Once-dry Wheaton holds first Ale Fest

 
 
Updated 8/6/2011 3:28 PM

It has been 26 years since voters in Wheaton bounced a ban on alcohol sales that had been in place since Prohibition. Yet Mayor Mike Gresk says he still runs into people who swear the city is dry.

"We are very aware of the reputation of the city of Wheaton," he said. "There are people out there who mention it in casual conversation at various meetings or at the airport who say, 'You guys are dry.' They still think the city does not serve alcohol."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If any evidence were necessary to dispute that notion, consider the first Wheaton Ale Fest on Saturday. Forty brewers from the region and numerous brewing clubs will line Front Street and offer samples. Organizers say they've sold more than 1,200 tickets to the four-hour festival. The kegs will be tapped for a VIP event at noon, but general admission tickets will be honored from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Front and Hale streets.

A nod and a wink

As the U.S. emerged from prohibition in 1933, Wheaton residents voted the following year to keep the town dry, fearing that alcohol could carve away at the city's religious core.

The early laws prohibited even possessing alcohol, although by the 1950s, those rules were usually skirted with a nod and a wink, as long as the drinking was done at home. In the early 1960s, the city council officially allowed alcohol possession.

By the 1980s a full-fledged movement was afoot to end the alcohol ban in order to boost the local economy.

In the meantime, only one Illinois town continues a local ban on booze. South suburban South Holland, just west of the Indiana border. is similarly steeped in religious ideals. At least 30 churches lie within its boundaries, and its motto, "A Community of Churches," reminds of the village's roots.

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"There is a large consensus of residents who savor that," said Jason Huisman, deputy village administrator. "Many have chosen to locate here and raise families because they feel strongly about that issue."

Town divided

Before Vern Kiebler died in 2001, he left behind a legacy of community service. He served on the city's plan commission and as president of the chamber of commerce.

For years, he sponsored the musical acts at Wheaton's Autumn Fest. And, in the early 1980s, he was front-and-center on the push to repeal the alcohol ban. But he had help.

"(Kiebler) was very involved in the community and he is the one who rallied everyone to make Wheaton wet," said Alberta Adamson, the director of the Wheaton Center for History. "At first, Mayor (Bob) Martin was hesitant and then he realized it would be good for business, so he joined the camp."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Even after Kiebler and other supporters gathered the necessary signatures to place the question on the spring ballot in 1985, a judge had to intervene when opponents challenged the petition.

"My neighbors wouldn't talk to me because I was supporting the repeal of the ban," said City Councilman Tom Mouhelis. "They wouldn't talk to me for six months."

Without alcohol sales, he said, downtown was anything but a hotbed of activity.

"We had one restaurant open after 6 p.m.," he said. "It was boring downtown. No major restaurant chain would move here if they couldn't serve alcohol."

A judge affirmed the petition, but Kiebler's work was not over. He had to rally other business leaders to support the initiative. Even selling it to voters was a tricky proposition because, as the question was posed, those who supported allowing alcohol had to vote "No" on continuing the ban. On Election Day, 56 percent of more than 7,600 voters did so.

Adamson says Martin's outspoken support was crucial.

"He spoke publicly," she said. "He didn't hide away from the issue."

Wet Wheaton

While the goal of attracting businesses downtown did not pan out immediately, the repeal allowed Danada Square to develop into a commercial landmark on the city's south end.

When the city first gave the go-ahead to alcohol sales, it required that buildings have a set amount of eating space before a liquor license could even be considered.

Gresk stressed that any step taken since the city's first liquor license was approved in October 1985 has been measured carefully and with the advice of the liquor control commission.

Last month, the city council approved its 46th liquor license, this one at a downtown hair salon. Although free-standing bars and package liquor stores remain prohibited, the city now has 18 liquor license classifications.

"It makes the point of how far we have come," Adamson said.

Added Gresk: "This festival might raise some eyebrows but we are talking 26 years ago ... There are families that have raised children who don't recall a time when alcohol was not allowed."

Ale Fest 2011

If Saturday's festival goes off smoothly, and high ticket sales indicate that will likely happen, Wheaton Park District Executive Director Mike Benard says it might be an annual event.

"Beer connoisseurs are an emerging group," he said. "It's an emerging niche."

Ticket sales have been brisk, and organizers will cap sales at about 1,500.

Benard said he understands some people may approach the festival with trepidation, but downtown will benefit.

"When you try anything new, there will be folks who may not be sure what is going on," he said. "But we wanted to bring people out of their houses and into the downtown area."