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A Spiritual Affair: The history of alcohol in Haywood County

A Spiritual Affair: The history of alcohol in Haywood County

Just after the secular American Revolution, many Americans also experienced a theological revolution; from the 1790s through the 1830s, a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening saw Protestant denominations — especially Baptists and Methodists — rise to new levels of popularity.

With that popularity came a stricter attitude towards alcohol. By the 1820s, religious revivalism had helped inspire the national Temperance Movement, which would become established in North Carolina by the 1840s, culminating in a petition for prohibition being presented to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1852.

The petition went nowhere, however, as intoxication was not the most pressing social issue of the day in much of the United States from the 1850s through the 1880s. 

As both the Civil War and Reconstruction ended, the Temperance Movement again competed for national attention, finally gaining a foothold in North Carolina in 1903 with the passage of the Watts Act, which limited the manufacture and sale of liquor to incorporated towns and resulted in de facto rural prohibition. 

In 1905, the Ward Law further limited that sale to incorporated towns with populations greater than 1,000.

In 1908, North Carolina became the first state in the South to ban the production and sale of alcohol altogether, with the 62-38 percent passage of a statewide referendum.

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When the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919 — ushering in the Prohibition Era — the only thing that changed in North Carolina was how fast the bootleggers had to travel. 

Through the 1920s, the same national prohibition that helped create Al Capone in Chicago also helped embolden whisky smugglers throughout much of Appalachia; Western North Carolinians frequently drove winding mountain backroads to Virginia and South Carolina to both distribute and procure their wares outside the purview of authorities. 

The 18th Amendment was repealed in December 1933, but distribution networks that had been in place for decades prolonged the necessary existence of Appalachian bootleggers, who simply modified their vehicles to outrun law enforcement.

In the process, they became modern-day folk heroes — like Maggie Valley’s “Popcorn” Sutton — and left a vast cultural imprint on the spirit of the South that led to the rise of motorsports juggernaut NASCAR as well as folkloric melodies like Mitchell County native Scotty Wiseman’s “Good Old Mountain Dew.”

But not everyone in North Carolina relished the imagery conjured by these road-racing lawbreakers shilling their corrupted mores through isolated mountain towns. 

Voters decided in November 1933 that the state wouldn’t even hold a convention to consider repealing the 18th Amendment, so when the federal government relinquished control of alcohol to the states, North Carolina in turn allowed counties themselves to decide whether or not to sell alcohol. 

The 1937 Alcoholic Beverage Control bill created what is known today as the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Once the ABC system became established, any city or county that voted to permit the sale of beer and/or wine could do so. 

Similarly, any county could vote to permit the sale of distilled spirits containing more than 21 percent alcohol, but only at a county-run store, and only by the bottle. 

Many counties took no immediate action to authorize alcohol sales, as rural religious conservatives still dominated urban progressives. This trend continued through the post-WWII baby boom, when several failed referendum attempts were made in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.

Since then, isolated communities in rural Haywood County have remained completely dry.

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