I was recently talking with a friend about the upcoming local option election. She said that she was going to vote for Middlesboro to “stay dry” because she didn’t want to “go back to the way it used to be.”
I agree that we should consult history for the lessons that may be learned, but first we have to be sure we are making an accurate comparison. Since Middlesboro has always been either legally “wet” or legally (though not actually) “dry,” we have no past history of being “moist.” All we can do is look at other similar cities, such as Pineville and London, to see what happened there due to voting “moist.” Are they doing better or worse?
We also have to be sure our understanding of our history is accurate. Since the last time that Middlesboro was legally “wet” was in 1955, my friend, who is in her late 50s, has no real first-hand knowledge of what the town was like when it was legally “wet.”
Middlesboro started out as a very wet city. In 1890 there were 40 businesses that sold alcohol ranging from the very fancy saloons on Cumberland Avenue with their fabled “free lunches” to the “blind tigers” that sold “rot-gut moonshine.” City government was financed almost entirely by the licensing fees paid by these establishments. In 1893 our large brewery began selling our own Pinnacle Beer. We also had at least two distilleries.
Various reform movements swept the country during the 18th century. One of those was the campaign against alcohol. The famous saloon-bashing Carrie Nation visited Bell County. She spoke at the Manring Theatre and sold souvenir axes. In 1906 the first local option election was held in Middlesboro. The “wets” won 433 to 403. However, the campaign against alcohol continued and in 1914 the “drys” won in a countywide vote even though in Middlesboro the result was 639 for the “wet” and 461 for the “dry.” All the saloons in Middlesboro theoretically closed on Dec. 1, 1915.
The whole country soon followed suit. The Volstead Act was passed by Congress in October of 1918. It was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, but was passed over his veto. The 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol nationwide became effective on Jan. 17, 1920.
There were some good results of Prohibition as the over-all consumption of alcohol did drop, more grain alcohol was available for the war effort, and there were fewer alcohol-related deaths. On the other hand, as most of us know from movies and TV shows such as “The Untouchables,” there were many bad results: The speakeasies and the wide spread acceptance that it was OK to break laws with which one did not agree, the corruption of public officials and police departments, the rise of gangs in Chicago and elsewhere, and the drain on the public treasury.
Middlesboro suffered all these same consequences, just four years earlier. By 1917 the newspaper was already reporting that bootlegging was a thriving business in Middlesboro and that “more whiskey is drunk now than when there were legal saloons.” Rather than gangs, a single family, the Balls, was soon largely controlling the sale of alcohol. (In later years, Alvey Ball would boast that he was just like Al Capone, only he operated in a smaller territory.) Once Prohibition became the law of the land, the Balls had a business relation with the Chicago gangs. In addition, their illicit profits allowed them to gain control of both political parties. Other types of illegal activities, such as prostitution and gambling, were openly tolerated. In 1927 an editorial cited the epidemic of car thefts and expressed the opinion that there was “a close connection between thefts and bootlegging.”
By the early 1930s, the deleterious effects of Prohibition were becoming painfully evident, and Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president with a campaign promise to repeal the law. In 1933 the 21st Amendment passed repealing national Prohibition. Each state was to make its own laws regarding the sale of alcohol. This in Kentucky led to local option elections.
In Bell County, there was a series of local option elections, all of which ended up in the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Each time, Bell County remained legally “wet.” Meanwhile, many cities and counties in our area did go “dry,” giving Middlesboro a large advantage as a commercial center and a convention destination. The early 1950s were a time of steep decline in the coal industry, much like today, with many in Appalachia having to move north to take jobs in factories, and there was a large population loss in the coalfields. In 1953 the newspaper pointed out that Middlesboro was the only city within a 60-mile radius that had gained population. Stores lined Cumberland Avenue and the sidewalks were crowded with shoppers. A number of large hotels accommodated the many visitors.
In the early 1950s there were campaigns against gambling, especially the slot machines, and political corruption, as well as alcohol. At the same time, both of the Ball brothers, Floyd and Alvey, who had run things for so long, were terminally ill and losing their power and influence. In 1954 there was yet another local option election. The “drys” won by 235 votes and were upheld in court. Middlesboro went legally “dry” Nov. 21, 1955.
In April of 1960, there was yet another local option election. The “drys” won by a margin of 272 out of 4,834 votes cast. The last local option election was in 1974. The “Forces for Legal Control of the Sale of Alcohol” lost 2 to 1. Middlesboro would remain legally “dry.”
Our family moved to Middlesboro in 1970 and we were somewhat nonplused — we felt we had returned to the Prohibition days of the 1920s. This supposedly “dry” town seemed to have bootleggers on every corner and, worse, they didn’t care who they sold to and were involving college students in their business, using them as “mules” to bring in alcohol from Lexington when they visited home. A large gambling hall and a house of prostitution, both operating almost openly, were located within a block of city hall and the police station. Most disturbing of all, we met supposedly upstanding members of the community who bragged of the good deals they got on “hot goods.”
The situation finally ignited a reform movement and new city officials pushed hard to enforce laws against not just alcohol, but also gambling and prostitution. However, it took just four years until the previous politicians were back in office. This time they were careful that illegal activities were not so blatant. And things were changing outside of Middlesboro as more nearby cities went “wet” or “moist,” so that legal alcohol became more easily available. In addition, gambling was legalized in the form of bingo and pull tabs. In recent years, prescription medications and illegal drugs have supplanted alcohol as the drugs of choice, further decimating the ranks of the bootleggers.
What can we expect today if we decide to go “moist?” Certainly not the instantaneous prosperity, “the way it used to be,” promised by some. The best we can hope for is to attract some “better” restaurants which will offer better jobs than the fast food joints and will attract tourists and students from LMU, who in turn may support small businesses downtown. The tax money gained through alcohol sales must, by state law, go to the local police department which may provide them with more resources to fight our drug epidemic. We may eventually be able to attract more industry in that recruiters tell us many businesses refuse to even consider locating in a “dry” area. One thing we will not have is multiple bars downtown. The “moist” requirement that alcohol can account for only 30 percent of the income of any establishment serving alcohol is strictly enforced. Although the restaurant can have a separate bar, their primary business must be non-alcoholic. Alcohol is expensive and it takes selling a lot of food and non-alcoholic beverages to stay within the required 30/70 ratio.
We all want what is best for Middlesboro. We would all like to see storefronts downtown again filled and better jobs available for our young people. Whether or not going “moist” can help achieve this, it is certainly a possibility.
Ann Matheny is a resident of Middlesboro and the author of “The Magic City: Footnotes to the History of Middlesborough and the Yellow Creek Valley.”