When Prohibition officially came to an end in the United States, everyone from private citizens to the president publicly raised a glass to celebrate the ignoble conclusion of the “noble experiment.” But generations later, some places in the country proudly cling to their refusal to join the party. An examination of “dry towns” throughout America reveals much about the United States’ complicated relationship with alcohol.
The First Prohibition Era
The idea for banning the manufacture, sale, and public consumption of alcohol has its roots in the public panic that took hold in the late 1800s in America. Religious figures were alarmed at the rate at which saloons opened across the country; Ohio State University notes that there was at least one such establishment for every 150 Americans, even those who did not drink. In an attempt to stay competitive, many saloon keepers opened their doors to gambling and prostitution to complement the liquor they sold. Despite their seedy reputations, saloons – and the alcohol and vices that followed – spread like wildfire.
The leaders of the rising Temperance Movement believed that revoking the business licenses of the establishments that served liquor would create a void that the church and other organizations with likeminded philosophies about the dangers of alcohol could fill. Some leaders might have had sincere hopes that removing alcohol from the public sphere would lead to a spiritual or public health revival, cutting down on crime and improving community health; others blatantly targeted the political power of getting behind a popular idea of the times; yet others used their anti-alcohol policies as a cover for their anti-immigrant beliefs, specifically targeting Irish and Italian Catholics who used wine in their religious services.
When nationwide Prohibition was put into effect with the passage of the 18th Amendment in January 1920, results were convincing. With a government ban on the production and sale of alcohol, consumption rates dropped dramatically as did crime rates. Even as the new laws gave way to the rise of organized crime, corruption, and wide-scale civil disobedience, the framers of Prohibition still stood by the validity of their “noble experiment,” claiming that for all the faults in the implementation and execution of Prohibition, it succeeded at what it set out to do.
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Where Prohibition Lives On
For most of America, the legacy of Prohibition is not a good one. Historians point to the dangerous expansion of federal powers, the empowerment of the black market and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the number of deaths that occurred because of underground distilling practices. But in a number of towns, cities, and counties across the country, “Prohibition is not over yet,” writes Pacific Standard. For example, nearly 37 of the 75 counties in Arkansas outlaw the sale of alcohol within their borders, and as recently as 2015, residents voted to keep those counties dry. In Mississippi, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, state governments allow their respective counties to either outright prohibit the sale of alcohol or allow municipalities within those counties to make it illegal for residents to drink in public establishments. David Hanson, a sociology professor emeritus at SUNY Potsdam, estimates that dry counties and municipalities make up 10 percent of territory in the continental United States.
It is, of course, perfectly within the law for counties and municipalities to refuse to allow liquor sales within their jurisdictions. The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, doing so in a way that put the power of the repeal (and enforcement of policies thereof) in the hands of the states. Being legally “dry” is not a recent phenomenon; it took more than three decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 21st Amendment into law (and famously helped himself to a beer afterwards) for all the states in the Union to repeal their statewide bans on alcohol sales. That happened in 1966, and the state in question was Mississippi where there are still six counties that don’t allow any legal beer or alcohol sales to take place.
Wet, Dry and Moist Towns
One of the reasons for this is that because the power of regulating alcohol lies with 50 different states and not one federal government, there exists a patchwork of laws extending across the country, and even to all the jurisdictions and municipalities within those states. Some patches are “wet,” where alcohol is legally bought and sold; others are “dry,” where such transactions would violate the law; and yet others are “moist” (or “mixed”), where there are restrictions as to when and where a person can purchase an alcoholic beverage.
