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Brother, let’s go to the dispensary for a drink!

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Mike Ragland -Cotton in my Blood

Mike Ragland, Guest Columnist

A quick review if you please. Rome passed an ordinance in July of 1887 forbidding the sale of alcohol in Rome. The way the ballots were designed, many thought it was tainted. So in 1889, another election was held, alcohol was voted back in and all the saloons reopened. There were charges of stuffing the ballot box against 419 Romans, all of whom were indicted. The day before trial, the tax digest and ballot boxes went missing and no trial was held. The saloons stayed open. The temperance and religious sects were fuming.

For the next 11 years, Rome boasted of having 13 saloons on Broad Street and adjacent intersections. Oh yeah, the Temperance League opposed it greatly, but the country was embroiled in the 1890s depression and had bigger fish to fry, as did Rome and Floyd County.

In 1900 the Rome Dispensary cut down the busy Broad Street Saloons like the blade of the Great Reaper. So what was this Dispensary System, anyway? It was a movement throughout the South that stemmed directly from the efforts of the Temperance advocates to force the closing of all saloons. Most churches aligned themselves with it, but not all. Famed anti-liquor crusader Seaborn Wright spoke so eloquently and forcefully against alcohol and for the “Dispensary Bill” it became known as the “Wright Dispensary Bill.”

Not all Prohibitionists advocated the dispensary as the lesser of two evils. A petition to Georgia Gov. Allen D. Chandler stated the convictions of the Atlanta Women’s Christian Temperance Union:

“We believe that the home will suffer if the bill passes. Evil as the licensed saloon is, it cannot bring half the trouble which dispensaries have produced wherever established…Men now drink the poisonous alcoholic liquid in saloons and spend only part of their time at home…When a dispensary is established, men will carry their liquor home and debauch and ruin weak women and innocent children…”

And in Rome, a letter appearing in the Rome Herald on Jan. 15, 1902, deplored the dispensary measure: “Church people and business men are unalterably opposed to the private Dispensary System with its ‘Dispensary Ring’ monopoly. They believe the high-license and restricted-hour saloon is best. The man who in the election of February 18th that votes for the dispensary votes directly for the whiskey evil.”

The Wright Bill passed. It is officially recorded in Georgia Public Laws (No. 275, Dec. 11, 1901). There are five pages devoted to a proposal for the establishing of a dispensary for alcoholic beverages in Rome. The county and city would furnish three commissioners at a salary of $20 a month to find and appoint a fit manager to operate the business from sun up to sundown, and for equal divisions of profits between city and county treasuries. Sales were to begin after ratification by a majority of Floyd voters in an election set for Feb. 18, 1902.

The dissension that followed was long and bitter. Lawsuits were filed as one man would accuse another of selling his vote to the “dispensary ring” or selling it to the “whiskey crowd.” As a result one Baptist minister was brought before his church for questioning, and lost his job as a carpenter.

Most of Rome’s ministers supported the dispensary bill. “The battle is on,” proclaimed the Rome Tribune. “The forces are lining up … there is only one question at issue so far as the Christian community vote is concerned. Will the dispensary lessen the drink evil? We have seen the written statement of preachers, officers and men of unimpeachable integrity, who declare in most emphatic terms that such a system is preferable to barrooms. And there are many, and among them some preachers, who oppose the Dispensary, because they want Prohibition or nothing. ... We honestly believe that one dispensary will prove a far lesser evil than 13 barrooms, and as such has right to our support.”

This was a petition circulating among the city and county voters. The first signer was pastor of First Baptist Rome Dr. R.B. Headen, who had already spoken on programs with Seaborn Wright and other powerful opponents of the open saloon.

The Rome Dispensary was approved by a large majority of voters. Saloons, except for the “near-beer” halls selling brews supposedly free of alcohol, disappeared. The dispensary opened its doors to the public on April 1, 1902, at a site at 226 Broad St. near where Paula’s Boutique is today.

The minutes of the next city council meeting in May showed a profit to both governments of $1,148.88. The next month the profit rose to $3,119.35 and stabilized at about $3,300 a month. The city’s population was slightly over 7,000.

The two governments got into the whiskey-selling business in a big way. In October of that year, the Rome Tribune was carrying full-page listings of brands sold by the dispensary. Among these were Clermont Pure Rye, Rose Valley and American Malt whiskeys. The Jack Daniels Co. advertised Old No. 7 and many others.

Trouble free and profitable as it was, the dispensary was a short-lived institution. More and more of Georgia’s counties were outlawing the sale of all alcohol, and in 1907 Gov. Hoke Smith supported the “bone-dry” principle as a campaign issue. Georgia became a dry state.

On Feb. 10, 1908, with Mayor John W. Maddox presiding, the Rome council closed the dispensary as a business enterprise. The “near-beer” halls didn’t make it either. On Jan. 12, 1909, an Atlanta testing firm reported that the halls’ beer was over 5% alcohol. The Rome Tribune said their “‘near-beer’ may now be called ‘far beer.’”

But it ain’t over. Next week we’ll look at the continuing war.

Oh, the “dispensary” term is being promoted now by the marijuana interest in many places. We may see it again. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Living with Lucy.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com