Educational Experience

Frazier History Museum explores ‘dark time’ of Prohibition in Kentucky

Interactive exhibit is a partnership with
Kentucky Distillers Association

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (June 2016) – Bootlegging, speakeasies, organized crime – these were all factors of the roaring ’20s that carried into the early 1930s when Prohibition was in force. Its affect on the state of Kentucky is portrayed through a current interactive exhibit at the Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St., in Louisville, Ky.
“We don’t feel any other region in the country tells the story of Prohibition as well as Kentucky,” said Andy Treinen, Director of Marketing for the Frazier History Museum. With a focus on bourbon, “Spirits of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky” was born through a partnership with the Kentucky Distillers Association.

Photo provided

Frazier History Museum President and CEO Penny Peavler opened the exhibit in October by re-enacting the pouring out of a barrel of bourbon onto the street.

The exhibit brings the 1920s to life and illustrates how millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans chose to violate the national alcohol ban to secure illegal liquor. It traces the rise of the temperance movement, organized crime, the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, and takes an in-depth look at America’s “Noble Experiment.”
The time period covered, 1920 to 1933, was a turbulent one across the entire country. The ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, ushering in a period in American history known as Prohibition.
“At the Frazier, we take pride in telling the stories of the people who live in Kentucky,” Treinen said. This exhibit is very interactive because “you can’t just put things on a wall behind a glass case.” Such things have to be seen and touched to get the total effect of the concept.
“You are allowed to touch, photograph and walk all round the exhibit,” he said. “You feel like you’re stepping into history.”
The exhibit also focuses on the passage of the Volstead Act and the key characters on both sides of the fence – from the violent whiskey dumper Carry Nation to bootlegger Al Capone. In addition, it explores the styles and sounds of the time and features local touches such as the trunk of Emily Bingham’s great aunt Henrietta Bingham, an eccentric Jazz Ager.
Museum staff helped with the construction of the exhibit. “We had 1920s bar backs and staff built bar fronts to match them,” Treinen said. The way in which the exhibit is set up allows “us to do events inside of it.”
The Old Forester Speakeasy Series was created to put a twist on bourbon. Such events allow visitors “the chance to see things you might not expect to see when you picture a museum,” said Treinen.
For the first Old Forester Speakeasy, “we had hoped for 200 people,” he said. “We ended up with 420. It was a diverse group. The overall response was miraculous.” Included in the festivities were dance lessons and hair stylists who recreated 1920s hair styles.
The next Old Forester Speakeasy from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, at the museum. Guests will be treated to experimental circus act performances by CirqueLouis, Jazz tunes by Billy Goat Strut Revue and have a chance to taste Old Forester’s special selection of bourbons.
Kentucky during this time was very creative, Treinen said. “There were a number of things that came out of this period, good and bad. Organized crime was created to quench the country’s thirst for illegal booze. Six bourbon companies were able to maintain a license for medicinal purposes. Doctors wrote 40 million prescriptions for bourbon. The modern day cocktail party was also created.”
In early 1933, Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th Amendment. It was ratified by the end of that year, bringing the Prohibition era to a close.
“We voted as a country to go dry,” Treinen said. “By the end of 1933, even the Temperance movement called for a repeal of Prohibition. The government lost money. There were more speakeasies at the end of Prohibition than bars at the beginning.”
Reaction to the exhibit so far has made it “really wildly popular,” he said. “Spirits of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky” opened on Oct. 29, 2015, but not with the traditional ribbon cutting event. Frazier President & CEO Penny Peavler officially opened the exhibition by breaking open the top of a bourbon barrel and pouring its contents onto the sidewalk, similar to what was done more than nine decades ago. 
When this exhibit comes down, a new one will go up for 2018 titled, “The Bourbon Gateway.” More than an exhibit, this will be “an entire museum in and of itself,” Treinen said. “It will tell the bourbon story.”
The museum plans to explore and develop the concept of this new Bourbon-oriented visitor experience, which will serve as an official starting point to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, both of which are owned and trademarked by the KDA. Initial plans call for Bourbon-related exhibits and visitor experiences that impart the history and cultural development of one of Kentucky’s signature industries, as well as interactive learning programs and events.
It will focus on bourbon barons, great jobs in the industry and what led to Kentucky’s evolvement into “America’s native spirit.”
Treinen said, “Bourbon is a pride thing for this region.”
Eric Gregory, president of the KDA, has been quoted as saying, “Telling the rich history of bourbon in support of this growing industry is truly a concept whose time has come.   The Frazier is a natural launch point, and we look forward to capitalizing on the museum’s experience and resources to make this dream a reality.”
It is expected “The Bourbon Gateway” exhibit and its related services will require the museum to expand to three buildings adjacent to the museum on West Main Street that are owned by the museum.

• For more information, visit: www.FrazierMuseum.org.

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