The Battle Lost
During World War Two, the legal drinking age in Galesburg was 21ñ but no one enforced it. Somehow it seemed unpatriotic to deny a drink to a young man who might die soon for his country. The war thus helped to create a social climate which included drinking. Returning veterans had become accustomed to beer and liquor (and cigarettes) as a regular part of their lives. Downtown Galesburg was happy to go along.
The southeast corner of the Square, Simmons Street, South Cherry, South Prairie and Boones Alley all contained saloons and whiskey-serving supper clubs. There were pool halls and a bowling alley which also had alcohol licenses. Some of the first television sets in town were used to draw customers to the bars.
Some veterans used the G.I. Bill to pay for college. Knox College benefitted from this, and it also served during the Korean War as a haven for those who sought student deferrals from the draft. As the male population grew, so did the number of females seeking an education (or an M.R.S. degree). The resulting growth of the student body led to a growth of fraternities and sororities ñ which in turn led to more social drinking.
The Siwash stag drinkers usually hit the saloons (now called bars or taverns). Women and mixed parties tended toward Pallings and the Broadview Hotel for what was called even then "T.G.I.F."
Drinking also went on at the frat houses ñ at social gatherings, after Monday night chapter meetings, and in members rooms. Pledges (which meant under-age teens) could drink in the house from 6pm Friday until midnight Saturday. The main rule was "No drinking on the first floor, porch or yard." Some frats even set up their own special drinking spots like the "Beta Shack" at Lake Storey.
Since all Knox women lived in Whiting Hall, they had no sorority houses; but they could rent a private room at a supper club for their parties or drive to Peoria.
The Greeks even worked boozing into their traditions. Many held "pledge walkouts" in the Spring when the chapter officers were treated to binge parties out of town.
In the Spring of 1954, two Phi Delta Kappa officers were killed in an auto accident returning from Peoria after just such an event. The Knox trustees and administration vowed to do something, but it was too close to the end of the school year for any momentum to build. Over the summer, inertia set in.
On Saturday, Oct. 2, four members of Phi Delta Kappa engaged four members of Beta Theta Pi in an informal beer-drinking contest at the Lake Bracken dam. Five of the eight were minors. Altogether, the eight Greeks consumed 40 quarts of beer in five hours.
About 6pm one of the Betas hurt his arm, and the other three members of his team rushed him back toward Galesburg for treatment. South of town, their car failed to make a curve, went down a 15-foot embankment, struck a culvert, and overturned. The car burst into flames and three of the Betas burned to death.
The accident, reported in newspapers from coast to coast, enraged parents and alums. Now, Knox was compelled to act.
The surviving drinkers were expelled, the two chapters were placed on restricted status, and house mothers were installed at all fraternity houses. At Thanksgiving, students lost their right to use cars for social purposes; and a new era stressing educational, ethical and moral values began. In January 1955, a new student union opened in Seymour Hall. More campus-centered activities were scheduled.
The accident also fueled reform in Galesburg. The proprietor of the White Elephant, which provided the beer, lost his liquor license. The Council-City Manager form of government was installed, Boones Alley was replaced by a parking lot, and urban redevelopment was used to remove the saloons on the Square. Partially because of these efforts to rehabilitate itself, Galesburg was named an All-American City in 1959.
The 60s saw Galesburg grow north. Downtown declined in the 1970s after the Sandburg Mall opened, and with it, the drinking establishments. However, supermarkets sold alcoholic beverages seven days a week; and cheaper TV sets meant more people drank in their homes around their sets. Cigarette and beer companies were among televisions heaviest advertisers.
The 60s also saw the beginning of a national decline in morality which was reflected in Galesburg by the end of the stigma the town and college founders tried to create about drinking. The Founders battle against booze was lost.
Today, there are plenty of places to drink in Galesburg. They often call themselves pubs, sports bars and restaurants. But people can still get drunk in them ñ or at home, picnic spots, or cars using alcohol purchased at liquor stores, mini-mart gas stations and supermarkets.
Society pays a stiff price for the results of that privilege.