KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Turn-of-the-century teetotaler Carry A. Nation began her campaign against drinking by busting up saloons in Kansas, which to this day has some of the strictest liquor laws in the country. But even in the town where her legacy is enshrined, the influence of the hatchet-wielding crusader is waning.
Residents in Medicine Lodge, where Nation lived for about a decade in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the site of the Carry Nation Home Museum, approved a measure this week to allow Sunday liquor sales for the first time at least since Prohibition.
The vote, which was expected to be certified Friday, allows the sale of beer and liquor on all Sundays except Easter. Last November, voters in Barber County, where Medicine Lodge is located, also voted to legalize liquor by the drink in bars and restaurants.
Some see the moves to make liquor more accessible as progress in a state that has yet to ratify the Constitutional Amendment ending Prohibition. Others think the changes would enrage the town's famous but long-dead resident.
"I suspect that Carry Nation is turning over in her grave," said Ann Bell, a Medicine Lodge resident and a member of the board of directors of the museum. "Oh yeah. I'm sure she is. She would not have appreciated the people of Medicine Lodge passing that vote that way because she was definitely not for the sale of alcohol any way, any day, any time."
Medicine Lodge, a town of about 2,000 residents in south-central Kansas, now has two liquor stores, Bell said. When the Sunday sales begin — likely Dec. 11 — Nation "would have a trail made between the two of them trying to close those liquor stores down."
"She'd probably be out there Sunday making sure nobody went in there," Bell said. "She would be saying, 'Well, I did all this work and now what's happened? All of that has gone for naught. Now look at what you people have done!"
Kansas has a history of complicated, arcane liquor laws. Prohibition ended for the country in 1933. But the state didn't repeal statewide prohibition until 1948 and still hasn't taken the formal step of ratifying the 21st Amendment that ended Prohibition nationally, according to the Kansas Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The state has 19 counties that don't allow liquor sales by the drink. Kansas also limits retail liquor licenses to one per person and requires that person to have been a Kansas resident for at least four years, according to the Alcohol Beverage Control office. Kansas does allow grocery and convenience stores to sell "cereal malt beverage," also known as "weak" or "low-point" beer, and is one of only five states to make such a distinction about beer based on alcohol content.
Nation, who started a local branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Medicine Lodge, would storm bars in Kansas with followers and break their liquor bottles. Her aim was to uphold the national and state laws that outlawed the sale and manufacture of liquor. She eventually brought her crusade to Missouri, where she is buried in the Kansas City suburb of Belton.
Her attacks, which garnered a great deal of publicity, "made a certain degree of sense," said Blair Tarr, curator at the Kansas Historical Society.
"How do you get arrested for doing something against something that wasn't supposed to exist," Tarr said.
Rita Wert, the current president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, said in an email that she was "disappointed" in the Medicine Lodge vote.
"I stick to my guns behind the statement I have shared very publicly, 'Easier to get alcohol, makes it easier to get drunk,'" Wert said.
But Maj. Robert Stutler, mayor of Medicine Lodge, supported the measure and said the local law "mimics" state law. Since 2005 Kansas has allowed each city and county to decide whether to allow Sunday sales.
"Carry Nation is history," said Stutler, a retired Marine. "Whether it passed or failed, I don't think it would change the habits of our residents one iota. ... I don't look at this as being that monumental. I think it's just a matter of us doing business as normal."
Stutler said that allowing liquor sales on Sunday is a good marketing move for a town that has been trying to improve tourism.
"I don't want us to appear not forward-thinking or appear backward," he said. "I see no purpose on imposing unnecessary restrictions on visitors."
Tarr said although he suspects Nation "would be sorely disappointed with us" because of the vote, he thinks if she were alive now Nation would find other pressing issues to battle.
"The drug problem ... I think she'd go after that too," Tarr said.
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