Home Life-Free Liquor Election 2019 Part 1

Liquor Election 2019 Part 1

On Saturday, November 16, acting in response to a petition circulated by Texas Petition Strategies working for clients including Brookshires and Wal Mart – the voters of Minden will cast their ballots in a special local option liquor election for Minden. Such ballots have a long history in our community and in the next two Echos we are going to briefly look at what will be on the ballot and what it means and also give a quick overview of the history of alcohol sales in Minden

When Minden was founded in 1835, there were no laws regulating the sales of alcohol. Things were “wide open” and with Texas not so far away from a foreign country, Minden was truly the Wild, Wild West. Saloons and drinking were standard features of Minden and all frontier towns. Around 1840, a newspaper reporter from New Orleans carried back the report that the cultured young men of the town had formed a temperance society, hoping to calm things down. But the status quo remained until well past the Civil War. 

In the years after the Civil War, the temperance movement began to grow in the US. The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 and began its battle to outlaw liquor sales that would eventually culminate successfully with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919.  The anti-liquor sentiment was particularly strong in the Bible Belt of the South. 

By the early 1880s, the state of Louisiana had passed laws allowing individual political units – usually at the Ward level, to vote and outlaw the sale of alcohol in their jurisdiction. Here in Webster Parish, the elections sprang up like weeds. In those days of five wards, several of the wards were a ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth between wet and dry. Ward Four, Minden was more reticent. Minden had its first liquor election on Saturday, October 11, 1884, the voters by a margin of 337 to 313 left the Ward and the Town of Minden fully wet. It was more than a decade later when the second local option election was held. In that ballot, on August 7, 1894, the tables were turned. Although the actual vote totals are not found in any source, all sources agree that alcohol sales in Minden were voted out on that day, effective December 31, 1894. In the 1930s, when that condition finally changed the date was confirmed by local businessman Joe Miller, who had owned two saloons he had to close at the time the prohibition went into effect.

Minden would retain its dry status for nearly forty years. Gradually, the other areas of the parish became dry, with the last area being Dubberly which voted out liquor in 1902. So, when the 18th Amendment became law in this country, enforced by the Volstead Act, nothing changed in Webster, she was already free of legal alcohol sales. Make note of that word legal – it will be key throughout this article. Minden area residents were nothing if not resourceful and bootlegging became a booming cottage industry. The Sheriff regularly went on raids throughout the parish rounding up suspects. I have in my possession an oath that Sheriff B. F. Griffith forced his Chief Deputy to sign shortly after they took office in 1904. The deputy was sworn to stop buying liquor from the bootleggers and to refrain from drinking as a condition of keeping his job. It was during this era that another very popular form of getting around the laws emerged. Drug stores were allowed to stock and dispense alcohol for medicinal purposes. That soon became the method of choice for many town residents who developed a myriad of “illnesses” that required a little taste to cure. It became big business for the drug stores a practice that would continue for nearly a half-century. 

Enforcement of the laws against bootlegging really stepped up in 1921 when a new state law took effect, making the operation of a still a state crime punishable in state courts. Sheriff A. H. “Hutch” Phillips jumped into action. Sheriff Phillips and Deputies J. B. Batton and J. B. Lee immediately launched a campaign against illegal stills in the parish. The first day the law was in effect they raided a still north of Flat Lick that had an 80-gallon capacity and 500 gallons of sour mash ready to be distilled. Within that 24-hour period, 5 stills were confiscated. Within the first 25 days the law was in effect, the Webster Parish Sheriff’s Office captured nearly 40 stills or more than 1 per day. The capacity of these operations ranged from 20 gallons on up to two that exceeded 100 gallons. The local court developed a backlog of cases to be heard. Eventually, every one of the accused was convicted and most faced fines of between $100 and $200 dollars and sentences of thirty to sixty days in jail.

The next big change in Minden’s “drinking status” came with the repeal of Prohibition in early 1933. The big day in Minden was March 27, 1933. Prohibition had been repealed on the national and state level.  By ruling of the Attorney General of Louisiana, this repeal applied to all local prohibition laws even if they predated the Volstead Act.  Minden had been “dry” for nearly four decades, and few citizens could remember a time when liquor had been sold legally in Minden. On March 27, 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages became legal in Minden. Actions taken by the Police Jury and City Council during April would limit the sale to “3.2” beer, yet, even with that limitation, it was quite a change for Minden.  This was a very different time for Minden and it is unusual to see in some of the photos showing street scenes, signs outside local businesses advertising beer for sale. 

By 1938, some elements of the local community thought the open sale of alcohol had gone on for long enough. A movement arose among local ministers and aided by City Councilman Leon Adkins, a Baptist deacon. A formal drive began in the churches with petitions calling for a local option election being circulated. At its meeting on December 7, 1938, the Webster Parish Police Jury was submitted petitions signed by more than 25% of the registered voters in Ward Four, calling for an election. The date for the election was set for December 27, 1938, with two propositions on the ballot: the first would outlaw the sale of beverages with more than 1//2 of 1% of alcohol content; the second would make it illegal to sell any beverage with more than 6% alcohol content. It was not clear what would happen should proposition one pass and proposition two fail, but that issue never arose. Separate ballot counts would be made for Minden and Sibley as municipalities and the rural areas of the Ward. The short campaign gave little time for promotion but both sides took out newspaper ads – the “pro” liquor side pointed out the tax revenue that had come to Minden since sales were legal, while the “anti” liquor side relied on the traditional arguments of the harm liquor caused to society. On election day Proposition 1 was defeated in Minden by a vote of 376 to 239; Proposition 2 lost by 393 to 241. Sales were also voted out in Sibley and the rural area. Thus after five years of legal alcohol, Minden and South Webster Parish were once again dry. City Attorney John T. Campbell drafted an ordinance that was used by both the City Council and the Police Jury. It ended all sales on February 28, 1939, at midnight. 

Little changed in Minden in terms of the law over the next three decades. Enforcement did take some interesting turns as bootlegging and illegal sales through drug stores continued, largely unabated. In 1954, under the administration of Governor Robert F. Kennon of Minden and his head of the State Police Frances Grevemberg, a state-wide crackdown on alcohol sales began. It reached Minden on November 20, 1954, the day of the LSU-Arkansas football game at State Fair Stadium in Shreveport. That Saturday afternoon while the game was going on and much of Minden was distracted, the State Police swooped into town. Three drug stores, one grocery store and one private residence were raided and thirteen people were arrested. More than 100 cases of whiskey were confiscated. Among those arrested and eventually convicted were Minden Mayor and pharmacist, John David, Sr. yet, throughout the rest of the 1950s and on through the 1960s, the issue of alcohol sales in Minden seemed to be forgotten. In 1961, Police Chief Harold Gilbert did complain that the local law was difficult to enforce, particularly regarding sales that were labeled as medicinal. A committee from the Minden Ministerial Alliance, requested the Council to write some tougher enforcement laws, but City Attorney Henry Hobbs advised the Council that the local laws went as far as possible under the applicable state laws.

That all changed in May 1974. The banner headline on the May 3, 1974 issue of the Minden Press-Herald proclaimed: “The City of Minden is Wet.” The Louisiana Supreme Court had in ruling on a case filed in another jurisdiction that any and all local liquor laws passed in Louisiana, prior to the 1948 revision of the law were null and void. Since Minden had passed its laws regulating alcohol sales in 1939, those laws were declared invalid and removed from the books.

Next week’s Echo will look at the spirited battle that took place after the court ruling, and developments of the last 45 years setting the stage for the November 16 election.