By Jim Buchanan
A front-page story from the Jackson County Journal 80 years ago this week – Aug. 3, 1939 – sets up a tale of the wildly complicated relationship between North Carolina and alcohol.
For years anti-alcohol forces – the “drys” – held the upper hand when it came to public sentiment and the ability to enact legislation barring beer, wine and liquor sales. In fact, North Carolina was far ahead of the curve when it came to prohibition; this state enacted its own prohibition law in 1908 by a vote of 113,612 to 69,416. Prohibition became law of the land here in 1909, 11 years before the 18th Amendment went into effect banning the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.
North Carolina had become the first state in the South to ban alcohol. However, it immediately set up a thriving underground economy, with liquor flowing in from bordering “wet” states. Congress in 1913 enacted legislation making such transportation across wet/dry state borders illegal, helping spark a booming moonshine industry and giving rise to “running” shine in souped-up cars down rural backroads (which in turn eventually gave rise to NASCAR).
The 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. North Carolina refused to ratify it. In 1935 the General Assembly authorized a commission to study alcoholic beverage control in the state, the forerunner of today’s ABC Board. In 1937 the law establishing the ABC monopoly in North Carolina was enacted.
But the fight wasn’t over. From the Jackson County Journal, Aug. 3, 1939:
“With Buncombe County registering a majority of nearly 6,000 against the establishment of ABC Stores, the wet and dry issue was “brought squarely before the state again. The control advocates have been trying ever since the 1935 General Assembly to get a foothold for the ABC stores in the great west. In every county in which an election has been held west of Durham, the prohibition advocates have won victories. Mecklenburg and Catawba both turned thumbs down on the proposal, and several counties east of Raleigh voted against the control forces. The advocates of control pinned their hopes of getting a foothold in the west upon Buncombe. An election was called in Swain, just to the west of us, and the sentiment appeared so overwhelming against the control stores that the board of elections called off the referendum. That left Buncombe still to vote, and city districts have always been more favorable to the legal sale of liquor than country districts. Asheville is grown to be a sizable city, and the ABCers had hopes there. The city failed to give anywhere near as large an ABC majority as they had hoped, and the country districts and smaller towns of Buncombe piled up staggering majorities for the status quo.
The dry line in the west remains intact. If it had been broken, the probabilities are that other western counties would have said “what’s the use?” and would have established ABC stores in the near future. But that is all in the past. Buncombe held the line for the drys. And when it failed to crumble over there, the hope of liquor control anywhere in the west went a-glimmering.
Not only that. The fight that certain western members of the General Assembly of last winter put up against beer and wine and against letting down the bars any further by hard liquors aroused much of the State, and the tremendous majority Buncombe piled up leads many people to believe that these westerners were really speaking and voting the sentiments of the people of the mountains. That has given heart to the drys throughout North Carolina and has thrown a fear into the legal liquor advocates that it might not be long until the whole State will be given the chance to vote on the issue, and that when it does, North Carolina as a unit may return to the prohibition column.
At least that is the way the writers to the papers from Raleigh and other points where they keep their hands on the pulse of the people are interpreting the fight in the General Assembly, and the Buncombe vote.
We shall probably hear much about this during the primary campaign next year as the voters choose the officers for the state. The writers say there is no doubt that the pendulum has begun to swing back toward prohibition, not only in North Carolina but also in many parts of the country.”
In the end the prohibition efforts have fallen away, and it’s safe to say the 18th Amendment was repealed because it failed in its lofty goals of improving morality and reducing crime. Instead it sparked a criminal industry and an underground economy that was morally corrosive.
Famed newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams probably summed up the contradictions of prohibition in a few lines better than any historian of the time:
“Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we’re for it.”