For example, it is illegal to purchase alcohol in liquor and grocery stores on a Sunday in Indiana, even though the products are on display and available for purchase the day before and the day after. Past attempts at doing away with the Prohibition-era law failed when the liquor store industry and grocery chains could not agree whether to sell hard liquor with beer and wine or whether to sell them in different parts of the same store, leading to a bizarre scenario where liquor stores sided with the modern Prohibitionists if it meant that they didn’t have to share alcohol-related profits with smaller grocery stores. In South Carolina, it is illegal to buy or sell alcohol on Election Day, a holdover from an attempt to stop political leaders using the promise of free liquor in exchange for votes. Corrupt as it may seem, “booze on Election Day was an American tradition,” writes the National Constitution Center; in 1758, a young George Washington “footed a huge liquor bill” to convince voters to turn out for him.
Another remarkable example of a “moist” jurisdiction is in Moore County, Tennessee. Technically, Moore County is dry, but it is also home to the Jack Daniel’s distillery; as such, visitors to the distillery cannot enjoy the distillery’s products in nearby restaurants. In “You Can’t Legally Buy Jack Daniels in the Town Where It’s Made,” KnowledgeNuts notes that the only place to buy Jack Daniels in its hometown is in the distillery’s gift shop. “Even then,” says the website, “it’s only a commemorative bottle,” and the alcoholic contents cannot be consumed anywhere within Moore County.
Staying Dry in the National Flood
In Arkansas, which has “a long history of laws regarding alcohol,” according to the Public Policy Center of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension, the question of staying dry is a question of culture. That is the opinion of Larry Page, Director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council. Prohibition had what he called a “lasting residual impact” that didn’t just remain as the rest of the country embraced drinking; it became even stronger because of it.
The idea is not limited to Arkansas or the South. A national CNN poll published as recently as January 2014 found that 20 percent of Americans felt that the very consumption of alcohol should be criminalized. Unsurprisingly, most of that 20 percent came from the South, where the thought of alcohol being “the most dangerous drug in America” is enough for entire communities to base their political lives around keeping it out of their borders. This, says Page, gives people the right to decide to restrict the flow of alcohol within their localities even if millions of others can drink without serious consequences.
In some ways, the culture of being dry is dying out. The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association found that over 22 counties and 200 municipalities have voted to allow for the sale of alcohol within their borders. Fully dry towns are “getting fewer and far between,” according to the association. Page acknowledges that attitudes toward alcohol are becoming moderate, but this only serves to make prohibitionists like him, and the other people represented by the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, even more dogged in their beliefs. In general, the philosophy is that the quality of life in dry counties is vastly superior to that in counties that have open regulation of alcohol; any attempt to convince them otherwise serves only to fortify their position.
Dry Towns and Public Health
But this revives a problem from the original Prohibition, points out David Hanson at SUNY Potsdam; banning alcohol sales entices people to drink more. In the 1920s, “nobody went to a speakeasy to have a beer [...] you went to have 10 beers,” he told Pacific Standard. When drinking is made difficult, people tend to take full advantage of the opportunity to drink. A headline from Alabama sums it up: “Binge drinking [is] highest in dry Alabama counties.”
Dry counties have relative success in cutting down on crime and public health problems, but they unwittingly promote binge drinking. Deprived of the chance to learn their limits, the residents of dry counties can easily find a liquor store or bar in another jurisdiction. Unfortunately, since dry towns are in rural counties, there are not many options for taxis or public transportation, especially late at night; when people drive to get drunk, they have to drive vast distances, and they drive back while dangerously intoxicated.
Distance and Drugs
When Angelina County, Texas, decided to go wet in 2006, voters had this in mind. Figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that people in the state’s dry counties had a fatality rate in alcohol-related accidents of 6.8 per 10,000 people over five years, which was more than three times higher than the rate in the state’s wet counties: 1.9 per 10,000 people. The less distance people have to drive to get their alcohol, the less likely a driving under the influence fatality is.
