Hampton History Museum opens exhibit on Prohibition
In 1916, Hampton, Virginia was a saloon town. Its neighbor Phoebus was known as “Little Chicago” for its brawls and unruliness. But that changed when voters passed the Virginia Prohibition Act – a full three years before Congress passed the 18th Amendment.
“You had the tourism industry, hotels at Point Comfort, but you also had the military base at Point Comfort, Fort Monroe,” said Willow Pell, museum aide at Hampton History Museum. “You have a saloon town, Phoebus, and you've got the town of Hampton, which was an established town with saloons of its own and a lot of rural residents in Elizabeth City County. So these are all different kinds of populations, different kinds of polities that all interact with prohibition and alcohol in distinct ways.”
All that history is showcased in an exhibit that opened this weekend at the museum. It brings both artifacts and music from the era to visitors.
Willow Pell is a co-curator. They said the exhibit tells the story of Hampton as a convergence point – one of the reasons its Prohibition story is unique.
Inspired by a traveling exhibit on Prohibition from the Library of Virginia, the Hampton exhibit was born of a wealth of objects and stories Pell and others found while looking for a local element to add.
“We realized we had quite a bit of story to tell,” Pell said. “It grew into its own thing.”
The exhibit has memorabilia from some of Hampton’s resorts, photographs of moonshiners and saloons and over a hundred empty alcohol bottles on display.
“We want to provide these sorts of documents and artifacts that maybe you've never seen before that have been in the museum's collection,” Pell said.
There’s also a moonshine still on loan from the Museum of the Albemarle, used to make illegal spirits.
And then there’s the music.
Gregg Kimball curated the original Prohibition exhibit for the Library of Virginia in 2017. He used what he learned there to pick out music for Hampton.
“I've got a song that deals with temperance, which is the predecessor to Prohibition,” Kimball said. “And you'll have several songs that deal with the social impact of prohibition on regular people.”