A superb 2004 master’s thesis completed in the University of Idaho’s history department by Donna Krulitz Smith examines how prohibition – first at the statewide level, imposed on January 1, 1916, and later, nationwide prohibition, imposed on January 17, 1920 – played out in the rough-and-ready environs of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District of Idaho’s northern panhandle.(1) The core sections of Smith’s narrative tell the story of two important trials. The first prosecuted town officials and other involved parties from Mullan, a village just six miles west of the Idaho-Montana border; the second prosecuted a like group of defendants from Wallace, Shoshone County’s county seat, six miles west of Mullan on U.S. Hwy 10 (now Interstate-90). Both sets of city leaders were accused of condoning, protecting, and illegally benefiting from illicit liquor trade during prohibition. An alleged conspiracy conducted by these defendants imposed illegal taxes, fines, or fees on bogus “soft drink” establishments and other alcohol-vending businesses, including the district’s ample supply of sporting houses. But there was an important twist to the story: The tribute system in Mullan and Wallace – unlike the sprawling graft and corruption schemes spawned by prohibition in the nation’s large urban centers – did not find municipal officials personally profiting from the arrangement. Instead, all revenue thus derived went straight into the two cities’ respective treasuries.
Town leadership saw the tribute system they erected as a workable device for resolving three key structural problems: First, there was the problem of insufficient sources of municipal revenue. Second, there was the problem of the inevitability of a brisk alcohol trade in town continuing during prohibition, driven by the district’s large corps of work-parched, hardrock silver and lead miners. Third, there was the problem of the ongoing police-related, court-related, and other municipal costs associated with, and amplified by, the presence of so large a population of young, unattached, and high-spirited men within the city limits. City leadership figured that so long as no one profited personally from their specially crafted tribute mechanism – which came to be termed the “license by fine” system – their approach represented a workable (albeit somewhat risky) exercise in administrative and fiscal realism. The absence of personal profit made all the difference, as that factor allowed for the engagement of the tacit support of most townspeople — who by-and-large shared the view that the system made the best of an awkward and difficult situation. Indeed, townsfolk rallied to the aid of their officials when those charged with federal liquor trafficking violations went to trial and, thereafter, helped support the families of convicted defendants when the latter were carted off to federal prison to serve their terms.