Public health advocates also fear that dry counties can become havens for dangerous drugs. Researchers at the University of Louisville found a higher concentration of methamphetamine labs in Kentucky’s dry counties. Similarly, a 2005 study in Texas found that drug-related crimes occurred more frequently in counties where alcohol could not be purchased; researchers concluded that alcohol and illegal drugs “are substitutes in consumption,” and that restrictions on alcohol can act in such a way that the rise of deviant behaviors negates the very purpose behind those restrictions. The study, published in the Journal of Law and Economics, found that Texas counties that went from dry to wet experienced a 14 percent drop in drug-related deaths as people used alcohol instead of more dangerous substances.
Economists, too, fret about what dry regulations can do to a town’s budget. When Winona, Texas, voted to legalize alcohol transactions in 2009, the town’s tax revenue jumped from $2,000 a month to $11,000. In Arkansas, a report published by the University of Arkansas estimated that if Faulkner, Saline, and Craighead counties became wet, “the three counties would experience over $10 million in additional economic activity.”
But for Larry Page of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, the research and statistics don’t mean much. He admits that the wet counties of America probably have him beat when it comes to empirical evidence, but when he looks at the quality of life in the dry counties under his purview, he is satisfied that prohibition works.
The Slow Death of Prohibition
The religious dimension is a big factor in a town’s determination to stay dry. Kentucky exists in a strange place where many of its 120 counties are dry or moist, but the state itself is home to some of the most famous liquor brands in the world like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark; but for the rural communities along its borders, this drives their determination to stay dry. In 2012, the town of Williamsburg voted by a margin of just 14 votes to allow the sale of alcohol, but the campaign to stay dry was a bitter one. In “The Slow Death of Prohibition,” the BBC explains that local and neighboring Baptist churches created a commercial that depicted the towns that had voted to go wet as centers of urban decay, with “graffiti-defaced buildings and abandoned shopping trolleys.” Dry communities, meanwhile, offered clean streets where children played out in the open. Local television stations refused to air the ad, but in 2012, London, Kentucky, (population 8,157) voted to keep its ban on packaged alcohol sales.
Nonetheless, life in Kentucky’s dry counties isn’t the pristine dream of homeland America that the advertising campaign suggested it was; the BBC noted that Williamsburg was in dire need of an economic boost, with the main downtown area half-empty and closed down. It is a reality that the dry lobby struggles with, simultaneously praising the small-town atmosphere and deriding the “fancy restaurants” and “ill-defined progress” of the wet world while acknowledging that its neighboring alcohol-friendly counties are enjoying an apparently higher standard of living.
But in places like Williamsburg, the message is clear: “Serve Jesus, not alcohol,” according to one ad. Matthew Ratliffe, a schoolteacher and former police officer, channeled that sentiment by telling the BBC that prosperity should not have to entail “a town of drunks.” Ratliffe’s perspective is defined by a family history of alcoholism, and his religious convictions compel him “to be against alcohol,” for the good of the local community. Among southern Evangelical Christians, the consumption alcohol is inherently sinful; in 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention formalized its “total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing and consuming of alcoholic beverages.”
A Very Southern Phenomenon
For law enforcement, the bigger problem is methamphetamine and diverted prescription pills, so much so that police and judges are turning a blind eye to the bootleggers bringing alcohol over the border with Tennessee, 15 miles away. A local pastor disagreed, suggesting that alcohol acts as a gateway drug to more dangerous substances and noting that keeping a town dry – as he successfully campaigned for in nearby Barbourville – can make for a healthier, more attractive workforce.
Joe Coker, a professor at the University of Kentucky, suggests that the new prohibition is a very southern phenomenon. Even though the sentiment there is stronger than anywhere else in the country, there is nonetheless a culture of drinking that is similarly unique to the region as seen with the continued production (and marketing and regulation thereof) of moonshine. These roots go deep; many of the towns that champion their dry nature are in states that were on the losing side in the Civil War. Coker wrote a book where he argued that although the temperance movement came from the north, it was the South that picked it up “to demonstrate the higher morality of the South, despite its military defeat.”
