Some Thoughts on Sunday Alcohol Sales

Georgia saw various temperance movements come and go beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1885 that the state legislature enacted a statute allowing counties to vote themselves “dry.” Most did. And in 1908, the legislature voted prohibition statewide. National prohibition came and went leaving Georgia still dry; alcohol wouldn’t be legal in Georgia until 1935, two years after national prohibition was repealed.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Georgians in want of a tipple didn’t get one in the dry years. Those with access to bootleggers, which meant just about everybody, always did. For the more rascally of society, this presented no moral dilemma, but for the more piously-inclined who wanted an occasional drink there was a consensus on the Southern Protestant love-hate relationship with the neighborhood bootleggers’ wet goods. They could love a good drink but hate for most people to know that. (And those who did know wouldn’t talk about it, being mostly of the same brotherhood or sisterhood themselves.) Some unkind souls might make the claim this manifested rank hypocrisy. What it was, though, was the practical application of a utilitarian principle: The greatest happiness for the greatest many. With alcohol illegal, both the Baptists and the bootleggers could be happy.

I lay out all this as preamble. The residents of the city of Elberton, my sometimes acutely neurotic hometown, is on the verge of voting whether to join the other 251-odd cities and counties in Georgia in allowing Sunday sales of alcohol, both package sales and by the drink. The likely outcome isn’t clear. If the idle chitchat overheard in checkout lines has foundation, if the virulent brimstone-scented rhetoric in letters to the editor is taken to heart and if the similar offerings on social media that seem to channel Carry Nation aren’t just blather, the idea of Sunday alcohol sales in Elberton is still a subject that can raise ire, tempers and the odd fist slammed down on the odd Bible.

Other places around have been similarly divided. And oddly enough, the approval of one plank of the issue doesn’t necessarily mean the other is a sure thing. In 2014 the voters in Hartwell, eighteen miles north of Elberton, narrowly approved Sunday package sales by a vote of 514-507. But on the same ballot Sunday sales by the drink in restaurants was defeated with 512 No votes edging out 510 in favor. Knowing the train of thought of those three or four voters responsible for the split would be interesting, and maybe disquieting, like knowing how hotdogs are made. The unincorporated area of Hart County itself, incidentally, is still dry when it comes to distilled spirits.

Elbert County has a similar history of love and hate where legal alcohol is concerned. The county stayed dry for a long time after Georgia counties could choose to go wet and after several counties close by did so. Again, that hardly meant drinking wasn’t going on, regularly and sometimes copiously. It just meant Elbert Countians couldn’t buy legal booze close to home. Instead, they bought a lot of it just across the Savannah River in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. Throughout my childhood in the 1960s, in fact, the Carolina mill town just a couple of miles inside the state line, and about sixteen miles from Elberton, was called little else around here but “Saloon Falls.” There were, as I recall, at least four thriving liquor stores within sight of the main thoroughfare whose carriage trade depended heavily on their clientele from across the river.

Just as in the days of state and national prohibition, bootlegging was also a going concern hereabouts, catering mostly to the less prosperous of the county, and a bootlegger who made good stuff could do a land office business on the sly and was most often very well thought of in reputable circles. Craft distilling is one of Georgia’s small but growing industries now (there are 16 such distilleries in the state at the moment) but within my own memory from the 1960s it was a cottage industry even if it wasn’t legal. Elbert County never had the reputation of, say, the Gumlog community of Franklin County for its moonshining magnates, but I’m inclined to think that’s because Elbert County’s craftsmen of the pot stills were just better at keeping their wet goods trade within acceptable bounds.

My father never operated a still, but in the 1960s he built several. Besides auto repairs, at his shop at Pearl Mill he kept most of the local farmers’ equipment operating and did custom welding. He could build just about anything out of metal. And that’s how the still-making came about.

He never went near a law school but my father was an independent-minded man who had a fine natural understanding of the distinction between the concepts of malum in se, something evil or wrong owing to its own nature, and malum prohibitum, wrong (but never really genuinely evil) simply because someone, or a group of someones, thought it should be illegal, a good part of the time the someones being uptight self-righteous busybodies. If a small farmer needed to boost his cash flow in a bad year or if a mill worker with a large family needed to eke out his wages by making and selling a little ‘shine, my father didn’t care. Most people around in our community who gave an opinion on the matter that I recollect felt the same way. From my father’s perspective, at least, making the still was just a job of work. He had the hard and fast rule, though, that he’d never assemble the still in his shop or even have all the parts in the shop at the same time.

My memories of all this are clear, as clear no doubt as the consciences of all involved. Still, I’ll mention none of the names. Some of the sons and daughters of the moonshiners are still around and there’s no need to or use in causing them any embarrassment now. They’re from good families and some of them, in fact, are church deacons and Sunday school teachers, like their fathers before them.

Living in the unincorporated county, I don’t have a vote on Elberton’s Sunday sales referendum, just an opinion.

I understand most of the overall concern of those pious souls opposing Sunday sales. Like many other things humans can choose to take in, alcohol can be abused with terrible consequences, not just for the drunkard but for his or her family and sometimes for perfect strangers. Concern for all the aforementioned should be lauded. But the argument of many is still “Should there not be one day, and the traditional Sabbath at that, when temptation to drink should not be present?”

Except that that is never the case. Those afflicted with an inability to control their drinking inevitably take pains, like those facing imposed legal prohibition at all times, to ensure their own supply. And the well-meaning are thus left fighting a fatuous battle over vacuous symbolism. I respect faithful men (and women) of the cloth even when we disagree, such as this instance, enough to make the case that they would do more good where those potentially lost souls are concerned by speaking from their pulpits and acting through outreach programs than worrying whether the average citizen can buy a six-pack on Sunday to drink that lazy afternoon or have a beer or a glass of wine with their restaurant meal after church.

I’ll take my own cue from the Book of Benjamin. From Benjamin Franklin, that is. The rascally Sage of Philadelphia never addressed the matter of Sunday alcohol sales, per se, but in a 1761 letter written from England to a friend back in Franklin’s native Boston he did address the matter of the “Sunday laws” then common in Puritan-inspired New England. These edicts prohibited doing just about anything on Sundays that might lead one to crack a smile, much less laugh. You could do little within the law except sit and contemplate Scripture and all the things you could be doing if it wasn’t Sunday, all the things you could do any other day of the week.

Franklin wrote that he had met none of the so-called “Sunday laws” in England. Instead he saw people “singing, fiddling and dancing.” (Very likely, I would venture, with some drinking involved.) He noted, too, that the cities were in good order, the fields tended, the cattle and horses fat. “All this evidence,’ Franklin wrote, “would make one suspect that the Diety is not so angry at that offense [Sunday frivolity] as a New England justice.”

So if the Elberton voters approve the referendums, on some Sunday, in some venue, I’ll raise a toast to Ben.

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