Last no-booze Alabama county votes dry but still drinks wet

ByJay Reeves

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9 2012 9:37 p.m. MST

In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically.

Associated Press

LINEVILLE, Ala. — Clay County has almost 14,000 residents, around 100 churches and not a single place where you can buy a beer legally.

There's no Bud Light in the cooler at the corner convenience store and no fine wine for sale at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket.

But bootleggers a few streets away will sell you a can of beer for $1.25.

This scenic but poor county in the hills about 50 miles east of Birmingham harks back to the 1920s, when Prohibition was the law of the land. After a neighboring county recently voted wet, Clay County became the last bone-dry county in Alabama and one of a dwindling number across the nation.

Nestled at the southern tip of the Appalachians and lacking so much as a federal highway to bring in visitors, people here pride themselves on scraping by. To some, prohibiting legal alcohol sales is both a moral issue and part of being off the beaten path.

"Clay County is more of a rural setting. Family values are held more dearly to the heart," said the Rev. Bruce Willis, a staunch alcohol opponent and missions director of the Carey Baptist Association. With 33 churches that have 5,371 members on their rolls, the association accounts for about 39 percent of the county's entire population.

It's not that no one drinks in Clay County; possession of limited amounts of alcohol is legal, and plenty of residents buy beer and liquor across county lines and take it home. It's an open secret that bootleggers buy beer or liquor legally elsewhere and sell it in the county, said County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts, a former police chief of Lineville.

"It's pretty wet to be dry," said Watts, driving through a part of town where empty beer cans litter the ground marking bootleggers' homes.

But even supporters of legalizing alcohol sales see little chance things will change in a county that's best known for winning high school football teams and its most famous native, the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

"There's just hasn't been an appetite for it," said Matt Hooten, a businessman who splits his time between Clay County and Montgomery and favors the legalization of alcohol sales.

The issue last came up for a countywide vote in 1986, when overwhelming opposition from churches helped defeat the proposal 2,716-2,223. Local papers were filled with advertisements and letters from alcohol opponents leading up to the vote.

"Is placing my approval upon liquor morally right or wrong? God's word says it is wrong!" said one ad, placed by a pro-dry group whose chairman is the namesake for the local National Guard armory.

A petition for another referendum died about four years ago, and no one has tried again since then. Jimmy Barton, who remembers buying alcohol from bootleggers years ago and now owns an auto parts store, favors going wet. He still has one of the old petitions with only a few signatures and lots of empty lines where no one signed.

Staging a vote requires signatures from 25 percent of the people who voted in the last countywide election, and Barton said he's not sure when that will happen again.

"It's hard to read. You have closet drinkers who will vote it dry every time," he said.

No one keeps such statistics on exactly how many U.S. counties are totally dry, but the number appears to be decreasing, said Margaret Barchine. She's a spokeswoman for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Associations, composed of industry members and alcohol agencies in 17 states that have control organizations.

"Each state has its own way of operating," she said. "That makes it difficult."

But hundreds of counties prohibit sales at least in part.

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