As the United States is a union of separate states, rather than one monolithic entity, very few things are uniform across the whole nation. As if that weren’t enough, many things are not uniform across individual states either, and are instead decided on the level of counties, and sometimes even lower. Decisions at that very local level are how Arkansas bears the distinction of being the driest state in the Union, with 34 out of 75 counties prohibiting the sale of alcohol (except in some specific cases), with even more being dry until relatively recently. Many of those that are not entirely dry are still “moist” or “damp,” meaning that some restrictions do apply to the purchase of alcohol, and you can’t purchase alcohol on Sunday across nearly the entire state. But how did Arkansas come to this dry, dry state?
In Arkansas and elsewhere, blue laws long predate dry counties. The practice was established in America by colonists who brought the tradition from their home countries in Europe. The term “blue law” refers to a law that bans certain activities on specified days. Often referred to as “Sunday-closing laws,” Arkansas passed its first blue law only a year after becoming a state, prohibiting all sales and almost all labor on Sundays. Though they gradually became less restrictive, the last state-level blue law in Arkansas, Act 135 of 1965, remained in place until 1982 and made it illegal to purchase an arbitrary and inconsistent assortment of goods on Sundays. For example, one might be able to buy a light bulb but not fish hooks, or film but not a camera.
That said, there is still a state law that restricts the sale of alcohol on Sundays, though exceptions can be made through local options. In addition, sales of alcohol are not permitted on Christmas day. On a legal technicality, these restrictions are not officially blue laws, but they fit the general definition, so it would likely not be unreasonable to refer to them as such in common usage. Currently, 19 towns in Arkansas allow alcohol sales in some capacity on Sunday, including Springdale, Tontitown, Avoca, Pea Ridge, Garfield and Gentry.
The history of dry counties dates back to the temperance movement, which began in Arkansas with the Little Rock Temperance Society in 1831. A few main groups fueled the movement, such as Methodists and Baptists, who supported it on religious grounds, or suffragists, who saw it as a way to protect women from their drunken husbands. But support for the movement was incredibly broad, crossing all other apparent lines: whether as individuals or organizations, democrats, republicans, labor movements, the NAACP and even the Ku Klux Klan all supported Prohibition at one point or another. One of the most famous (or infamous) prohibitionists in American history was Carry A. Nation, a Eureka Springs native who destroyed saloons with a hatchet. Their first major success in Arkansas was a state law in 1855 that effectively gave municipalities the power to ban alcohol by mandating that new drinking establishments be approved by a local majority. In 1962, during the Civil War, the state legislature outlawed the production of alcohol to save grain for the Confederate war effort, but that only lasted until an 1864 act that allowed distilleries to pay the state to continue production. After the war, Republicans passed a law that made it illegal to refuse to sell alcohol on the basis of race since African Americans were frequently refused drinks over concerns of alcohol fueling social unrest.
As time passed, the temperance movement gained momentum, and a combination of laws and social pressure progressively made alcohol harder and harder to obtain. By 1914, only nine counties still had open saloons. In 1917, two years before the 18th amendment instated National Prohibition, Arkansas had wholly banned the sale, production, and importation of alcohol. Of course, Prohibition is not known for its effectiveness, so bootleggers and speakeasies abounded across the state. The KKK took matters into their own hands, and a group of Klansmen who called themselves “the Cleanup Committee” began attacking drinking and gambling dens until the police properly stepped in to enforce the law. The tide began to shift with the great depression, as Americans began to see alcohol less as a vice and more of an economic boom. In 1933 the 18th Amendment was repealed, and all of Arkansas suddenly became wet again. States and counties could still decide the alcohol question for themselves, however. Arkansas remained a stronghold of Methodists and Baptists, so many counties voted by referendum to become dry on their own. When the dust settled, it was a near-reverse of the current situation with 43 dry counties and 32 wet.
Over the decades, the number of dry counties and other restrictions on alcohol have slowly been chipped away. In 2003, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board began granting licenses to serve alcohol to private clubs, so you can still buy a drink in many dry counties. On the other hand, a ballot initiative in 2014 to legalize alcohol sales statewide failed, so it is unlikely that future changes will be sweeping; rather, it promises to be a long, slow process that may never reach the entirety of the state. Check in next week for Part Two, where we’ll discuss the current battle of wet against dry and the major obstacles to getting the alcohol question on the ballot.