75 years after Prohibition, the alcohol debate rages on

By chillinwill · Nov 10, 2008 ·
  1. chillinwill
    Poison, devil's drink, booze, hooch. Double malt, microbrew, cabernet, whiskey.

    Generations after Prohibition ended in the U.S., alcohol still holds a double edge: Many people feel alcohol is the work of the devil and should be eliminated. Others enjoy "adult beverages" guilt-free.

    An estimated 18 million people across eight states in the U.S. live in dry counties, which forbid the production or sale of alcohol, according to David Hanson, sociology professor at SUNY-Potsdam in New York.

    Across Alabama, 25 of 67 counties are dry, and the majority of those - 17 - are in the northern part of the state. In this desert of dry counties, Florence in Lauderdale County and Colbert County and it municipalities stick out as the only wet regions for miles in northwest Alabama.

    What caused this geography of prohibition and imbibition living side by side?

    To add to the patchwork, St. Florian, a Lauderdale County town of 471 residents of German ancestry and Catholic roots, voted in August, 113-71, to legalize the sale of alcohol.

    Across Alabama, the general election acted as a referendum on the wet/dry status of several counties and one town. The town of Arab and Cleburne County voted to legalize alcohol sales, and conversely, Randolph, Blount and Geneva counties rejected proposals to transform into wet counties.

    Many outside the region see dry counties and cities as odd relics of Prohibition's bygone era at a time when methamphetamine may be more of a community issue.

    Many local members of the Churches of Christ and Baptist faiths, however, see alcohol as the sin that gets ignored as a root of many miseries.

    "Everybody knows someone whose life was taken who would not have been taken if not for the influence of alcohol," said Cory Collins, dean of students at Heritage Christian University in Florence and minister at Mars Hill Church of Christ.

    Collins spoke against alcohol not only from his faith but from alcohol-related fatalities, potential medical harm from alcohol and economic costs.

    "Our society is so outspoken about tobacco," Collins said. "Isn't it a paradox that basically our culture does not want to use the same reasoning for alcohol?"

    "Most Baptists would tell you that the Bible does not explicitly tell you not to drink," said Jeff Eddie, associate pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals. "Technically, the Scripture doesn't say you should never drink. It says you shouldn't drink to an excessive point.

    "Most Baptists don't drink at all because you don't know where the limit is."

    The Rev. Billy Ray Simpson, of First Love Ministries, has railed against the alcohol issue at Florence City Council meetings. Simpson calls himself an "ex-alcoholic" who was "saved from alcohol" almost 20 years ago. Simpson argues that alcohol is a starter drug that leads to harder drugs and crime.

    "You never know which one will pick it up and can't put it down again," said Simpson, who would like alcohol to be banned.

    Prohibition in the U.S., also known as the Nobel Experiment, started in 1920 with the 18th Amendment, later appealed in 1933.

    "Prohibition is going to come again," said Gene Amondson, presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party who was on the Nov. 4 ballots in Florida, Louisiana and Colorado.

    "We've got to get the people to realize responsible drinking is a good idea, but it's like teaching a pig to eat with a spoon," Amondson said.

    "You don't teach children responsible smoking or responsible meth use," said the critic of alcohol who called Prohibition "our best 13 years."

    Amondson said he could see a middle ground if scientists had a way to genetically test for alcoholics.

    At the time that Florence and Colbert County went wet (1984 and 1982, respectively), the main argument was for economic development - a way to generate revenue at a time of high unemployment and industry instability.

    Flash forward, and in the Shoals, alcohol sales taxes in many cases add to the area's educational and general funds.

    In Florence, 10 percent of alcohol sales taxes go toward education ($62,534 in 2007), whereas the rest goes to the general city fund ($831,405 in 2007), according to city treasurer Dan Barger.

    For Muscle Shoals, 20 percent of sales taxes ($47,417) go to the school board whereas the rest ($189,665) goes to the city's general fund, said Ricky Williams, Muscle Shoals city treasurer.

    Frank Potts, a Florence attorney and lifelong teetotaler, was administrator, board member and chairman of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board of Alabama from 1962 to 1979 - an era when the Shoals was completely dry.

    "I was always for the principle that the people should have a choice," said 93-year-old Potts, a Seventh Day Adventist. "The commandments of the Bible - they should be obeyed, but no church or organization has the right to force them upon you."

    Colbert County held seven referendums in 25 years, but it wasn't until October 1981 when the county finally voted wet, 10,576-9,411, at a time when unemployment was close to 20 percent and the area was in need of economic development.

    In Florence, residents voted the city wet in 1984 by 57-43 percent margin, according to news accounts.

    "When everything was dry here, back in the 1950s and '60s, in my judgment there was more alcohol consumed," said Robert Gonce, a Florence attorney. "There were some places here that had open bars for members that were never touched by law enforcement," including some country clubs and lodges, he said.

    "Every five or six years, there would be a raid, but they generally operated without interference," he said.

    Bootlegging also was prevalent in the area, according to many residents.

    One former Colbert County bootlegger, who requested anonymity, recalled how it was difficult to go hunting without running into a whiskey still.

    He described whiskey stills 20 feet high that would be filled with 900 gallons of water, 1,000 pounds of sugar, three packages of yeast cakes and three bushels of corn meal.

    For police, giveaways for the stills were either the smoke from burning wood or unusually high numbers of discarded sugar bags, the former bootlegger said.

    Former Colbert County Sheriff Buddy Aldridge, of Tuscumbia, said alcohol sales in the county had several effects. Before, countywide bootlegging operations were difficult to prosecute without hard evidence - and the wide berth of the county was difficult to patrol.

    When Colbert County went wet, Aldridge said arrests for driving under the influence, or DUIs, increased, but drinking spots became more central, making them easier to patrol.

    Littleville, a town of about 1,000 residents, is adjacent to dry Franklin County and is home to four liquor stores and two bars.

    Junior Gandhi, owner of Green Life Package Store, is from New Jersey, where he said alcohol is sold with far fewer regulations. He estimated 70 percent of his customers in the Littleville store come from nearby dry Russellville.

    When asked what the euphemism "package store" meant, Gandhi said, "Maybe religion is so strong, they don't want to call it a liquor store."

    Glenda Bachman, owner of Oasis Lounge and Grill, said Littleville wouldn't be a town if it weren't for alcohol sales.

    "If Russellville were wet, you wouldn't see such a concentration (of alcohol-related businesses)," Bachman said, and estimated 90 percent of her business came from dry regions.

    Oasis is classified as a private club, which means it can serve alcohol 24/7, Bachman said. Bachman, of Chicago, makes no apologies for serving alcohol but doesn't advocate consuming to excess.

    "If (Russellville) went wet, it would hurt our business," Bachman said at a Wednesday happy hour where truckers, carpet layers and machinists drank beer after work.

    Larry Wade, of Russellville, drank a Miller Lite longneck after work as a tool-and-die maker and before he met his wife for dinner.

    "Drinking and gambling will not send you to hell," said Wade, a church-going Baptist. "Denying God is the only thing that will send us to hell."

    By Trevor Stokes, Staff Writer
    Published: Monday, November 10, 2008 at 3:30 a.m.
    Last Modified: Sunday, November 9, 2008 at 10:53 p.m.
    Times Daily

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