File photo

The Historical Society’s Speakeasy Tour, on April 30, will give patrons a chance to explore Forest Park’s drink-drenched history. The tour, from 7 to 9 p.m., is the brainchild of Diane Grah, executive director of the historical society. Tickets are $35 for non-members, $30 for members.

Participating taverns are Brian Boru Irish Pub, Duffy’s Tavern, Angelo O’Leary’s and Exit Strategy. Coincidentally, Duffy’s is the oldest bar on Madison Street, while Exit Strategy is the new kid on the block.

Each establishment will give speakeasiers a free drink, and Angelo O’Leary’s is also promising free pizza. Inside each tavern, tour-goers will find a storyboard featuring vintage photos and brief histories of the businesses. Participants are encouraged to dress in period clothing for the pub crawl. Grah will be wearing her flapper finery. Board members and local historians will act as tour guides.

Forest Park has many connections to the Prohibition era and the brewing industry. By historical happenstance, it became the “Watering Hole of the Western Suburbs.” Grah explained that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were the movers and shakers behind Prohibition. They testified that demon rum was the source of many social ills and that, if it were banned, men would become better behaved. 

Locally, the WCTU recruited Henry Austin to shut down the remaining taverns in Oak Park. Austin bought them out and dumped their products down the sewer. Oak Park became a “dry” community and River Forest followed suit. Forest Park remained wet for two reasons: its large German population of beer drinkers and schnapps lovers and they needed the money. 

In 1895, Forest Park had more than 50 bars and the town’s economy was floating on alcohol. Prohibition was a big blow to tax revenue, but they kept the coffers full by selling soft drink licenses in lieu of liquor licenses. 

By 1916, many states were “dry” and in 1919 all but two states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, ratified the 18th Amendment. Prohibition immediately gave birth to bootlegging and the social experiment had some unsavory, unintended consequences to say the least. Now that alcohol was the forbidden fruit, per capita consumption soared. 

Speakeasies sprang up everywhere. They were named for the loquaciousness liquor encourages. They required passwords, such as “swordfish,” for entry. They served hard liquor almost exclusively. Several speakeasies served patrons in Forest Park, including one in what is now Forest Park Liquors. Grah found newspaper accounts of the Forest Park police and federal agents raiding these “places of disrepute.” 

Prohibition was widely unpopular and only increased the problem it was supposed to fix. Worse, it led to a cozy relationship between organized crime and cops, a problem that persists to this day. It was finally repealed under FDR in 1933. 

Tour-goers will learn about all this and more on the tour, such as which mobsters and brewers are buried in Forest Park and where the speakeasies were located. Those interested in taking this stroll through local history should call 708-232-3747. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

5 replies on “Speakeasy crawl explores village liquor legacy”