Shift Toward ‘Wet' Taking Arkansas by Storm

Ben Johnson Commentary

Shift Toward ‘Wet' Taking Arkansas by Storm
Ben Johnson

In the conclusion of my 2005 book, “John Barleycorn Must Die: The War Against Drink in Arkansas,” I suggested that an uneasy truce in the wet-dry battles had been established.

In 1993, then-state Sen. Lu Hardin sponsored legislation requiring that petitions to hold local option elections be signed by at least 38 percent of voters. Political observers believed that this set the bar too high for citizens to either evict or invite Barleycorn into their counties.

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Much to my surprise, a spate of long-dry counties has since 2005 secured the needed signatures and approved setting up retail liquor outlets. The reasons for several of these counties reversing course are not hard to fathom — for example, those on the Missouri border with substantial numbers of retirees such as Sharp or urbanizing Benton. Yet there was a collective gasp in 2010 when Clark County shifted into the wet column.

Almost without exception, college towns in the state had been cordoned off from demon rum, and the presence of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia would seem to have made that county invulnerable. The final margin of victory for the wets was clear cut though not overwhelming at 56 percent.

Just as citizens in Independence County recently have been moved by neighboring Sharp County’s action to start a wet petition drive, groups in southwest Arkansas locales view as persuasive the arguments raised in Clark County that going wet bolsters tax revenues, tourism and business development. Sales tax collections in Clark County rose 5.2 percent in its first year of allowing liquor sales.

Columbia County, in stark contrast to Golden Triangle cousins Ouachita and Union counties, has been staunchly dry since the advent of local option elections in the late 19th century. Along with the rest of Arkansas, the abolition of statewide prohibition in 1935 opened the doors for legal liquor proprietors in Columbia County (moonshiners and bootleggers had enjoyed a monopoly until then).

The county was part of another wave during World War II, although headed this time in the opposite direction as it joined a large number of counties re-establishing local prohibition. In subsequent years, the mistaken assumption that women exiled demon rum while the men were away in military service has become almost a historical truism. In 1942, an initiated act that made it much easier to call local option elections enabled the dry forces to regain the advantage.

Arkansas today remains among the few states fractured into a patchwork of wet and dry regions. The surge of local option elections expanding the boundaries of wet territory has provoked calls in state publications for a uniform statewide system of liquor sales that could not be eroded piecemeal by local referendums.

In 1933, business interests spurred the drive to repeal national Prohibition, insisting that the lack of enforcement had provoked contempt for the law and the shutdown of an industry without compensation had violated free market principles. The defenders of Prohibition touted the decrease in drinking and corresponding social problems during the 1920s, but the falling away of liberal reformers who had once hailed the virtues of the 18th Amendment weakened their cause. Above all, the Great Depression was decisive in ending the faltering “Great Experiment.”

Our lingering Great Recession and uncertainty over job growth has whittled the debate for numerous local officials and business leaders down to whether the economic promise of a wet future outweighs sustaining an abiding dry tradition.

Ben Johnson is the John G. Ragsdale Jr. & Dora J. Ragsdale Professor of Arkansas Studies at Southern Arkansas University. He is the author of “John Barleycorn Must Die: The War Against Drink in Arkansas,” published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2005. His commentary is reprinted by permission of the