Gangsters, flappers, moonshine makers, anti-saloon leagues and rum runners—that’s who you’ll meet inside Savannah’s new American Prohibition Museum in City Market, next to Wild Wing Café, above Bar Bar. Walking through the two-story, 5,500 square-foot museum, guests will explore 13 immersive galleries, which not only share the facts, but also take guests back in time and walks them through the history using everything from talking portraits to new-style film reels, life-size wax figures and rooms decorated to look like shacks and saloons.
“We’re teaching, but it also feels like you’re a part of it. It’s totally unique for museums,” Museum Manager Kayla Black said. “We’re definitely an immersive museum. We like to say we’re not your typical dry museum, which is sort of a fun play on prohibition and the temperance.”
The unique characters and technology abound, everywhere from Temperance Hall to the Horseshoe Tavern, the distillery to Gangsterland, the NASCAR garage and 220 Congress Street Up, a 1920s-style speakeasy, all of which visitors will find inside the museum, run by the Historic Tours of America.
Upon entering, guests are greeted by an original 1918 beer truck and original wax figures created by one of the oldest wax museums in the country, Potter’s Wax Museum in St. Augustine, which is also owned by Historic Tours of America.
While exploring the exhibits, visitors will meet Billy Sunday (who called Savannah the wickedest city in the world), as well as Carrie Amelia Moore Nation (a radical member of the temperance movement who demolished bars and saloons using a hatchet) and Will the Moonshiner (who is actually Tim Smith from Moonshiners on Discovery Channel), among several others. Adolphus Busch and Lillian Stephens make an appearance as talking portraits and there’s even a line-up where visitors can take photos with Lucky Luciano, Al Capone and Bugs Moran. In this same room, guests can play with a decommissioned, gutted and restored tommy gun.
“People will be able to pick up and feel how much it weighs and then when you squeeze the trigger, it’ll shake, so you can sort of get the feeling of how that action would have been,” Black said. “Those sorts of things, I know people are going to really be drawn to.”
A museum this interactive was no small feat; it’s been in the works since the fall of 2015 when the first meeting was held in the space. The task of transforming what was then a retail store and apartment upstairs to the first prohibition museum in the United States took a lot of work. All of the windows had to be replaced and the brick and wood that had been painted grey by a previous tenant had to be restored where possible and recreated when restoration was not possible. Colorized photo murals went up throughout the building, cars were disassembled and reassembled inside the museum, a river of “whiskey” was installed, Carrie’s “hatchetation” bar was built, the moonshiner’s scene was created and a small theatre was set up.
Six months into the process, the decision was made and 220 Congress Street Up—the museum’s bar—was added to the queue of things to do, along with the NASCAR garage gallery and theater. Just under two years later and now all of it is open to the public.
“We have a fully functioning, operational speakeasy that will have black shelving behind it and be fully stocked. During the daytime, we will be offering prohibition-era cocktails. At night on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, we’re open for public consumption, so we’ll have a separate door on Congress Street, where you will be able to come up,” Black explained. “We’re still keeping everything as authentic as possible, but we’ll have a more creative menu at night.”
While the speakeasy welcomes guests for cocktails, the theater will have its own entertainment. They will switch from daytime screenings of a film about the unintended consequences of prohibition to showings of vintage and historic movies in the evening. The room can also be rented, along with the bar, for private events, such as small wedding receptions, anniversary parties or corporate events.
“It’s nothing like anything else in Savannah or anywhere else in the country,” Black said.
Tours of the museum, which is located at 209 West St. Julian Street, just off Ellis Square, are $12 for adults and $9 for children and expected to be about 45 minutes long. Those 21 years and older will get wristbands and access to the speakeasy. For more information, call the museum at (912) 551-4058 or go to americanprohibitionmuseum.com.