More East Texas Towns are Going Wet

Two stories explore what is happening in East Texas as more and more towns vote to sell alcohol.
Sat February 25, 2012 1:55 am
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Dry towns in Texas could one day be a thing of the past–only  22 bone dry counties  remain in the state (here’s a helpful map). But what happens when a community votes to flood the market with booze? The Los Angeles Times ’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske traveled to Henderson County in East Texas to see what happens when towns make the shift: 

East Texas had stayed largely dry for decades, shielded from change by a curtain of pine forest and Southern Baptists who saw no need to repeal Prohibition. Caney City was among the first towns in Henderson County to go wet more than four decades ago. At the time, it was considered an oasis, among the few wet spots for miles around in what amounted to a drinker’s desert.

The landscape changed after 2003, when a new state law made it easier to place alcohol measures on the ballot. Residents mounted 601 elections to legalize alcohol sales. Of those, about 77% succeeded, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Now, only 22 of the state’s 254 counties remain dry, about half as many as five years ago, mostly in the devout periphery of East and West Texas and the Panhandle. Of those permitting alcohol, 46 are completely wet, while the rest are “moist,” allowing sales to varying degrees.

Wet and dry towns may seem at odds, but they’ve actually formed symbiotic relationships, with wet locales reliant on dry ones to turn a profit.

The boom some towns see from from dry to wet or “moist” can be great. The Tyler Morning Telegraph reported that Winona, in Smith County, saw its tax revenues jump by 642 percent in two years, from $30,042 in 2009 to $222,860 in 2011.

But as alcohol becomes more readily available in certain towns, places that had made their name on being boozy destinations can be hurt. Caney City, one of the first towns in Henderson to go wet, is feeling the pinch since its neighbors became more moist. Caney City has “relied on alcohol ever since it washed over town, metaphorically speaking, in 1969,” Fiske wrote. After the 33 to nine vote to go wet, the town saw a “booze boom,” with bars named “Wander In” and “Wasted Money” cropping up around the highway. People flocked to the town to buy drinks before fishing in the Cedar Creek reservoir.

But now that there are more watering holes in Henderson County—Malakoff, Athens, and Gun Barrel City recently approved alcohol sales—”the flow of customers into Caney City has slowed, as if drained by the same epic drought shrinking the reservoir,” Fiske wrote.

“This town’s going to dry up and go away,” Joe “Mojo” Dwight, a Caney City bar owner, told Fiske while sitting in his empty bar on a Saturday night. He said that business dropped ten percent when Malakoff, a ten minute drive away, went “moist.”

Before towns make the shift from wet to dry, there tends to be much handwringing over the increase in crime or social ills the booze will bring. (In 2009, Katy Vine chronicled Lubbockites grappling with these issues for TEXAS MONTHLY). However, in Rusk, Jacksonville, and Winona, that has not come to pass, the Telegraph reported. “Our crime rate dealing with alcohol-related offenses has either stayed static or gone down slightly,” Jacksonville Police Chief Reece Daniel told the paper.

WATCH a WYTX report on recently wet East Texas towns:

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