On May 18, 2010, a select group of Oregonians became the last voters in the history of the western United States to vote on a repeal of Prohibition.
This wasn’t marijuana prohibition — it was the old 1920s kind: speakeasies, blind pigs, the Volstead Act, the W.C.T.U. The kind of Prohibition that was repealed everywhere else in the western U.S. in (or not long after) 1933. You see, alone among all the towns and cities of every U.S. state west of the Mississippi River, the town of Monmouth, Oregon, still outlawed the sale of ardent spirits — as it had for 150 years.
The proponents of repeal had a pretty compelling argument. Monmouth had already legalized sales of beer and wine, back in 2002. Continuing to hold the line against hard-liquor sales was pointless, and it was holding back business for the town’s restaurants.
But on the other side, very few of the voices raised in support of the old dry-law came from the traditional temperance movement. Most of the “no” votes came from residents who simply thought it was cool that they lived in the only remaining “dry” town west of the Mississippi River.
Monmouth had been a dry town since its earliest founding back in the late 1850s — until 2002, bone-dry. The town was settled by a religious community of members of the Disciples of Christ Church from Monmouth, Ill., who arrived in 1852 and started mapping out a Christian Utopia in the wilderness. They built a big church, founded Monmouth University (now Western Oregon University), and turned to the work of making for themselves a new life of working hard and living right in a fresh new land.
But then, in 1858, the serpent slipped into their Garden of Eden in the form of a storekeeper named Raphael Lande. Lande, it appears, had borrowed heavily from the hard-eyed Yankee traders of Portland — Ladd, Reed & Co., specifically — to open a mercantile store in Monmouth, stocked with plenty of liquor. He must have anticipated a booming business, because he stuffed the place with $2,500 to $3,000 worth — that’s $65,000 to $80,000 in modern coin.
Lande soon found himself trapped hopelessly between his wholesalers in Portland — who no doubt badly wanted to open a distribution channel in the new town — and the equally adamant city fathers. To his dismay he soon learned that his business had prompted virtually every Monmouth family to join together in a petition to the state Legislature for a city charter, with the express intention of using the power it would give them to run Lande and his den of iniquity out of town.
Immediately upon receiving the charter in January 1859, the newly incorporated city promulgated a Prohibition ordinance. Lande sued, but to no avail; the city ordinance permitted the townsfolk to seize his $80,000 rotgut stash and dump it in the gutter if he didn’t pack it out of town forthwith. This he appears to have neglected to do, or perhaps he’d hoped to call their bluff. Although historian Kyle Jansson was unable to find any record of the action, he did find out that Lande’s properties were foreclosed on just one year later to pay off Ladd, Reed & Co. — something that surely wouldn’t have been necessary if he’d had the sense to move his inventory out of harm’s way.
Lande’s departure marked the beginning of a 150-year run for Monmouth as a dry town. Monmouth was bone-dry throughout the 1870s, when the temperance movement was growing in strength and the church-going ladies of Portland were bearding the liquor-peddling lion in his very den by donning their Sunday best and gathering for temperance pray-ins in Stumptown’s seediest and loathliest tippling houses and rum joints. In 1883 Monmouth formed one of Oregon’s first Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapters (and one of its most long-lasting as well; it remained an important force in Monmouth well into the 1970s).
Meanwhile, just two miles away to the east, a very different town had sprung up on the banks of the Willamette River. Founded by a far more freewheeling group of settlers, the town of Independence was everything Monmouth was not when it came to alcohol policy. Independence’s first business had been a saloon, and plenty more had followed. By the 20th century, Independence had already started taking on the role of Monmouth’s municipal liquor cabinet, for residents whose personal habits didn’t line up with their town’s official policies.
The contrast between the two towns was startling. In 1914, when the first successful statewide Prohibition vote was held, Independence voted no by a 58—percent margin, while the rest of Polk County (including Monmouth) went for it 2 to 1. And again, in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, 62 percent of Monmouth voters voted no, whereas the rest of the state overwhelmingly voted yes — again, by a 2 to 1 margin.
Following the end of nationwide Prohibition, a small but growing minority in Monmouth started trying to change things. In 1936, 1950, 1954 and 1976 they gave it the old college try, only to be rebuffed by a majority of citizens who preferred to keep things as they were. In 1976 they were slapped down by a 4-to-1 margin.
In 1967, the Oregon legislature voted to cut off Monmouth’s liquor-tax revenue, reasoning that it wasn’t contributing, so why should it benefit? But, of course, Monmouth was contributing plenty; its citizens were simply driving a mile down the road to Independence. The city attorney successfully argued that although Monmouth might not be selling the liquor, Monmouth residents were definitely drinking it — and showed the law-enforcement statistics to prove it. The state backed down and restored the funding.
As the 1960s ripened into the 1970s, Monmouth’s motivation for its Prohibition policy started changing. Toward the end, fewer voters were motivated by a desire for temperance per se, and more were simply voting to keep Monmouth unique.
“The most prevalent feeling of those who don’t really have anything against alcohol,” the Polk Sun wrote in Sept. 8, 1976 edition, “is that Monmouth will be just like any other small town if they go wet. Being ‘dry’ to them is like being the only folks on the block to own an Edsel.”
As late as 1994, the town was celebrating its dry heritage at a festival called the Purely Victorian Tea Festival, featuring The Temperance Singers in gorgeous Belle Epoque-era dresses and hats belting out grand old 1870s Prohibition Crusade songs in the city park.
But by the end of the 1990s, the moral case for Prohibition had faded to almost nothing, and support for the law was all about owning that metaphorical Edsel. And even the proudest Edsel owner can be turned into a bitter ex-Edsel fan by getting stranded by the side of the road one too many times. Essentially, that’s what happened in Monmouth.
In 2002, the town’s last full-size grocery market closed its doors. Its proprietor — the fifth since 1967 — was quite frank about why no one could make a go of selling groceries in Monmouth: It was Prohibition. Most of Monmouth did drink, and it was more convenient to do their shopping a mile away in Independence, where Roth’s Friendly Foodliner and Winco Foods awaited and offered prices the local market couldn’t touch — prices that were only possible because of liquor sales.
That’s a big part of why Monmouth voted, in 2002, to open its doors to beer and wine sales — holding out, for the time being, against distilled spirits; whiskey drinkers would have to wait for the 2010 election.
And with the results of that election, Monmouth officially joined the rest of the state. Exactly 1.5 centuries after the last flask of Ladd, Reed & Co. rotgut legally changed hands in Monmouth, the liquor trade had finally come back to the thirsty little town.
But even the most ardent opponents of the city’s prohibition ordinance were a little sad to see it go.
(Sources: Jansson, Kyle R. “The Changing Climate of Oregon’s Driest Town,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2001; Polk County Itemizer-Observer archives, 5 June 2002, 14 Jan. 2003 and 25 May 2010)