No-Alcohol Laws Ebb, but Prohibition Spirit Lives

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In 1856, Hannah Jumper reputedly led local women on a bottle- breaking raid of drinking establishments here in Rockport, Mass. Since then, except for one brief period after national prohibition was lifted in 1933, this seaside harbor has been "dry" - no alcohol allowed.

Then earlier this month, Peter Beacham, local antiques appraiser and Rotary Club president, inaugurated the new liquor license of a local inn. Residents voted in April to allow restaurants and inns to acquire liquor licenses (bars and liquor stores remain prohibited). With 55 percent support, the vote provided one more sign of the ebbing dry-town phenomenon, experts say, as more communities search for revenue. The erosion comes despite indications that an on- again, off-again national flirtation with temperance is hanging on.

"We're still in an antialcohol period that really began in the 1980s," says David Hanson, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Potsdam, who has closely tracked alcohol use for decades. "Maybe 15 years ago I saw a survey with questions about availability of alcohol [in which] about 1 in 8 people actually favored prohibition if it were not called that," he says. "The question described prohibition without using that word, and it got a great deal of support."

Keeping towns dry, however, has not.

The votes nearly always occur in alcohol-free municipalities exploring the "wet" alternative, and two-thirds or more pass, says Professor Hanson. "My impression is that when they fail, they tend to fail with a fairly narrow margin," says Hanson. "But many times when they pass, it's with a resounding majority." He speculates that large majorities often reflect the sway of outsiders, and that closer votes are indicative of "more stable" communities. Often these are rural.

Hundreds of counties remain dry, Hanson says. Although the temperance movement of the late 1820s was rooted mainly in the North, most of today's dry communities are in the South. Hanson and others cite Kentucky as a state with a high concentration of antialcohol towns. A few years ago, all but a dozen or so Tennessee counties were dry.

"There are states in which there are wet towns in dry counties," Hanson says. "There have been times when a place would become dry and then become wet again, and back and forth. And after repeal [of Prohibition] in 1933, there were a number of states that elected to remain dry; then there were the larger number that chose to permit a 'local option,' " he adds. The last dry state, Mississippi, went to local option in 1965.

Reasons vary for going dry. Some communities, such as Harvey, Ill., were founded as dry in their charter, according to William Rorabaugh, author of "The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition" and a history professor at the University of Washington. The charter includes a provision that if alcohol were ever introduced, the town's property would revert to an original owner. Several similar provisions have been challenged in court and overturned.

Even some resort cities, such as Ocean City, N.J., and Moorhead City, N.C., are dry. Often, local residents want to keep out rowdy visitors, Professor Rorabaugh says.

That Rockport stayed dry for so long - a 1996 challenge failed at a town meeting - makes the Northeastern tourist town, like Ocean City, something of a holdout in its class. …