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Dry Towns, Blue Laws and Border Crossings

There was a time, within my time, when towns were well known for being wet towns or dry towns. I’m not talking about the amount of rainfall, but rather whether a town allowed alcohol sales or not. I went to a dry wedding once and marveled at the resentment in the room as people found out about it. Imagine moving to a dry town and realizing it afterwards? Like that wedding people would simply carry in what they’d like to drink. Rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they?

New Hampshire only has one “dry” town out of a combined 259 total towns, cities and “unincorporated places”.  That town is Ellsworth, a small town just west of I-93 between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains.  There are only 83 residents in Ellsworth, and every one of them of drinking age have to go to another town to purchase alcohol.  I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of restaurants or stores selling alcohol in Ellsworth anyway, but if they have anything going for them it’s that quirky statistic that makes them unique in the state. Live Free or Die indeed.

Neighboring Massachusetts by comparison has 8 dry towns. It used to be many more in my lifetime, but the trend is downward. Look, even the Puritans drank alcohol, and for generations it was safer than water in those early colonial years when life was hard and cholera was common. The Pilgrims brought beer across the pond and negotiated with Massasoit with aqua vitae. People went straight from the cold church to the warm tavern. Alcohol consumption was common right up to a century ago, when Prohibition crashed the party for the entire country. From 1920 until 1933 the United States was “dry”. But rules are made to be broken, and organized crime and small time bootleggers, rum-runners and illegal moonshine stills came into prominence immediately afterwards.

Dry towns are bureaucracy in action, or simply inertia. Most dry towns today are in rural, sparsely populated places that don’t have restaurant and store owners campaigning for change. Dry towns are a curiosity now, 100 years after Prohibition, but also a legacy to the cultural and political winds that blew across the country then. Being a wet town kid, I remember going with my grandfather to the bar where he would proceed to drink many beers in tiny glasses. That bar was on the edge of town, and that edge was wet meeting dry. How many people crossed the border over the years to have a couple of drinks and zig-zagged home? Now that former dry town sells much more alcohol than that old wet town. Money talks, and there’s money in alcohol sales.

Sunday’s were once a sacred day in Massachusetts, with Blue Laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol. So naturally residents drove across the border to states that didn’t have blue laws. New Hampshire’s southern border is dotted with old convenience stores that sold beer to eager Massachusetts residents on Sundays. New Hampshire built liquor stores on the highways for the quick and convenient sale of alcohol to out-of-staters. The Blue Laws are long gone, but “sin taxes” aren’t. People still stop to fill up their trunks.

So Ellsworth, New Hampshire remains the lone holdout on the dry side of the law. I hope they always will be, as a reminder of where the country was 100 years ago. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that the political winds can blow in strange ways, and a few people can impose their views upon the masses given the opportunity. But if Prohibition teaches us anything, it’s that Americans chafe at arbitrary rules and find ways around them. Our forefathers would recognize the debate either way, and marvel at the choices in the liquor stores.

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