I attended college in a dry city.
I didn’t know such a thing existed when I made the decision to attend Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, in the spring of 1992. I didn’t know anyone who went there, and it didn’t come up on the tour.
It made for an interesting first few days as we, as freshman, realized our predicament, and schemed our way around this minor impediment. College and alcohol were, and are, inextricably linked, for worse far more than better.
I was reminded of this as we dropped our eldest at college last week. It also reminded me of Atlanta’s long and vacillating history with temperance, or self-restraint when it comes to imbibing.
Temperance had long been the tradition in Georgia. Trustees outlawed the sale of “strong” liquor in the colony in 1735, two years after the founding of Savannah. It lasted seven years, as early settlers complained it hurt trade business.
The first big battle came after the Civil War. In 1885, the state passed a local option law, which permitted counties to hold votes on whether to outlaw liquor. Fulton County, which included Buckhead and the city of Atlanta, held its vote on Nov. 25, 1885.
The next day, a local paper proclaimed, “King Alcohol is an exile from Atlanta.”
In the fight between the “wets,” who identified themselves with red badges, and the “drys,” with blue badges, the drys won by several hundred votes. Buckhead, for the record, voted “wet.”
But the “dry” victory wouldn’t hold, as two years later Fulton residents reversed course. Historian Franklin Garrett reported in his volumes of books, “Atlanta and Environs,” in late 1887 there were no hard liquor saloons in the city of Atlanta, but “in 1888, there were 40.”
Then, in 1907, the state passed a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol, and it went into effect the next year.
An article in the local paper reported, “Next Wednesday [January 1,1908], there will be closed in Atlanta under the state prohibition law 86 whisky saloons, 23 beer saloons, 21 wholesale liquor houses and two wholesale beer houses.”
The move cost the city an estimated $130,000 in license fees. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $3.7 million in today’s dollars. For a city of 150,000 people, that was a good chunk of revenue, erased overnight.
However, private clubs were exempt. This loophole led to the establishment of so-called locker clubs, which were located in the upper floors of office buildings downtown. Members were supposed to pay dues, but rarely did. Locker clubs were just saloons operating under another name.
Georgia’s prohibition preceded the 18th Amendment, which made the production and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States, by 12 years. That constitutional amendment lasted from 1920 to 1933. The country went dry on Jan. 17, 1920. The 21st Amendment repealing prohibition took effect Dec. 5, 1933.
Georgia remained dry under state law until 1938. In February, Gov. E.D. “Ed” Rivers signed into law a liquor tax bill, which allowed distilled breweries to operate in the state for the first time in more than 30 years. On March 30, Fulton residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing liquor to flow in bars and saloons, 11,884 to 3,658. Buckhead came out in force, with 909 votes for alcohol sales and 96 votes to remain dry.
“King Alcohol” returned to Atlanta on April 25, 1938. While the city has been technically “wet” ever since, it only recently reversed the residual blue laws, which prohibited sales on Sundays.
Just as the students of Belmont Abbey College figured out ways to acquire alcohol in a dry city, the people of Atlanta figured out ways around the prohibition laws. In addition to the locker clubs, supped-up cars speeding from the Tennessee mountains to Atlanta carrying moonshine gave rise to the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).