Staggering to the Polls


Will Rogers

On April 7, 1959, the state of Oklahoma repealed prohibition after 51 years of being a “dry” state. The rest of the country had repealed prohibition by ratifying the 21st Amendment back in 1933. But not Oklahoma. Just how “dry” was it?   As Will Rogers famously said, “Oklahoma will be a dry state as long as the voters can stagger to the polls.”

 Oklahoma, “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plains,” entered the Union in 1907 with prohibition already written into its constitution.  You could say they were forward thinking, therefore way ahead of the national anti-liquor movement that swept the country in the 1920’s.  But the reasons were not what you might think.  It was partly because of a desire to keep liquor from the American Indians, and partly because of the strong southern conservative religious presence.  But the real reason:  Money.  Bootleggers were making a fortune, and to keep that fortune they had to have prohibition.  So why did it change in 1959? 

Prohibition Agents destroying barrels of alcohol in 1921 Chicago.

Governor J H Edmondson

 Well, in the early 1950s, Governor J. Howard Edmonson, wanting to get rid of the illegal booze trade, decided the best way to do that was to enforce the law already on the books.  So he issued instructions to local authorities to set up roadblocks, search vehicles and make arrests.  Of course, that’s what they were supposed to be doing in the first place.

And it worked, but then as the liquor dried up so did the convention and conference trade when they found out there wouldn’t be any drinks served.  The average Oklahoman couldn’t find a drink either, so they “staggered to the polls” in 1959 and voted overwhelmingly to repeal prohibition.  The last bastion against the demon intoxicant was gone.

You encounter that southern religious conservative impact on liquor in other parts of the country as well.  I can remember when you couldn’t buy alcohol of any kind on a Sunday.  You could drink in a bar, but you couldn’t buy it legally to take home.  It wasn’t available in grocery stores, or drug stores, only licensed bars and liquor stores.  In New Mexico, in the 1970s, we would have friends in the military buy us beer and alcohol on Sunday because the PX on the base wasn’t under the same regulations as the stores off-base in the civilian world.  You would see pickup truck beds filled to the brim with cases of Budweiser going off base on Sundays.  If you didn’t have a friend in the Air Force,  you had to stock up on Saturday to make sure you didn’t run out during the game on Sunday should some unexpected guest show up.  Always seemed like a stupid law to me.  I think they still won’t sell alcohol on Sunday in New Mexico until after 12:00 pm.

I’m sure state liquor laws are different depending on where you are.  I know Texas has some strange liquor laws.  For example, one side of a street can be in a “dry” county in Dallas/Fort Forth, and the other side of the street has liquor sales.  I really found that amusing. 

They have night clubs in Texas where you bring the booze and the nightclub provides the mixers.  By “provide,” I mean they kind of force you to buy the mixers from them at the same price you would pay for a drink at a normal nightclub.  They’re kind of neat places though.  Long rows of picnic tables, live bands, dance floor and coolers everywhere.  I’m sure they have less of a liability too, because they ain’t servin’ you, so they can’t be held accountable.  

Then they have those beer and wine licenses that you can get in some states so you can serve beer and wine in your restaurant.  But you can’t serve demon beverages like rum, bourbon, scotch, or vodka.  I think it’s all pretty stupid, but if you look into it closely it kind of all boils down to the same reason prohibition lasted so long in Oklahoma.  It’s all about money.

See how much it costs to get a license to serve alcohol in most states.  Also how difficult it is to get one.  It’s a big business and a highly regulated business here.   In New Mexico, for example, it can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to procure an existing liquor license.  So if you own a liquor license there, you sure don’t want any more issued by the state control board.  You can retire on what you’ll make off of your license when you sell it, and many have.

So, even though its not “National Prohibition Day” or anything like that, kudos to the state of Oklahoma for repealing prohibition on this date in 1959.  For finally going along with the rest of the country after 26 years of holding out, and for all the right reasons, if there are any.


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