The War Against Demon Rum

By Mike Peters
Originally published in the Greeley Tribune, April 17, 1999

Greeley has always been a little temperamental about its temperance.

His name was Fritz Neimeyer, a Prussian immigrant and brewmaster who built a brewery in the town of Evans in 1869 – the year before Greeley was founded. Unfortunately, when Neimeyer ventured into the Union Colony to sell his demon rum, it resulted in one of Greeley’s most infamous incidents; the Whiskey Riot of 1870.

Because business in Neimeyer’s brewery and tavern flourished, he leased some land in the new Union Colony and opened a tiny tavern in a sod hut.

Elements that led to the Whiskey Riot began to form on a Sunday morning when men from the colony were seen actually drinking in the makeshift tavern. At a church service that day, the congregation was shocked to learn of a bar on the temperate lands of the Union Colony, and a committee was elected to go to the saloon and “talk” to the owner. Among the members of the committee were Ralph Meeker, son of the Union Colony founder Nathan Meeker, J. Max Clark and William Norcorss. Clark and Norcross were prominent member of the colony. When the committee arrived at the saloon, they had been followed by about 200 angry colony members who wanted the bar burned, the whiskey destroyed and the owner banished to Evans.

Temperance – the avoidance of alcohol – was one of the strict codes that the colony members followed when they came to the northern area of Colorado Territory in 1870. They knew what demon rum would do to a man if they weren’t watchful.

Nathan Meeker and founders of Greeley and the Union Colony wrote special clauses into the land deeds, “forever prohibiting the manufacture of sale of intoxicating liquors, as a beverage, on the land so deeded.”

But in Evans, south of Greeley, there were saloons and dance halls, and many of the Union Colonists considered Evans an evil town.

And so, on the last Sunday in October 1870, a delegation of men went to the saloon keeper to try to talk him into shutting down. They argued through the day, but just when it was starting to turn dark, it was agreed: The colonists would pay the man $200, which would release him from his lease of the ramshackle building.

But before the lease money could be paid, a mysterious fire broke out in the hut. It burned only a short time before it was extinguished. A few minutes later, another mysterious fire started in the building and was extinguished. Then, a third fire started and the saloon was destroyed.

The people at the scene helped the German move his liquor and other belongings from the hut before it burned, but the man was out of business.

It became the scandal of the town. Arrested were several of the town’s leaders, including Ralph Meeker, “a man named Smith,” who was later identified as Norcross, and Clark. Charges against Clark and some of the others were dropped because even thought there were only 200 people at the scene, no one would testify that they actually saw who started the fire.

But Meeker was charged with riot, and Norcross with arson, and the two were arraigned in court. Historians later said the two men, fearing they wouldn’t get a fair trial, left town for a while.

Others say the charges were dismissed because of “an error in the court papers.”

But the more popular story is told that the court papers mysteriously disappeared while the two suspects were gone from Greeley. At any rate, a few months later, both men were living back in Greeley. Norcross was again a leading citizen, and Meeker was the editor of the new Greeley Tribune.

But the message had been sent. Greeley was a temperance colony, and you sell liquor in the town at your own risk.

There were other incidents of Greeley fighting the evils of booze;

  • In 1873, a saloon six miles west of Greeley along the Poudre River suddenly burned to the ground one night. Reports circulated that the fire was set by 20 to 30 “Greeleyites” who wore masks and blackened their faces so they wouldn’t be recognized.
  • "The Dixon Bridge Affair” occurred in 1885, when a “Mr. Kavanaugh” opened a dug-out saloon near the Dixon Bridge on the Poudre River. It was located about where the Spanish Colony, north of where Greeley is today. One night, the citizens of Greeley “arrested” Kavanaugh and took him to jail. Soon after his arrest, Kavanaugh’s wife and children were taken to a hotel, and the saloon mysteriously burned to the ground.
  • Five men, including the brother-in-law of Gov. Ben Eaton, opened the Grove Social Club near Lucerne in 1895. Gov. Eaton, embarrassed by the antics of his brother-in-law, asked the Greeley people to close down the club. Three Greeley men were appointed to stand outside the club and write down the names of all the men who went inside. When they threatened to print the names in the newspaper, people stopped coming to the club. It closed a short time later.

Greeley’s history of being a “dry” city continued until 1969 – nearly 100 years – when a city election allowed liquor to be sold inside the city limits.

The difference between the number of “dry” and “wet” votes totaled less than 500.

(Carol Rein Shwayder’s “Weld County Old and New,” and “Boyd’s History of Greeley” were used extensively in researching this story.)