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Phillip Tutor: Anniston, alcohol and the failure of Prohibition

Seized alcohol

Police officers standing with confiscated goods outside the police station in Anniston, Alabama about Jan. 16, 1950. It is possible that the items were confiscated in a raid and that the items were illegally purchased, untaxed liquor. 

It’s the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition, America’s unmitigated failure to enforce sobriety and moral behavior through a constitutional amendment, so here’s the Prohibition-themed difference between Anniston and every other Calhoun County city:

Anniston is wedded to booze.

Granted, the city’s founders wanted their quaint Model City experiment to embrace temperance. Sam Noble, The Statue on Quintard Avenue, preferred his hand-picked labor to be teetotalers. Daniel Tyler, Noble’s business partner, explained his desire “to keep out whiskey drinking (and) to sustain good morals” in an 1879 letter to the Alabama Legislature.

But Anniston was no sober utopia. Booze flowed from day one. 

Police and politicians spent the first decade chasing bootleggers and illicit saloon owners and Noble Street drunks. Locals laughed at the City Council’s prohibition laws. Rumors flew that the police were on the take. Fired officers gashed the skull of a newspaper editor over his criticism; a bootlegger later shot that same editor in his office. The late historian Grace Gates wrote that “by 1885, Anniston had a reputation for a lively whiskey trade” and “C.O.D. whiskey” was being mailed into the city in boxes mischievously labeled “drugs.”

Over time, early Anniston was no better at thwarting alcohol sales than was the federal government. Rotgut ruled.

Today, alcohol sales are legal in Calhoun County, with the cities regulating the time and place. Just last week, in fact, Anniston Councilwoman Millie Harris proposed lessening her city’s restriction on Sunday sales, which makes sense given that Oxford and Weaver’s Sunday ordinances are more business-friendly.

But here’s where it gets complicated.

This week’s anniversary of Prohibition’s start — the 18th amendment went into effect Jan. 17, 1920 — is essentially meaningless in Calhoun County. Thanks to the Alabama Legislature, alcohol sales had been illegal statewide since 1907, which primed four decades of knock-down, drag-out political arguments in Calhoun County over the repeal of national Prohibition and referendums for legalized sales. Here’s a bit of local trivia:

When did Calhoun County go wet? 1961 — nearly three decades after the repeal of the 18th Amendment, an illustration of why Alabama’s alcohol laws are a confusing mishmash of local ordinances and blue-law relics. 

 And remember what I said about Anniston always choosing alcohol? Well, not quite. Seven times between 1933 (when Prohibition ended) and 1961 Calhoun County held wet-dry referendums, and only once did its largest city eschew booze — in 1935, the first attempt after repeal — but only by 74 votes. The county remained dry.

Two countywide referendums were held in 1937, and the drys won both. In March, the drys prevailed by only 97 votes — despite Anniston and Piedmont voting wet. In September, Piedmont flipped and the difference rose to 322 votes, Anniston the lone dissenter.

And so it went. Three more referendums, three more failures by an odd political amalgamation of Anniston’s white businessmen who feared lost revenue, black residents and the smattering of rural residents who’d rather buy their hooch legally without having to cross county lines or fill a bootlegger’s pocket.

In 1946, Calhoun County wets carried only Anniston and Blue Mountain. 

In 1950 and 1955, Anniston was the county’s only wet-voting town. 

The Sixties, though, altered everything, from politics to global affairs, from music to civil rights. They even altered Bible Belt Alabama. And in 1961 — the year of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the Bay of Pigs, the official beginning of the Vietnam War, the Freedom Riders bus bombing outside Anniston and Roger Maris’ breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run record — Calhoun County went wet.

“Sales Okeyed For First Time Since 1907,” The Star’s headline read.  

The tally was close, only a 214-vote margin. Anniston sided overwhelmingly for legal sales. Oxford, Piedmont, Jacksonville and Ohatchee preferred dry and were in no rush to change their alcohol ordinances just because of the referendum results. Only Blue Mountain joined Anniston’s winning side. 

Plans were immediately made for the opening of a state-run liquor store in Anniston and the issuing of beer licenses. And much to the relief of lawbreakers, possession of state-stamped bottles of whiskey and gin and vodka bought in other counties would no longer be a crime.

Booze and its social risks never disappeared here, especially in Anniston, and neither the law nor clergy could stop them. Legalization was as divisive as it was inevitable. 

“This was not a battle to perpetuate liquor in Calhoun County,” The Star wrote, “but a battle to set up new machinery that will place more restrictions around the sale of a commodity that will be better supervised in the future than it has been in the recent past.”

As for this week’s Prohibition anniversary, yeah, it’s interesting. But it’s a much different tale down here.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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