Dry counties emerged in Arkansas in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board is the administrator of "wet-dry" statuses in Arkansas. Thirty four of the state's seventy-five counties are considered "wet" by the ABC. According to ABC, the retail sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages is legal in wet counties. In the remaining 41 dry counties, only a private club permit may be issued. Most of the wet counties have dry areas within their borders such as townships or cities. These are considered dry/wet or moist counties. The image to the right is an unofficial illustration of county liquor statuses as of 2010. The official local option status of an area can only be determined by reviewing records at a local County Clerk's office.
Into the time of the Civil War, Arkansas was known to be part of "the land of Dixie and whiskey." As early as the 1810s visitors to central Arkansas complained of traveling bands of swindlers, mercenaries, and traders, many of them "swallowed up in dram-drinking, jockeying, and gambling." By 1820 central Arkansas was so thick with saloons that the state government began taxing them to slow down growth in the business. It didn't work.
The Little Rock Temperance Society, a chapter of the evangelical American Temperance Society, was founded in 1831. The Little Rock Temperance Society was populated with local businessmen and others in the middle class who wished to keep tippling at a minimum in order to promote order in a frontier society. Ten years later the Arkansas State Temperance Society organized a march through downtown Little Rock on Main Street. In 1876 the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) founds the the first Arkansas chapter of that organization in Monticello. The first state conference of the WCTU took place in Searcy in 1879. By 1888 the state had seventy-five WCTU chapters.
The Arkansas General Assembly in 1879 passed a local-option law requiring that Arkansas communities vote on dry county measures at least every two years. An 1885 law closed saloons on Sundays, and an 1899 law outlawed the sale of alcohol from one private citizen to another. In that same year, prominent businessmen and politicians organized themselves into the Arkansas chapter of the Anti-Saloon League. Many counties by 1900 had already made themselves dry. The Anti-Saloon League fell apart around 1906 because of intense rivalries between church member denominations. A state referendum on whether to ban liquor permitting failed by a vote of 69,390 to 85,358.
The Arkansas Liquor Law of 1913, sponsored by nineteen senators, made "it unlawful for any court, town or city council to issue a liquor license except when the same is asked for by petition signed by a majority of the adult white inhabitants (including women) living within the incorporated limits of the town where the license is to be used." Anti-prohibitionists claimed a small victory in that the act allowed saloons and bars to petition county courts for licenses, much like Arkansas bars and clubs do today. The act required that pro-license counties "must have voted 'for license' at the last general election on that subject." The act did not repeal local liquor laws, but made cumulative all anti-liquor laws already in force and decisively tilted state policy against the "wets." The act was adopted on the grounds that it helped guarantee "the public peace, health, and safety."
The Newberry Act of 1915 outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol within state borders. In the year of the passage of the Newberry Act, only twelve counties remained "wet."
The shipment of liquor into the state was prohibited two years later under the Arkansas State Liquor Law of 1917. Commonly called the "Bone Dry" Liquor Law, the 1917 law outlawed "the transportation, delivery, and storage of liquor, excepting only alcohols used for scientific, religious, and medical purposes." The "Bone Dry" Law finally finished off "wet" supporters in Arkansas by attempting to completely eliminate alcohol sales in the state. The only victory left for them to claim was a Supreme Court decision that the "Bone Dry" Law did not prevent individuals from crossing into the state with alcohol.
The full intention of the "Bone Dry" Liquor Law of 1917 came to a climax in 1919 when Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, making the sale of alcohol illegal in the entire United States. Arkansas became the twenty-seventh state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. The Governor of Arkansas at the time, Charles Brough, was a major supporter of the 1917 act, as well as a supporter of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. An interesting footnote to the Prohibition fight in Arkansas is that many of the successes could be attributed to prominent African-Americans in the state urging blacks with voting rights to pass prohibition measures.
Prohibition laws in general made clandestine drinking and bootlegging much more popular. During Prohibition, the illegal distillation of alcohol was a significant business in Arkansas, especially in the Ouachita Mountains. Al Capone, who often visited Hot Springs for the spas and gambling, contracted with bootleggers in the Ouachita Forest to provide alcohol for his clubs in Chicago. This moonshine was shipped to Chicago in bottles and train cars labeled as belonging to the Hot Springs-based Mountain Valley Spring Water company.
During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas organized vigilante groups they called "Cleanup Committees" to enforce the prohibition laws. The Klan was especially active in the oil towns of southern Arkansas. In November of 1922, one "Cleanup Committee" expelled an estimated 2,000 people from the town of Smackover after attacking liquor and gambling dens there.
Prohibition ended in failure. Following the sweeping Democratic victories in the 1932 elections, long-time Arkansas Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson drafted and introduced legislation to repeal the eighteenth amendment. The measure received widespread support because many Americans believed the sale of alcohol would stimulate the economy, which was currently in the midst of the Great Depression. The federal withdrawal from legislated morality was accomplished by the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933. Fifty-nine percent of Arkansans voted for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. For two more years, Arkansas prohibited the sale of beer and wine with more than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume. In 1935, faced with yawning Depression-era deficits, the General Assembly legalized the manufacture and sale of all types and concentrations of alcoholic beverages to raise revenue.
Liquor sales in hotels and restaurants was permitted under a General Assembly law passed in 1943. An act drafted by the Temperance League of Arkansas failed in election by an 167,578-122,252 margin in 1950. A mixed-drink bill framed by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller passed in 1969. Legislation championed by Senator Lu Hardin in 1993 made local-option votes on wet/dry counties more difficult by raising the petition requirement to 38 percent of all registered voters.
The Dry Counties Coalition (DCC) was founded in the spring of 2009 as a response to the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board's decision permitting the Inn at Anderson House in Heber Springs to sell alcohol. The group stands against alcohol permits being given to establishments in dry counties. In a rally on May 30, 2009, at the state capital, Larry Thomas and other speakers protested for their cause.
Dry counties comprise about ten percent of the total number of counties in the United States. This ten percent of dry counties comprises about 18,000,000 people. Three states have more dry counties than Arkansas.
- Hot Spring
- Little River
- Van Buren
Dry towns, townships, and precincts
- Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 234.
- Tom Dillard, "How's About a Drink?" Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 18, 2010.
- Jack Schnedler, "Bottle Battles: The Never-Ending War Over Alcohol in Arkansas Plays Out in a Sprightly Exhibit and Book," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 8, 2005.
- David Y. Thomas, "Liquor Legislation in Arkansas," American Political Science Review 7.3 (August 1913): 434-435.