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Alcohol sales fuel spirited debates in East Texas

Among the outposts of East Texas, where the battle over drink still rages, Ray and Jean Smith are fighting for tiny Murchison to go “wet.”

Owners of the general store, the Smiths have yet to sell a drop of liquor in this farm town named after a Confederate army recruiter. But they say business could use a lift and Murchison, population 600, could use the steady revenue stream.

Theirs is a town without a police force or property taxes to pay for one. The days of the cotton gin are long gone. There’s not much more here than two gas stations, First State Bank, Sunrise Doughnuts, the Ride and Drive car dealership and Piggy’s Barbecue.

So last year, the Smiths gathered signatures door-to-door to put the question to the townspeople: Should Murchison allow the sale of alcohol?

A Baptist and Methodist respectively and parents of a Baptist preacher, Ray and Jean Smith assured neighbors they were not encouraging them to drink — the merchants simply considered liquor, wine and beer products to be sold. After all, other towns in Henderson County were going from “dry” to wet.

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As election day approached, the Smiths cleared an area at the back of their store to install beer coolers.

They approached the mayor and his circle down at the Chevron station in hopes of winning their support. The couple also kept an eye on the new preacher around the corner at First Baptist Church.

“I expected them to vote against it,” Ray Smith, 70, said. “But I didn’t want them to rile people up and preach about it from the pulpit.”

*

East Texas had stayed largely dry for decades, shielded from change by a curtain of pine forest and Southern Baptists who saw no need to repeal Prohibition. Caney City was among the first towns in Henderson County to go wet more than four decades ago. At the time, it was considered an oasis, among the few wet spots for miles around in what amounted to a drinker’s desert.

The landscape changed after 2003, when a new state law made it easier to place alcohol measures on the ballot. Residents mounted 601 elections to legalize alcohol sales. Of those, about 77% succeeded, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Now, only 22 of the state’s 254 counties remain dry, about half as many as five years ago, mostly in the devout periphery of East and West Texas and the Panhandle. Of those permitting alcohol, 46 are completely wet, while the rest are “moist,” allowing sales to varying degrees.

Wet and dry towns may seem at odds, but they’ve actually formed symbiotic relationships, with wet locales reliant on dry ones to turn a profit.

Henderson County, population 79,000, is dappled with small towns among rolling hills and forests of loblolly pine, sweet gum and flowering dogwood — all fed by the Neches and Trinity rivers.

Four years ago Malakoff, among the county’s largest towns with 2,300 residents, allowed beer and wine sales at local stores and mixed drinks at restaurants and bars. It was followed by Athens, the county seat, which last year permitted the same thing.

Also last year, Gun Barrel City approved an ordinance to allow late-night drinking at bars. In unincorporated Cross Roads, there was an attempt to convert its sole landmark, a defunct gas station, into a bar, but it failed.

Late last year, the fight moved to Murchison.

The mayor at the time was Mike Hill, 64, a wiry Vietnam veteran with a wide mustache and weather-beaten face. No teetotaler, he has been known to enjoy a beer or two, and saw the inside of more than one Caney City honky-tonk during his “wild and woolly” days. But he insists drink has no place in his town.

“It brings troubles,” Hill said, recalling how his cousin, a moonshiner, “went in the hoosegow for it.”

You can tell him all you want about studies that show dry towns see more alcohol-related car crashes than wet ones, as drinkers drive elsewhere and then home. He believes his son Buddy Hill, police chief in Athens, who says there has been an increase in crime since the town went wet.

There’s a reason, Mike Hill adds, that Caney City needs police and crosses planted alongside the road to remember victims of traffic accidents.

When the Smiths got their alcohol measure on the ballot last fall, time came to choose sides. The mayor distributed fliers from First Baptist Church Murchison imploring the electorate of 450 to “Vote against the sale of liquors.”

Much was at stake, and not just in Murchison.

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Caney City, 20 miles west, has relied on alcohol ever since it washed over town, metaphorically speaking, in 1969. At the time, the community of just 280 was made up mostly of black sharecroppers and students at St. Paul’s Industrial Training School, described by local officials at the time as a home for “abandoned colored children.”

The election that Jan. 25 was inspired, in part, by a new reservoir that enveloped the town, transforming Caney City into a crooked finger of lakeshore property that beckoned developers from across the waves.

The vote was 33 to 9 to go wet.

The local paper aptly predicted a “booze boom.” Flashy liquor stores jostled for space with a battery of bars moored along the highway: the Oasis, Wander In, Wasted Money.

Soon the lake was stocked with largemouth bass and pleasure boats, the piney back roads of Caney City awash in nameless roadhouses that drew patrons from across East Texas. As the bar crowds swelled, so did Caney City’s reputation for violence. If you come here, locals said, best bring a knife.

But as other towns in Henderson County have gone wet, the flow of customers into Caney City has slowed, as if drained by the same epic drought shrinking the reservoir.

One Saturday night, Joe “Mojo” Dwight surveyed his empty bar, the Moon: lonely stools, dart boards and video consoles, despite a glimmering cooler full of Coors, Shiner, Seagrams wine coolers and margaritas-in-a-bag. A lone cowboy in a black Stetson worked the battered pool table.

“This town’s going to dry up and go away,” Dwight groaned, nursing his Keystone Light beer.

Dwight, 57, blames nearby towns. When Malakoff went moist, business dropped 10%. After Athens did, he spied former patrons buying six-packs at the Wal-Mart. Dwight never imagined this when he took over the bar in 1985, alcohol seeming as dependable a draw as the lake.

“When things are good, everybody goes out and drinks,” he said. “When things are bad, they cry in their drinks.”

Dwight knows Baptists keep him in business. They may not stomach alcohol in their towns, but they have always been willing to cross the water into Caney City for a taste.

He recalled patrons of a bar called Stinky’s — named after its owner. “They would carry it out in grocery sacks,” he said. “Now the same ones used to do that, I see them in Wal-Mart.”

*

Over at First Baptist Church Murchison, the Rev. Tim Samples railed against liquor sales in town. Samples, 53, a Dallas transplant and former paramedic, said he spoke out “not from a Bible-thumping aspect,” but as someone who pried drunk drivers and their victims from wrecks.

Ray Smith stewed. He had a falling-out with the pastor and then Mayor Hill, among others. “Most of them partake of the spirits, but they don’t want anybody to see them,” Smith complained.

In the end, 53 voted for drink, 82 against in the election last November.

“You’d have better chances of putting in a house of ill repute,” Hill said, laughing.

At the general store, Jean Smith smirked as she watched traffic trickle through town from a rocking chair in her brick storefront.

Though she lost, the sprightly 70-year-old grandmother with her salt-and-pepper pixie cut remains confident. She calmly pronounced that the tide is turning in Henderson County.

There are others, she knows, ready to follow her example. Tai Holiman — owner of the recently opened Tai’s Wine & Beer in Malakoff — has been looking to sell hard liquor. She is already gathering signatures for Malakoff’s ballot in November.

The Smiths plan to try again in November too. Murchison still needs money — even the mayor admits the town’s 40-year-old sewer system is disintegrating. When the pipes burst, Smith said, sin taxes will start looking like the right thing to do, even to the Baptists.

The space at the back of the store is ready for those beer coolers.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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