“While the Blue Laws are in Force”
Oh, the new code is a corker,
Twould paralyze a horse,
We're a happy set of Christians
While the blue laws are in force.
Policemen in a muddle,
Judges a little mixed,
Bully job for lawyers
Until the thing is fixed.
German saloons were ubiquitous in Cleveland during the late 19th Century, their owners aware of the rise of prohibitionary forces, but content with the steady business they attracted for their lager beer and genial atmosphere known as “Gemütlichkeit.” Then a freshman Ohio state legislator stepped up, wrote, and pushed through a law that ordered the state’s saloons closed on Sunday, one of their busiest days. One saloonkeeper, Fred Diebolt, rallied his colleagues to civil disobedience. Stay open on Sunday, he advised, and with numbers we can back down enforcement. Unfortunately for Diebolt and his followers, it did’t quite work out that way.
Fred was a native Clevelander, in 1840 the firstborn of Ignatius Diebolt, 37, and his wife, Gertrude, 21, living at 29 Seneca Street North. Ignatius was a baker by trade and in 1846 was listed in city directories running a bakery and grocery. Evidently concluding that whiskey paid better than watermelons, two years later his establishment was listed as a bakery and tavern. Fred apparently went to work for his father as he matured and in the 1870 census was listed as “saloon keeper.”
By this time Diebolt was married, his wife, Caroline. The couple had a newborn daughter they named Laura. Perhaps it was these family responsibilities that caused Fred to move into other enterprises. By 1871, with a partner, he was operating a bottling works in conjunction with a saloon at 76 and 78 St. Clair Street.
Over the next several years he moved and expanded. By 1879 he was operating a saloon and billiard parlor at 28 SW corner of Public Square, the area shown above, and a wholesale business at 47 Prospect. By 1881, apparently needing more space for his liquor sales, he had moved his liquor house to 133-137 Champlain. This building of three stories, shown below, gave him ample space to store whiskey and other alcoholic drinks.
Diebolt’s customers for his wholesale spirits were the many German saloons in Cleveland, one of them shown below. Noted saloons were Joseph Kieferle's Black Whale on Champlain St.; Albert Eisele's saloon at Superior and Bond St.; Paul Heine's or Water St.; Fred Sheurmann's on Huron St.; Boehmke's on E. Ninth St.; Brun Schwarzer's on Lorain St.; Silberg Brothers on Columbus Rd.; Weber's 242 Superior St.; Grebe's on E. Fourth St.; John Naumann's on Ontario St.
Well known German beer gardens were Kindsvater's on E. 55th St.; Dahler's on Tod St.; Raaf s in Brooklyn; Sommer's Tivolian Garden on Pearl St.; Gieszen's; Hoffman's Forest; Lied's Tavern These drinking establishments made comfortable living for their owners — and sometimes more.
Enter Frank V. Owen, a “self-made” man from Mount Vernon, Ohio, 105 miles south of Cleveland, whose father had died when he was but six years old. Shown here, he received the normal education for the day then studied for the law, was admitted to the bar in 1884, and began handling personal injury cases and other legal matters. In 1887 Owen ran for a seat in the state legislature and won. An opponent of alcohol sales he saw an opportunity to replicate the “Blue Laws” then in fashion throughout the U.S., statutes that banned specific activities on Sunday. He introduced a measure in the Ohio House requiring that all saloons be closed on Sunday. It passed and became law, a statue widely known as the “Owen Sunday Closing Law.”
The news of this development hit Cleveland’s German saloonkeepers like a thunderclap. Sunday was perhaps the busiest day of the week for those establishments. Germans, both Catholics and Lutherans, attended church services then whole families repaired to a tavern for beer, fellowship and perhaps a meal. These were working men and women whose lifetime patterns were being disrupted to the distinct disadvantage of the saloonkeepers. They turned for leadership to Fred Diebolt, among the wealthiest and most influential of their group.
He was ready to give it. Defy the Owen Law, he is said to have advised. Stay open on Sunday. If all of us fail to comply, the authorities will have to back down. Twenty-one of his fellow German publicans took his advice. When the first Sunday mandated for closing came around in August 1888, they stayed open. The police, alerted by news stories to this open defiance, arrived and all, including Diebolt, were arrested. Each requested a jury trial, hoping that acquittals would help null the law.
There were problems with Diebolt’s approach. He was far from getting universal acceptance from his colleagues for the strategy. Many German proprietors rejected civil disobedience. His committee’s plea to the Ohio Liquor League, a bottling coop of saloons, their bottle shown here, was unavailing. The members refused to meet or recognize Diebolt’s group in any way. Churches, newspapers and prominent citizens called vigorously for enforcement. The police were pleased to oblige.
Diebolt apparently was the first to be tried. While Clevelanders watched in fascination, he was found guilty in his first trial by a jury said in the press to be predominantly German. Because of unexplained “irregularities,” however, that verdict was thrown out and he was granted a new trial. The second jury also found him guilty. Speculation was rife in the media and among the public: “How tough a sentence would be handed down?”
The Police Court Judge was George R. Solders, a well-respected jurist and a man active in Cleveland’s German-American community. To quote his obituary: “In all the activities of local German clubs and societies, he took a conspicuous and leading part….” Given Diebolt’s prominence in the same ethic organizations, they must have known each other. According to a New York Times story of November 19, 1882, many Cleveland residents doubted that Judge Solders would mete out the kind of stiff sentence he often handed down to “poorer and less influential men.”
Solders proved up to the job. He fined Diebolt $100 (equivalent to $2,500 today) and sentenced him to ten days in the Cleveland Workhouse, shown here, for selling liquor in violation of the Owen Law. Clearly stung by the result, Diebolt declared that he intended to carry the case to a court of appeals and, likely feeling the heat from his co-conspirators, announced that he planned to leave town for a while. Meanwhile the remaining hapless German saloonkeepers were left to contemplate their fates.
I have not found the results of the other trials nor of Diebolt’s appeal. Cleveland saloons all stayed shuttered on Sunday. Eventually, however, the Owen “Blue” Law was overturned and Cleveland’s saloons, taverns and beer gardens were allowed to stay open on the Lord’s Day. As for Diebolt, he resumed running his enterprises, even allowed to rename the short street to his saloon at Public Square, “Diebolt Place.”
As he aged, Diebolt retired from active business, living to 91. Today Fred and Caroline are interred side by side in Woodland Cemetery, Cayuga County, Ohio. German-run saloons ultimately were closed when Ohio went “dry” in 1916, many of them never to reopen. Travel Advisor currently recommends four German restaurants in Cleveland that serve alcohol on Sunday. Fred Diebolt would sign off on that.
Note: The verse about Blue Laws that opened this post was written by Sam Devere, an African-American songwriter and performer of the 19th Century.