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Our Old Times: Mayor Gideon Green and the Soft Drink War of 1933

There it was on page three of the June 22, 1932 Morning Herald, a large headline stating, “Police to Receive Orders to Treat Unlicensed Vendors of Beverages as Violators of City Soft Drink Ordnance.”

Mayor Gideon Green reminded Common Council members that the law had already been on the books since 1924 and it was time to start enforcing it. Enforcing what? In case council folk didn’t remember, he reiterated it for both them and the press.

“Under the terms of the soft drink ordinance, anyone dispensing drinks of any kind other than coffee, tea, milk, cocoa, and chocolate is classed as being in the beverage business and must obtain a city license. Anyone not doing so will be classed as a disorderly person.”

Someone probably should have asked whether kids selling lemonade were included.

Mayor Green was apparently quite fixated on enforcing this ordinance. At a subsequent meeting on August 18th, he again chided the police department for not enforcing this ordinance. “When one officer brought up the fact that some already-licensed owners are licensed to dispense beverages in only one room of their establishment but are actually selling it in more than one, Mayor Green stated that such owners should be forced to buy separate licenses for every room they use.” Local social clubs, however, demurred. On August 22nd, club representatives met with Mayor Green and “the clubs informed the mayor they did not come under the Soft Drink Law because they were not open to the public. All refused to take out licenses.”

Time passed and an uneasy truce seemed to be working between the mayor and the clubs, but the local fraternal and social organizations, notably the Moose, Elks, Eagles and Concordia continued asserting the ordinance as written applied only to individual taverns and bars, plus those located in hotels and restaurants, and not to private clubs: management of each club continued their refusal, stating “it wasn’t about the money but about the principle, and they just did not think the law applied to them.” Mayor Green, however, perceived it did, and so on March 2nd 1933, he directed City Attorney James H. Wood “to issue show cause orders to each club to show cause before City County Judge F. Law Comstock in Police Court as to why they haven’t secured licenses under the city soft drink ordinance.”

The belligerent social clubs, struck back, hiring capable local attorneys Harold Ward and William Walsh, themselves probably members of at least one of the named social clubs. As such, they no doubt intended to prove Mayor Green’s irritating Soft Drink Ordinance crusade was all wet.

Subpoenaed in Police Court that cold March morning were the stewards, a polite 1930s word for bartenders, of the four stubborn clubs: from the Elks club, Louis Ridgeway and Ross Cohan, Moose Club, Joe Politano, Eagles Club, LeRoy Daliman, and the Concordia, Alois Gebauer and Carl Franz. They were not present as defendants but, with Mayor Green serving as complainant, had been named by him to be subpoenaed as witnesses to illegal servings at their clubs.

City Attorney Wood stated, “We’re authorized under the charter to direct the court to issue subpoenas if the complainant (Mayor Green) suspects a crime has been committed, and this we have done.”

Attorney Ward shot back, “Then there is no defendant here and no one has been arrested?”

Wood replied, “Where a defendant is yet to be determined, we have the right to subpoena witnesses.”

Wood then began doing so, by calling both Elks stewards Ridgeway and Cohen to the stand, but Ward refused to allow them to testify, at which point Judge Comstock ordered them both arrested.

Wood was about to repeat the same scenario with the rest of the club stewards assembled when Judge Comstock intervened, stating that Ridgeway and Cohen could serve as a test case, inferring it wasn’t necessary to overpopulate the city lock up with harmless bartenders, especially on a Friday night.

Although Mayor Green fumed silently and City Attorney Wood blustered, “This is a serious offense: these men have flouted the city and this court,” Judge Comstock agreed to release both men into the custody of their attorneys, pending writs of habeas corpus.

Fortunately, Mayor Green’s ‘soda war’ as newspapers called it, swiftly and ignominiously ended the following morning in the Amsterdam chambers of State Supreme Court Justice Chris Heffernan, who quickly issued writs releasing Ridgeway and Cohen, along with rendering a scathing rebuke against Mayor Green and Judge Comstock, stating the proceedings against the two hapless club stewards were not only illegal but “contrary to the Constitution and high-handed.” “The crux of the thing” Judge Heffernan stated, “lies in the words, “due process of law,” otherwise we’d all be in danger of being thrown into jail at the whim of a fanatic.”

Several months after the entire controversy died down, at a July 11 Common Council meeting the unpopular and legally emasculated Gloversville Soft Drink ordinance came crashing down, forever to disappear from the Gloversville law books. On that date, “The city attorney read a resolution repealing the soft drink ordinance, which action the Aldermen adopted without a dissenting vote. Mayor Green sat silent. The highly unpopular Gloversville soft drink ordinance, which had caused Mayor Green to become the butt of much local humor, had finally lost all its fizz.

Many voters apparently thought Mayor Green should have more important concerns during the great depression than arresting bartenders. He wasn’t re-elected.

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