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The man behind the famous ‘Act’

The Andrew Volstead house, now over 150 years old, still stands in the center of Granite Falls. The front porch faces east, where the Minnesota River can be seen meandering to the south. The wood-structured home features a two-story stairwell that Volstead added on shortly after purchasing the home in 1894.

Once inside the 15-room home, located at 163 Ninth Avenue, a large family portrait of Andrew, his wife, Nellie, and their only child, Laura, immediately draws attention to any visitors of the parlor.

As in the majority of his photos, Volstead is posed stoically in the photo; his familiar, oversized brush mustache blanketing his mouth. In a room adjacent to the family room, where the original desk used by Volstead sits, is a copy of a Time magazine with Volstead’s picture on the cover of the March 29, 1926 issue.

Who was Andrew John Volstead and why is this house one of only 25 National Historic Landmarks in Minnesota?

Volstead’s “Acts” are well known, but his name is uncommon except to those living in and around the Granite Falls area.

While he would rather be remembered for co-authoring the Capper-Volstead Act that allowed farmers to form cooperatives, he is best known as the man who authored the Volstead Act, which was better known as the National Prohibition Act.

“Volstead was a member of the Judiciary Committee that wrote a lot of the laws, and because he was a good law writer, he was the one who wrote the law,” said Mary Gillespie, the Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce director and treasurer of the Granite Falls Historical Society. “But it was actually a man named Wheeler who wanted to make the Prohibition Act.”

Wayne Wheeler, an attorney and prohibitionist who organized a political pressure group called the Anti-Saloon League, was the mainstay behind the National Prohibition Act. While Volstead was in favor of prohibition and was dejected that it failed, he was more upset about being portrayed as the “bad guy,” according to sources.

Volstead was a member of the House of Representatives for 10 terms. He was a highly intelligent man whose ideas were sometimes sparked by controversy. But those same ideas weren’t so much self-serving as they were intended to benefit others. But they didn’t always please everyone. For example, the Volstead Act’s intention was to rid society of the evils of alcohol. By prohibiting the manufacturing or selling of alcohol, it would not only improve health, but would also reduce the crime rate, thus relieving taxpayers of a portion of the burden of subsidizing prisons. The Volstead Act was enacted in 1918 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages for consumption.  It was introduced to the House Judiciary Committee on June 27, 1919, and passed on July 22, 1919. It was passed in the Senate on Sept. 5, 1919. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Prohibition Act on Oct. 27, 1919, but it was overridden by the House on the same day and by Congress the day after.

But the Prohibition Act lost advocates as ignoring the law gained increasing social acceptance and as organized crime violence increased. By 1933, public opposition to prohibition had become overwhelming. In response, Congress that same year legalized 3.2 beer and wines of similarly low alcohol content, rather than the 0.5 percent limit defined by the original Volstead Act.

Volstead was also involved in a highly controversial decision when he was supportive of legislation outlawing lynchings, which was a very unpopular stance at the time.

Volstead, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born on Oct. 31, 1860, in Kenyon, Minn. He attended college at St. Olaf in Northfield and also at Decorah Institute in Iowa.

While being employed as a school teacher, Volstead would study law on his own time. At age 23, he was admitted to the bar and began his practice in Lac qui Parle County.

“He moved to Granite Falls and bought this house in 1894,” said Gillespie. “He was the town’s mayor, as well as the president of the school board, the county attorney and the city attorney.”

It was in Granite Falls that Volstead met Helen Mary Osleer Gilruth (“Nellie”), who was working at the courthouse. They wed in 1894, and Laura, their only child, was born the following year.

Volstead, a Republican, was elected to Congress in 1903 and remained in office until he lost his congressional seat in the 1922 election. His ouster, as well as those of several other incumbents that year, was said to be linked more to low farm prices than to the Volstead Act. The Capper-Volstead Act he helped sponsor with Sen. Arthur Capper is still in effect today. The Act enabled farmers to form a cooperative in order to get fair prices, much like business corporations.

At the time, Volstead explained his actions:

“While the Prohibition Act has made my name known pretty much everywhere, I believe that this law is no less deserving of notice. The cooperative marketing law will do more good than any other law that you can name because it will make it possible for the farmers through farm organizations to sell their products upon an equal footing with the businessmen. If farmers are going to be successful, it is my judgment that they must become successful in that way.”

The Volstead’s lived in Washington, D.C., while Andrew was in office, but they maintained their home in Granite Falls. When Nellie passed away in 1918 at age 50 from cancer, Laura took over the duties as hostess for social gatherings.

Volstead returned to Granite Falls in 1933 and remained a lawyer there until his health began failing at age 83. He died on Jan. 20, 1947, at age 86.

Today, the Andrew J. Volstead House Museum is owned by the city of Granite Falls and is managed by the Granite Falls Historical Society, a nonprofit organization.

The museum does not have regular scheduled hours to be open but can be viewed by appointment or during an advertised, public event.

“We have a few events here during the year,” said Gillespie. “We decorate the house all up for Halloween, which is Mr. Volstead’s birthday and pass out treats.”

There is also a special holiday event around Christmas where the family can meet Santa Claus and live reindeer are on hand.

Christmas has a special connection to the Volstead House as Laura was married to Carl Lomen, often referred to as “The Reindeer King” and is credited with the link between Santa Claus and reindeer.

After Volstead died, the home was sold and many of the original furnishings were also sold or tossed away. Some of the original fixtures, such as the lighting and woodwork, still remain.

“We do have a number of the Volstead’s things, though,” said Gillespie. “We have things like Mr. Volstead’s desk, his shipping trunks, law books, a family clock and photos.”

While the home was remodeled for offices in the 1990s, the GFHS is currently pushing forward with restoring the house back to the way it was when the Volsteads lived there.

“We’re always looking for items to place in the home from the time period that they lived here,” Gillespie said. “Or, any other items belonging to Volstead that might still be out there.”

If anyone would like to assist with the restoration through a monetary donation or furnishing from the time period, they can call 320-309-0092.

Tours are available by appointment only.

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