Sunday, February 17, 2019

Booze on the Border? Brookline Says No

As Brookline's (and metro Boston's) first recreational marijuana dispensary gets closer to opening (see Brookline Patch and Wicked Local Brookline), Muddy River Musings looks back at another local battle over the sale of intoxicating substances.

It happened nearly a century and a quarter ago not far from the site, at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets, where New England Treatment Access (NETA) is getting ready to add recreational sales to the medical marijuana dispensary it has operated since 2016.

The year was 1895 and the issue was a group of four saloons just over the Brookline border on Heath Street (now South Huntington Avenue) in Boston. Brookline was a dry town at the time, and had been since 1887 when Town Meeting voted 452-268 to ban the granting of licenses for the sale of intoxicating beverages.

The oldest of the disputed establishments, John Devine's tavern and dealership at 368 Heath Street (see the photo below) had been in business for 20 years. James Pendergast's saloon, at 380 Heath, had been around for 15 years. But the presence of these and other saloons so close to a town that had banned liquor sales a few years earlier clearly rankled the town's leaders.
John Devine's saloon
John Devine's saloon, 368 Heath Street, Boston. (Click for a larger view.) John Devine is presumably one of the men in ths undated photograph.  (Credit: Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth)
Maps of  Heath Street near the Brookline line, 1895
This segment from an 1895 Boston atlas shows the location of a group of taverns at the corner of Huntington Avenue and Heath Street. A Citgo station occupies the corner today with new residential buildings adjacent to it.
Charles H. Utley, who represented Brookline in the legislature, introduced a bill that would ban the granting of liquor licenses within a quarter of a mile of the border of a city or town that had prohibited liquor sales. Utley's measure was defeated, but locals pressed on with an appeal to Boston's Board of Police Commissioners, which oversaw the granting of licenses.

A parade of speakers — including the current and former chairs of the Board of Selectmen and the head of the School Committee — testified before the police board at a hearing in late April.

Newspaper headlines about Brookline's petition to Boston police commissioners
Brookline's petition to the Boston police commissioners for the removal of Heath Street saloons, as reported in the Boston Globe (top left), Brookline Chronicle (top right), and Boston Journal (bottom), April 1895
The speakers raised several objections to the presence of the taverns. They included concerns about their proximity to residential neighborhoods, about traffic, about disturbances by intoxicated patrons, about the cost of care for people made destitute by alcoholism, and about the impact on local property values. (One can hear echoes of some of these concerns in the protests against recreational marijuana shops, in Brookline and elsewhere.)

There was also an underlying, if unspoken, class and ethnic dimension to the protests. The Heath Street taverns were closest to the working class, largely Irish Brookline neighborhoods of The Farm and The Marsh north and south of lower Washington Street (Route 9). As Ronald Dale Karr points out in his 2018 book Between City and Country: Brookline, Massachusetts and the Origins of Suburbia, the arrival of the Irish had changed the emphasis of the local temperance movement "from exhorting individual abstinence to outlawing public drinking."

This was the focus of the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, established in 1877. The existence of the taverns just over the border —as well as the existence of illegal rum shops in the Irish neighborhoods — presented a continuing challenge after the local liquor ban was enacted in 1885.

A week after the April 1895 hearing the police board handed down its verdict: the Heath Street saloons would have to go. (There was speculation at the time that the decision was made in part to circumvent a more far-reaching legislative mandate like the one that had been proposed by Brookline's Utley.)

The four tavern owners were granted time to find alternative locations further from the Brookline border. They would be allowed to keep their liquor licenses as long as they found other locations in which to operate.

In early November 1895, after a meeting between the liquor dealers, the Brookline men, and the police board, it was announced that November 9th would be the last day the taverns could operate on Heath Street. Two of the owners had found new locations in Roxbury and one in South Boston. The fourth was still looking for a site.

Boston Globe
November 10, 1895
The local newspaper, the Brookline Chronicle, treated the news as a victory for the town. The Boston Globe was more sympathetic to the tavern owners. In a November 10th article with the headline "Too Close to Brookline People," the Globe noted that

"The proprietors entered 'willingly' into the arrangement, it is stated at police headquarters, but in reality it was very reluctantly, because they had no other resource if they wanted to continue to sell liquor."

John Devine and his wife Annie, whose business is pictured in the  photo shown above, applied in December 1895 to have their liquor license transferred from 368 Heath Street to 80 Longwood Avenue.  The new location (now McGreevey Way) was a couple of blocks southeast of Huntington Avenue near the McCormick and Continental breweries.

It's not clear if the application was granted, but even if it was they were not on Longwood Avenue for long. In March 1896, the Devines (operating as John Devine & Co.) filed successfully for a license "to sell intoxicating liquors as Victuallers of the First Class and Wholesale Dealers of the Fourth Class" at 29 Eustis Street in Roxbury.

Public notice of John and Annie Devine's application for a license to operate a liquor business in Roxbury after being forced to move from Heath Street by objections from Brookline. (Boston Globe, March 28, 1896)

John Devine, however, did not live to long enough to see how well the business would do in its new location. He died in October 1896, less than a year after being forced to move his tavern from its longtime location just across the Muddy River from Brookline. His age was estimated at 62. The business continued under his wife Annie and a woman named Maria O'Brien.

As for Brookline, it continued to vote every year to maintain the ban on the selling of liquor within town boundaries (and, presumably, to oppose such establishments near its borders as well). The town did vote to go "wet" again in March 1920, but that vote was symbolic only; Prohibition had gone into effect nationally two months earlier.

It would be another 13 years until, with Prohibition winding down, Brookline's long liquor ban would come to an end. (See 1933: After 46 Years, Beer Back in Brookline for more on that story.)


  1. Interesting there was no pushback from the locals in JP or Mission Hill - who must also have frequented these establishments!

  2. Good question Gretchen. Some of the earlier newspaper articles mentioned taverns further from the Brookline line, either further up the hill on Heath Street or at the intersection of Huntington Avenue and Tremont Street. Those would have been closer to the centers of population in JP and Mission Hill and were ultimately not included in the removal order, so perhaps local response in those communities did play a role.

  3. Ken, fascinating! Why did Brookline vote to go "wet" in March 1920 given prohibition had gone into effect nationally two months earlier. Did they feel the local law was no longer needed, or had town sentiments changed just as prohibition swept the nation?

    1. Good question, Mike. I'll have to do some more research to get an answer. I'm sure, knowing Brookline, — it was as disputatious then as it is now — that there were plenty of letters to the editor, pro and con, in the Brookline Chronicle at the time.