Ardent Spirits in Washington County: An examination of laws governing intoxicating drink

Pioneers who settled Washington County and other areas of the state in the early 1800s would have been shocked and highly annoyed with laws passed before the end of the century which regulated and ultimately prohibited the production and use of alcoholic drink. Personal freedoms taken for granted by men who forged the frontier slowly eroded as reform elements in society attempted to change the nation’s drinking habits. Instead of men guiding their own ‘manifest destiny,’ those who considered themselves “God’s defenders” presumed to know what was best for every man. Along with such moral regulations, however, came an onerous cost to the young nation as commonly accepted behavior became criminalized. Inevitably, the rule of morality would be replaced by the rule of outlaws.

…Washington County’s county seat Fayetteville hosted a well-established temperance movement by 1841, at which time the local chapter was humiliated by the discovery that its vice president had fled to Texas after embezzling over $20,000 through his job at the bank. Stirred to greater vigilance by this event, the society publicly excoriated a member who confessed to drinking wine. In another “outing,” the society issued a summons against such noteworthy local citizens as Joseph J. Wood, John J. Stirman, and H. J. Sanderson for “the violation of their pledge to said Society.” According to an account of the Fayetteville Temperance Society 1841-1844, published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, “Sanderson arose and publicly confessed that he frequently drank Ardent spirits and sometimes to excess.”  The Society approved a motion to report him as a person unworthy of membership.

Reflecting the increasing regulation and growing public hysteria about alcohol use under the incitement of temperance activists, the issuance of licenses in Washington County dropped off dramatically by the mid-1850s. In 1855, the Arkansas legislature passed a law allowing local townships to vote whether to allow alcohol sales within their boundaries. Fayetteville’s newspaper the South-West Independent carried frequent comment on this state of affairs, the tenor of which insinuates the editor’s low regard for such efforts, such as this February 10, 1855, piece:

“Bear it in mind, that the law now in force, in regard to retailing ardent spirits, requires the individual wishing to set up a dram shop to present to the county court a petition signed by a majority of the voters of the township in which the grocery is to be located, before he can obtain license to retail drams!

“Some of these petitions are already before the people, and it will soon be tested whether a majority of voters of Washington county are in favor of retail liquor shops or not. We believe, however, that there is, at present, only one licensed grocery in the county, and it may be that the hundred dollar tax will prevent the test from being applied to all but Prairie township; if so, the present law will affect only the people in and about Fayetteville. Practically, the passage of this law can affect Washington county but little. Still, for its moral effect, the public mind ought to be wide awake upon the subject, and act from principle.

“How would it do to hold public meetings and have a little free discussion upon the subject? We make the suggestion and hope to see it acted upon; in this way both sides of the question may be freely and fairly presented to the public. We want the test to be a fair one.”

A local establishment selling alcohol had its own ideas about the call for stricter regulation, as noted in this advertisement published in the Fayetteville newspaper.

Don’t miss these fascinating stories of early Fayetteville available in Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past. Available at Amazon.com

From 1835 to the present day, the City of Fayetteville in Washington County, Arkansas, has enjoyed a vibrant and colorful history. Its reputation as a regional center for arts, culture, and education began early in its history. Frequently named one of the nation’s Top 10 cities, Fayetteville hosts the University of Arkansas and its famous Razorback athletic teams.

The five articles contained in “Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past” focus on under-reported aspects of that history. Published initially by the county’s historical society, these intensively-researched works have been revised and expanded with illustrations, photographs, and maps.

“The History of Fayette Junction and Washington County’s Timber Boom” now include not only an in-depth review of its first major industry but also three appendices which examine wagon production in Fayetteville, the name and tradition of Sligo, and the Fulbright mill.

“Quicktown” delves into the story behind this quirky short-lived suburb in south Fayetteville.

“546 West Center” tracks the development of a landmark Fayetteville property from its earliest use as a site for an ice factory in the 1880s.

“The Rise and Fall of Alcohol Prohibition” documents the use, production, and regulation of alcoholic drink in Washington County from before statehood through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and features indictment and other crime data.

“175 Years of Groceries” follows the transition from country store to supermarkets to big box stores and includes newspaper advertisements showing price changes over those decades.

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