DECATUR — Eighty-five years after the states ratified the 21st Amendment, Jim Chiligiris still can recite the stories he heard when he was the owner of the Lincoln Square Lounge about how Prohibition-era Decatur hosted backroom gambling rooms, speakeasies and brothels.
"There was a motel inn, south of Decatur called the Shady Rest" that was the best-known speakeasy in town, Chiligiris, 79, said. "That was probably the main place that people talked about a lot."
Wednesday marks the anniversary of the day that Prohibition was officially repealed. On Dec. 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment and end a ban on the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage" dating back 14 years.
During that time, the ban on booze created an underground industry. Before Chiligiris took over the Lounge himself, he helped his father, Angelo Chiligiris, there as a kid, and listened to the lore from old-timers on the days when Decatur, like everywhere else in the U.S., was dry.
"There was a lot of hardship in those days, but those that were working and had a little bit of money had a good time," he said.
Now Jim's nephew, Andrew Chiligiris owns the Lincoln Square Lounge along with several historic downtown buildings that were previously home to illegal activity.
"Decatur was very industrial back then, you had railroad and coal mines, and manufacturing," the younger Chiligiris said. "These guys needed an outlet — that was a rough time."
From the handed-down memories, Jim Chiligiris painted a picture of a lively downtown full of workers and and their families looking to unwind at the above-board pool halls and restaurants, below the illicit gambling parlors on the higher floors of buildings near Lincoln Square, the former home of the Transfer House.
"There were a bunch of places downtown that had gambling going on," Chiligiris said.
Family lore also holds that Angelo secured the third liquor license issued by the state of Illinois in 1934, months after Prohibition was officially lifted. The Lincoln Square Tavern, as it was called at the time, became the first Decatur business to sell alcohol again. But Chiligiris said the license was lost when the Lounge suffered a fire in 1960.
The cultural movement that led to Prohibition stretches back before states ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919 that led to banning alcohol sales across the country. Decatur was no stranger to the active temperance movement, which advocated for moral purity and the elimination of alcohol in American society.
According to Nathan Pierce, executive director of the Macon County History Museum, Decatur Township voters elected to go dry as early as 1909, through a "local option law" from the state that allowed voters to decide on a local level whether to ban alcohol.
But Decatur residents see-sawed on the issue. Two years later, voters favored to allow saloons to sell alcohol, but then in 1914, after Illinois women gained the right to vote, Decatur Township voted again to go dry.
Indeed, across the country, women's groups led the charge in the temperance movement that eventually produced the 18th Amendment.
In Pierce's research, he found several temperance groups were active in Decatur in the lead up to Prohibition. The national Anti-Saloon League "worked with the Home Protective League in Decatur to bring a suit against the Decatur Brewing Co.," he said.
That suit took place in 1908, when the Decatur brewers were accused that a product called "white banner," a sort of non-alcoholic beer, violated the local ban on "malt liquors."
"One common theme was religion was very much tied in with the temperance movement and making areas dry," Pierce said. Billy Sunday, one of the most famous evangelical preachers of the time, visited Decatur in 1908 to find converts to the temperance movement.
One dramatic event of Prohibition in Decatur came in 1931 when a gambling room proprietor, Jerry Manuel, in the upstairs of a South Main Street building, now the parking lot next to the Decatur Staleys mural, found a bomb in the building's stairway.
"He threw the bomb out the window and it blew his hand up," Chiligiris said. Years later, Manuel was one of the old timers in Decatur that passed stories of bootleggers and gambling room operators that made their mark on the city in a different era.
But it's easy to romanticize the times, even with all the vice that came with it. Chiligiris warned Decatur was probably not as infused with moonshine and gangsters that big cities like Chicago and New York became famous for.
"I don't think there was much drinking going on as people thought there was," Chiligiris said. "People were allowed to make their own beer at home" and law enforcement in Decatur still made busts on a regular basis.
"(Decatur police) were were really tight on it," Chiligiris said of the Prohibition days. "In fact every once in a while the newspapers would have a thing about 'So-and-so sheriff destroyed so many slot machines.'"
Today, Dec. 5 has become known as Repeal Day. But the history of that era lives on in some Decatur buildings.