Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rochester Relics: The Elbe E. Robson Story

According to its label, this palm-sized antique bottle was once given out as a party favor during the 1901-1902 holiday season by E. E. Robson of Rochester, Michigan. The bottle is empty now, and not a trace of its former contents remains after 113 years, but we can be fairly certain that it once held holiday cheer in the form of liquor. Robson's back story as a player in a local controversy suggests no other possibility.

Elbe E. Robson was born in Michigan in 1865. He came to Rochester around 1899 to take over as proprietor of the Detroit Hotel, which stood on the southwest corner of Third & Main streets (where the Hermitage Gallery is today). The hotel was a handsome two-story brick building that boasted 30 guest rooms, a dining room, a bar and billiard lounge.

As one who made his living in the hospitality trade, Elbe Robson was an ardent advocate for the rights of saloonkeepers to sell liquor unfettered by government regulation. He apparently challenged such regulation early and often; Robson wasn't long in Rochester before he got himself into trouble with the law. According to a Detroit Free Press account from August 1900, he was one of four Rochester men fined for selling liquor without a license. In December of the same year, the Free Press reported in a dispatch from Pontiac that there had been more trouble:
The December term of the Circuit Court opened here yesterday afternoon and a lively session is promised. The criminals were arraigned at 1:30 p.m. Elbe E. Robson, of Rochester, proprietor of the Detroit Hotel, paid a fine of $200 upon pleading guilty to a charge of selling liquor on Sunday. He was also assessed $10 costs. On two other charges he was released on his personal recognizance in the sum of $300, in each case, until the February and April terms of court.
His hefty fines aside, E. E. Robson was in for a rocky ride in the first decade of the twentieth century. Back in 1889, Michigan had passed a liquor control law in Public Act 207, commonly referred to as the "local option" law. Under this act, individual counties were permitted to outlaw the manufacture and sale of intoxicating spirits within their borders upon a vote of the people, which could be petitioned for not more often than every two years. In Oakland County, agitation by temperance organizations was beginning to bubble to the surface right around the time that E. E. Robson was handing out these little bottles of cheer, but it was successfully beaten back by the "saloonists" until 1908.  In that year (the same one in which Carry Nation made her famous romp through downtown Holly), the temperance forces petitioned for a ballot question on the issue, and Elbe Robson stood in the gap to defend the saloonkeepers.

Elected as chairman of an executive committee of the county's saloonkeepers' organization, Robson traveled around advocating against the exercise of local option in Oakland County.  Just before the election, he gave an interview to the Bay City Times, which the newspaper summarized thusly:
E. E. Robson, proprietor of the Detroit Hotel at Rochester, and the most salient factor in the concerted movement instigated by the liquor element of Oakland County to oppose local option, was a guest of the Crawford today. This noon in a brief interview he outlined the situation as it now lies in his county, closing with the declaration that it would be a battle to the last ditch between the advocates of the licensed liquor traffic and the supporters of the local option cause.

As it turned out, Robson was right to be less than optimistic about the outcome of the election. His faction lost, and Oakland County went "dry" in the spring of 1908. The Detroit Free Press reported in late May of that year that Robson, weary of the fight, had closed the Detroit Hotel and moved to Richmond, Michigan.  Richmond was in Macomb County, which was still "wet," so Robson operated the Commercial Hotel there for two years, until 1910, when the temperance advocates were reversed at the polls and Oakland County went "wet" again.

This time, Robson went by the book and applied to the Rochester Village Council for a proper liquor license. The application was not without controversy, as opponents pointed out the proximity of the Universalist Church (at 226 Walnut) to the hotel. The hotel and the church did, indeed, share a property line, but measurements were taken and it was determined that the two buildings were precisely 400 feet apart, the minimum requisite distance under the law at that time, so the village fathers granted the liquor license.

The seesaw battle on the issue continued over the next several years, and Oakland went dry again in 1915. In 1918, statewide prohibition was voted in Michigan, and by 1920, the entire nation was (technically) dry. E. E. Robson threw in the towel and moved to Detroit, where he and his wife went into a completely different business and operated a millinery store.  He died in November 1933, exactly one month before national prohibition was repealed and liquor again became legal in the United States.

My thanks to Rod and Susan Wilson for the photo of the bottle that accompanies this post.

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