone is executive director of Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and vice chairman of the Loudoun County Rural Economic Development Council. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org

One thought on “In Our Backyard: The Checkered History of Alcohol in Loudoun

  • 2021-10-14 at 11:35 am
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    A fascinating glimpse into the early days of Prohibition in Virginia. I’m not surprised Virginia was the second state to ratify the 18th Amendment, given its conservative history. But goodness knows it was a failed endeavor. (When people raise the possibility of banning cigarettes due to second-hand smoke, I just bring up Prohibition.) It was our only Amendment to be repeated. I didn’t realize there was so much bootlegging going on in Virginia. I guess that’s the commonwealth’s rebellious nature that remains alive & well today! Thank you for this delightful read, Mr. Malone. Looking forward to the second installment.

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