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A spirited fight breaks out over local alcohol bans in Arkansas

Mary Jackson of 67 Liquor in Possum Grape, Ark., fears new competition if local alcohol bans are lifted.
Mary Jackson of 67 Liquor in Possum Grape, Ark., fears new competition if local alcohol bans are lifted.
(John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times)
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Mary Jackson knows a secret about selling beer and whiskey in this backwoods burg of a few scattered souls: Some customers guzzle booze before breakfast.

The hard-core drinkers wait for her 67 Liquor store to open at dawn — men in hunting caps and camouflage pants, their pickups idling outside, cigarettes glowing in the dark.

For decades, Jackson’s ramshackle cinder-block store with the drooping barbed-wire fence has been the only show around, a county-line spirits dispensary drawing customers from nearby jurisdictions — some 60 miles away — that have outlawed alcohol sales.

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But a controversial statewide ballot measure could ruin Jackson financially and perhaps, she says, even drive her to drink. In November, Arkansas voters will decide whether to toss out Prohibition-style local laws that ban the sale of alcohol in half of the state’s 75 counties, making this semi-dry Southern state decidedly wet, border to border.

“It’ll hurt me,” Jackson says ruefully.

Package stores have forged an unlikely coalition here in the heart of the Bible Belt, joining preachers pounding their pulpits against the Arkansas Alcohol Beverage Amendment, which they say will spread the evils of drink.

“This fight has made for some unusual alliances,” said Brian Richardson, chairman of the Citizens for Locals Rights, which opposes the amendment. “The package stores and religious moral objectors — they’re certainly strange bedfellows.”

Some say more alcohol sales will encourage outside investment in Arkansas. Others want the Natural State to abandon what they consider out-of-touch laws.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, many counties nationwide passed dry laws. Although most measures have been repealed, many counties still have temperance laws of some sort. Twelve states, seven of them in the South, still do not allow retail sales of distilled spirits on Sundays.

In some ways, the Arkansas ballot is a referendum on urban versus rural life.

Wet cities like Little Rock and Fayetteville are home to two-thirds of the state’s 3 million people. Most of the rest live in dry counties or so-called moist areas where alcohol is sold only in private clubs.

An editorial in the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper claimed a statewide vote meant having “those people” in the state’s big cities decide an issue best left to locals: “This is about the ability for the villagers to have a say about the village in which they live.”

Arkansas, ranked in a recent Gallup poll as the nation’s eighth-most religious state, is a socially conservative sprawl of winding rivers and pious small towns where moral and political arguments are traditionally played out on church signboards and in the letters-to-the-editor sections of folksy weekly newspapers.

In tiny Mount Judea (pronounced “Judy”), near the Ozark National Forest, shopkeeper Denise King felt the wrath of neighbors and ministers when she began petitioning for a ballot measure to turn Newton County wet.

The weekly Newton County Times published letters that labeled King a promoter “of the spirit of drunkenness.” King said she was denied a booth at the local Elk Fest amid murmurs that she was acting as a tool of the devil.

“I took it personally,” she said, “but it didn’t stop me.”

Battles also are being waged in small towns like Magnolia and Mountain Home, and even Toad Suck. Legend claims the place got its name from 19th century river men who met at a tavern to “suck on the bottle ‘til they swell up like toads,” according to a website devoted to town history.

Now, the river men are gone and so is the booze: Toad Suck sits in dry Perry County, and many blame this irony on the influence of churches in Arkansas life.

“The religious fringe makes the most noise,” said J. Ross Jones, an artist in Batesville, seat of dry Independence County. “Tell them the sky won’t fall with alcohol sales, they’ll kick the Jesus ball: The Bible says alcohol is wrong. That’s when I recommend they move to Saudi Arabia. They don’t like that.”

Like King, Jones says he has been branded with the scarlet letter of social exclusion. A member of the statewide board of the pro-alcohol group Let Arkansas Decide, Jones says he has been banned from anti-amendment websites after pointing out that much of the opposition’s campaign funding — estimated as a few million dollars from both sides combined — comes from liquor stores.

He blasts photos on anti-amendment websites showing new beer and wine stores opening near preschool playgrounds. Richardson, the amendment opponent, says the bill does not contain provisions to mandate how far the businesses must be kept from schools and churches.

In Mount Judea, King wanted to sell beer and wine to wayfarers at her rural general store. She needed 2,200 signatures to get her measure on the ballot, but despite going door to door along dirt roads, she came up just short. Now, she’s working to pass the statewide initiative.

She continues to battle the preachers, who had countered her county ballot petition with newspaper ads that asked: “Is YOUR name on the liquor petition? Do you want to be part of any cause that could bring sorrow and misery to little children?” One minister promised to post the names of petition signers at his church.

David Faught, pastor at the First Baptist Church in nearby Jasper, said he was not using shame as a weapon. “But I’m a pastor. People do feel shame around me when they’re doing something they shouldn’t,” he said. “Some will see me in the store and say, ‘Pastor, turn away. I’m buying lottery tickets.’”

With a soft drawl, the 41-year-old father of three called alcohol “a very tricky substance” and predicted that new alcohol sales would bring more drunk driving. “I can send my boys for a candy bar and a soda pop and no one’s buying alcohol. Kids are curious; what they see, they do.”

Just up State Highway 7 in Boone County, Jeff Crockett sees the opposite. The mayor of Harrison, who led a successful campaign to turn the county wet in 2010, says DUI arrests have dropped since passage of the alcohol law. From 2008 to 2011, the county had 262 drunk-driving arrests. In the years since, the total has fallen to 155.

“I know for a fact fewer people are driving 30 miles for beer and popping a top on the way back,” he said.

The battle to allow alcohol sales in Boone County was so contentious the opposition nicknamed the mayor Jeff “Carpetbaggin’” Crockett, even though the Chicago transplant had lived there for two decades.

At 67 Liquor in Possum Grape, named for a fruit used in local wine, Mary Jackson worries about her clients. They rumble in from Route 67, a road known as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway because Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash traveled it along with other 1950s country crooners as they played honky-tonks across the South.

Many of Jackson’s customers are bleary from drink, leading to a sobering rule: drive up drunk and you’ll hit the road empty-handed. She’s even driven some home.

Jackson, 56, says the store has served locals for 60 years. But the future looks as cloudy as a craft beer. Not that everyone cares.

Outside her store, Wayne Byrd loaded two cases of Busch beer into his truck. Even though he drove 40 miles to reach the store, he’s not going to vote on the ballot issue.

“Hell, no,” he said. “I like to stay off the radar. That’s why I live out here.”

Twitter: @jglionna


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