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Pinot wrecks city's marriage to Prohibition

The (tee)total truth about alcohol in Forest Grove


Here in western Washington County, many people will ring in the New Year with a glass of pinot noir from a Forest Grove winery, a glass of sake from Forest Grove’s Sake One, or perhaps a glass of beer from the city’s McMenamins brewpub.

With a motto of “Where Oregon Pinot was born” and a new distillery preparing to open next year, Forest Grove has clearly embraced alcohol as a lynchpin of the economy.

Yet for about the first 120 years of its existence, the city flaunted its sobriety. It was one of the last remaining “dry,” or at least “moist,” towns in Oregon.

The founders of Pacific University, who also were founders of the city back in 1851, made abstinence a cornerstone of the school’s educational mission. When they sold parcels of land, they wrote clauses into the deeds forever banning the sale of “ardent spirits” on that property.

In 1890, many city fathers believed sobriety would become Forest Grove’s major industry when the Keeley Institute moved to town. “Perhaps no one concern in the city has had such a marked influence on the life of Forest Grove as the Keeley Institute for the cure of liquor, opium, and tobacco habits,” the Forest Grove Times wrote in 1892. “It has attracted the attention of the outside world to our beautiful town.”

Started in the Midwest, the Keeley Institute used shots of a secret formula that included “chloride of gold” — a dissolved form of the precious metal — and supposedly cured nearly any form of addiction. Cities across the country clamored to be home to campuses of theinstitute as it expanded across America, and Forest Grove landed the first one in the Northwest.

As other cities tried to pry the institute out of Forest Grove, the city fought back hard, believing the Keeley Institute might rival or surpass Pacific University as the town’s most important institution.

Seeking to take advantage of other cities’ offers, the directors of the Keeley Institute issued a set of demands, asking taxpayers to build a hotel in which the institute would house its patients, free of charge. Forest Grove could not oblige.

Keeley lowered its demands, but ultimately, Salem managed to lure the institute away in 1894 with prime real estate next to a railroad terminal. Bitter and betrayed, local newspapers lashed out at both Keeley and “greedy Salem.”

Not long after the institute left town, however, its “Gold Cure” became tarnished by reports of relapses and the sudden deaths of some who took the injection. The institute managed to keep one facility in Indiana open into the 1950s, but it was forgotten in Forest Grove within 10 years of its departure.

Still, Forest Grove clung to its reputation as a “dry” town long after national Prohibition came and went, well into the 1950s, although critics asserted that it was at least “moist” by then.

Taverns, pool halls and social clubs had been challenging and defying the city’s Prohibition ordinances since the 1890s, and in the 1950s, Forest Grove began grandfathering some taverns in unincorporated territory as it raced to beat Cornelius in annexing valuable land along Highway 8.

It wasn’t until 1970, however, that the city council finally voted to allow sales of liquor by the glass, first at the Elks Club and then at a restaurant called the Coffee Grinder on South Main Street. At that point, the façade of sobriety was forever lifted.

By then, Charles Coury already had started producing pinot noir at his winery on David Hill. Years later, the city would build a marketing campaign around the claim that Coury was first to introduce the grape to Oregon.

And now here we are, 120 years after Forest Grove feted the anti-alcohol crowd, raising a toast to the New Year and to all that has changed.

The Bilderbacks research and write about western Washington County history. To contact them or get more information, visit kenbilderback.com.



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