Coker believes that the dry way of life is slowly dying out. As America becomes more diverse, and technology and social media expose people to new and different ways of thinking, the dogmatic condemnation of alcohol, even within the staunchest of churches, is running thin. Younger Christians ask more questions than their older counterparts, and as one generation replaces another, it becomes progressively harder for dry towns to hold onto the old way of doing things.
The Fall of the Zion Curtain
In the birthplace of an American religion, next to a state renowned for its casinos and bars, the question of what to do about alcohol is one with many answers. Long swayed by the conservative influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which forbids the consumption of alcohol, Utah was one of the country’s most doggedly abstinent states. But in July 2017, restaurateurs celebrated the fall of the so-called “Zion Curtain,” the legally mandated partition that blocked the view of alcoholic drinks being concocted and served. Originally meant to protect children from “the supposed glamor of bartending and subsequent risks of underage drinking,” Zion Curtains represented as much as $350,000 in lost sales for business owners. The owner of a bar in Salt Lake City told NPR that patrons did not want to have to look at a frosted glass wall while they had their drinks and took their business out of the state (possibly to neighboring Nevada, home to only one dry county and a city proudly known as “Sin City”).
Utah did not let the Zion Curtain law go easily; only restaurants built after 2009 were allowed to go without the barrier, and the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control required that newer restaurants be inspected and approved before the curtain could come down. A restaurant that removed the wall without permission could be fined or lose its liquor license.
While many in Utah celebrated the end of the Zion Curtains, the state also increased the liquor markup by 2 percent. But although the bars and restaurants of Salt Lake City will likely not miss the requirement to have a massive glass partition literally cutting their business in half, some residents of the state are happy to skip the party. In Blanding (population 3,375), voters chose to keep their ban on alcohol sales, continuing a tradition that is, by 2017, over 80 years old. Business owners argued that making Blanding wet would increase tourism and help the city grow; others countered that modern-day prohibition preserves the city’s character and keeps it free from public intoxication and other problems (like tourism itself).
Business vs. Pleasure
The Mayor-elect was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the initiative to open alcohol regulation had failed by a large enough margin of votes that it would be off the ballot for years to come, ensuring that the fall of the Zion Curtain would do nothing to change the way of life in Blanding. For now, residents of the city will have to buy their alcohol at a liquor store 20 miles away.
Sharon Guymon, a restaurant owner who campaigned for the wet measure after years of her customers wanting alcohol, lamented what the loss would mean for Blanding. Hinting at the irony of the situation, Guymon is a practicing Mormon and is thus a nondrinker but was disappointed that her business will probably lose customers who want a simple glass of wine with their meal.
The Strange Relic of Modern Prohibition
To international eyes, the obsession with keeping America dry is “strange,” in the words of The Guardian. The dozens upon dozens of different wet, dry, and moist laws amount to a “crazy quilt” of alcohol policies; for example, even while some states do allow alcohol sales on Sundays, customers cannot purchase their alcohol until noon.
The Guardian describes such laws as “relics,” suggesting that the Prohibition-era rules regarding alcohol are outdated in the 21st century world, especially in the face of other public health issues like drug abuse and gun control; “Alcohol looks a lot worse by comparison,” according to Maryland State Senator Karen Montgomery, who was one of the lawmakers who pushed legislation allowing her town to vote for alcohol sales. Even one of the largest awareness groups in the United States, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has no official problem with dry laws going moist, as long as level of alcohol consumption is reasonable and legal.
For many dry towns, the question of remaining dry may have been religious or sociological at some point, but the economic realities of drumming up business to replace old industries, convinces many to entertain the notion of going wet or at least moist.
On an individual level, some residents see it as a simple case of not having to drive out of town to have a wine or beer after dinner. Other residents see it differently but acknowledge that they are fighting a losing battle. A pastor of a church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, “was a vocal opponent” of his Benton County initiative to legalize retail sales of alcohol and told USA Today that it was a “travesty” that the vote went the way it did. “But it’s over,” he conceded, and refused to comment further.
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