Asheville Archives: Residents debate liquor sales, 1939

DRY NO MORE: J. Lloyd Britt, the chairman of the Asheville ABC Board, purchases a bottle of Old Forester in December 1947 — the first legal purchase of liquor in Asheville since 1907. Photo courtesy of Asheville Alcoholic Beverage Control

On Jan. 5 1939, Robert Lee Ellis, a prominent businessman and former president of the Chamber of Commerce, announced his public support of a growing movement to bring ABC liquor stores to Asheville and Buncombe County. “I do not consider that I am in any way advocating the return of hard liquor to Asheville,” Ellis claimed in a statement published in the following day’s paper, “for it has never been out of Asheville.”

Despite the city’s long-ago vote to go dry (see, “Asheville Archives: Prohibitionists seek to reform Asheville, 1907,” May 29, 2018, Xpress), Ellis claimed 75 percent of the city’s male population still knew where to get liquor. Meanwhile, he continued, 25 percent of the female population regularly had liquor delivered to their homes.

“I do not presume to tell anyone how they should feel on the subject of liquor or no liquor,” Ellis continued. But, he concluded, “We have it here now handled illegally. Isn’t it better if we must have it to have it handled legally?”

Additional public support soon followed. On Jan. 10, 1939, The Asheville Citizen reported that the Asheville Hotel Association also backed the campaign for a special election regarding the legalization of liquor sales in Asheville.

The organization’s reasoning was manifold. First and foremost, it asserted, “Our visitors are dissatisfied with conditions here and are known to seek other resorts offering legal liquor stores.” For those who did visit the city, the resolution continued, “our employes are constantly requested to violate the law in providing guests … with liquor from bootleggers and other illegal sources … a constant source of embarrassment to the employed staff.” Lastly, the association asserted that the ongoing illegal sale of unregulated and untaxed liquor was “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of Asheville and Buncombe county.”

Not all citizens agreed. One resident, Fannie B. McCoy, called on readers to take heed. “[D]emon drink is trying to appear again in legal array in bottle form,” she wrote in a Jan. 15, 1939, letter to the editor. “Such fiery liquids will make men and women drunk, disorderly, disgusting, and demonizing.”

In the same day’s paper, fellow dry advocate Paul B. Stahr echoed McCoy’s claim. “Defeat the ABC Liquor Stores,” he wrote. “Don’t let them send your boy and girl to a pauper’s grave or a devil’s hell.”

Debate carried on throughout the city and county. As signatures continued to be gathered in support of the special election, a 12-member advisory committee formed, organizing a formal campaign against ABC liquor stores. Despite the group’s efforts, a special election was eventually set for that summer.

On Sunday, July 23, 1939 — two days before the election — the Asheville Citizen-Times featured an entire page of opinion letters. The headline read, “Letters to the editor: Mostly concerning ABC Stores.” Both sides argued their case, echoing previous points made. One advocate of legalization pointed to the previous failure of Prohibition and its advent of “the great ‘gangster’ age.” Meanwhile, an opponent of the measure scoffed at the concept of “liquor controlled stores,” noting, “one had just as well try and control the mighty Mississippi river with a tennis racket.”

That Tuesday, July 25, votes were cast. The results made the following day’s headline: “Buncombe voters reject liquor control ban: Drys win by 5,500 majority.”

The defeat left the issue of liquor sales dormant for years, but the matter would eventually resurface. On March 30, 1947, Mrs. F.M. Felmet wrote in a letter to the editor:

“As children we used to sing: ‘The bear comes over the mountain to see what we will do.’ Now that we have children and grand children of our own the bear is again sticking his head over the mountain in the shape of proposed ABC liquor stores for Asheville and we hope he will see in case a referendum is secured, that in the final vote the righteous people of Asheville will render the bear a death blow by their vote for who wants blood money in the shape of liquor taxes instead of clean money which should go to but food and clothing for the pinched forms of little children?”

No longer seeking countywide approval, the Nov. 4, 1947, city election failed to kill Felmet’s metaphorical bear. “By a vote of 8,841 to 6,136, the people of the city voted yesterday in favor of the immediate establishment of an ABC store in Asheville, giving approval by a majority of 2,705 votes,” the paper declared.

The first ABC liquor store would open on Dec. 15, 1947. According to Mark Combs, Asheville Alcoholic Beverage Control general manager, the original store site was located at 17-19 Market St.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original texts. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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