Feb. 10, 1908, had to be a sad day for the Rome City Council. That’s the day Mayor John W. Maddox, presiding over the council, closed the dispensary as a business enterprise. It was, from that time on, illegal to sell any intoxicating beverage in Floyd County. The near-beer halls lasted almost a year later, being closed on Jan. 12, 1909, after testing showed they were above 5 percent.
Strangely, the law only forbids the sale of whiskey. Georgia citizens were permitted to buy and to drink it. Alabama and Mississippi were also “dry” states, but Tennessee wasn’t.
Chattanooga dealers capitalized on the situation by running Tribune advertisements, complete with photographs, that offered mouthwatering displays of forbidden fruit to parched Romans: “Sunnybrook Whiskey, four quart bottles for $4 … Golden Eagle Whiskey at $3.75 a gallon jug … Old Rockwell, 12 quarts for $8.”
Trouble was, the average citizen couldn’t just jump in his car like today and run to Tennessee for whiskey (which I used to do, driving to either Atlanta or Piedmont, Alabama, to the state store. After returning from Atlanta one day with my purchases, I dropped a bottle of Jack Black on my driveway and busted it all to pieces. I sat right down and cried … glad those days are over), they didn’t have cars or suitable roads.
But they had trains. Chattanooga whiskey merchants were shipping whiskey in unmarked packages to the Southern Express Co. Purchasers were required to sign records of receipts, which were turned over to the County Ordinary each month. These were still on file before everything was added to computer programs. I doubt they made it, but they may be in record retention in Celanese.
Another source of supply was available to thirsty Romans through medical prescriptions. It allowed any citizen to buy pure alcohol from his druggist for medical purposes. Such purchase records were also kept by the County Ordinary. A Tribune writer, after examining the 1909 records, commented, “The sick people of Rome last year consumed, by prescription, 40 gallons of alcohol.”
Although the Tribune was selling pages of advertisements to the Chattanooga whiskey crowd, an editorial appeared in 1910 that stated, “Georgia will be glad to see whiskey go from Chattanooga as a business proposition, a tremendous amount of money goes to Chattanooga for wet goods, and never comes back across the state line.”
Both Rome and Floyd County suffered from the loss of revenue. A survey of county finances, made from data furnished by treasurer J.H. Hill, stated, “In 1908 the enormous sum of $27,609.16 was spent on county roads … the Rome Dispensary turned into county coffers during operation from April 1, 1902 to December 31, 1907 the sum of $117,642.00, with an equal amount going to the city. But this amount is now cut off.”
In 1913, the United States Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act, forbidding the transportation of liquor into dry states. Gov. Nathaniel E. Harris was a mite slow adopting the Act, but he did so in 1915. Even so, citizens were still allowed to own and consume two quarts of whiskey a month, one gallon of wine and forty-eight quarts of beer.
So Chattanooga didn’t slow down, they kept right on shipping.
Passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 and ratification in 1920 of the 18th Amendment made a clean sweep of legalized liquor throughout the nation, leaving the bootleggers and “homebrew” bottlers to satisfy the people’s thirst.
Prohibition was impossible to enforce. Bootlegging became a major industry. In Floyd County, the making of moonshine whiskey mounted to proportions hard to imagine today. For years hardly a week passed without newspaper reports of confiscated and destroyed “stills,” both professional and homemade. In the final week of June, the Tribune reported that nine stills were destroyed by officers just a few miles from Rome.
One such family near the Gordon County line was reported to make the best blackberry wine in the state. Each summer the entire family would pick all the blackberries they could and buy from others. These they would turn into wine and sell to the “Carriage Crowd Ladies” in Rome and Atlanta, who would in turn pour the fruit of the vine into cut glass decanters, which they served with European chocolate. One can get by if one tries. And another family story was that of locker clubs that lasted for years at many private clubs. (Just stories that family members tell old policemen).
The Volstead Act was repealed in 1933 and a few years later the Georgia State Legislature, for the purpose of generating additional revenue (we were in a depression), permitted counties to vote by local option for or against the sale of alcoholic beverages. Rome and Floyd County held such elections in 1934, 1951 and 1969. In 1972 Rome passed their first ordinance to allow the sale of package alcohol since the dispensary closed. Later that year pouring was passed by the drink with a food ratio.
Over the years many things have changed with our liquor laws. Sunday sales were passed in 2004, and there is no food ratio on establishments that serve just beer and wine. Liquor pouring must still be 50-50.
So, what’s next? Later this year, or maybe next or the year after, you can look for the “Brunch Bill,” which will allow our pouring establishments to start serving at 11 a.m. on Sundays rather than waiting till noon.
Roger Aycock wrote in his “All Roads lead to Rome,” that even though we had revolving liquor laws over the years, it is doubtful that we’ll ever see thirteen saloons again on Broad Street, with four more “Near-Beer Halls.”
Sorry Roger, but we’ve got fourteen today, fifteen if you count the special permit license at the Forum, and five more restaurants that are licensed to sell only beer and wine.