Wet vs. Dry: Prohibition in Franklin

The Early Years

Booze flowed freely for Franklin’s first century. With primitive roads, one of the few cash crops for export was alcohol fermented from farmers’ grain. Barrels were shipped down the Susquehanna River to Philadelphia. Closer to home, inns and taverns along the Catskill/Susquehanna Turnpike served much whiskey and beer. East Franklin (now Treadwell) was nick-named Jug City because of its three distilleries.

The temperance movement started in the1800s and gained much support after the success of Abolition. In 1860, Occasionally, a journal of Franklin published a “black list” of 40 young men who broke the pledge of the Young People’s Temperance Association. Of the churches, the Baptists, Congregationalist, and Methodists advocated going dry, whereas the Episcopal and Roman Catholic favored remaining wet. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was active in Franklin from 1892 through the 1940s.

Prohibition began in Delaware County through the election of town excise commissioners who opposed liquor licenses. In 1881, Franklin first elected a supporter of this no-license position by 406 to 156. Unlike other towns, Franklin and Bovina continued to elect no-license commissioners. Franklin’s first centenary in 1893 was a spiritless celebration.

Federal Prohibition

In 1899, the Town of Franklin first voted directly on prohibition. Overwhelming majorities chose to go completely dry on all four ballot questions by banning purchase of alcohol, be it consumed off premises (9:1), on premises (6:1), at a hotel (2:1), or even from a pharmacy under a doctor’s prescription (3:1). A re-vote two years later confirmed these choices by similar margins.

The movement achieved its greatest success with federal prohibition when the 18th amendment to our Constitution was implemented in 1920 – the only amendment that decreased individual rights. Unintended consequences of this “noble experiment” were that tax revenue decreased, liquor consumption increased, preference shifted to hard liquor, public health declined, crime skyrocketed, organized crime prospered, and a general disrespect for the law grew – a roaring time was had by all.

As a result, after only 13 years, federal prohibition was eased with a law redefining “intoxicating liquor” to exclude beer and light wine. The next year, the 21st amendment ended federal prohibition, but not state prohibition.

New York State continued its policy of allowing each town to decide. In the first town election after federal repeal, Franklinites voted dry by substantial majorities on all three ballot questions. Two years later in 1937, these choices were all confirmed, mostly by slightly larger margins, except for the hotel question.

Changing Times

A majority of Franklin voters are still on record as favoring local prohibition, but by an ever decreasing majority. In 1899, the initial on-premises prohibition was favored by an overwhelming 86% of the voters. In 1937, after repeal of federal prohibition, town prohibition was favored by 78%. In 1975, the next attempt at repeal was opposed by 70%. In 1999, it was opposed by 61%. In 2007, the most recent attempt was opposed by just 56%. All these votes were in off year elections, when the lack of major political contests reduces participation. Less than one third of those eligible voted in 2007.

The wording of the question on the ballot for those last two votes was confusing. In 1901, the wording was simply “selling liquor to be drunk on the premises where sold”. Unfortunately, this was later replaced with “shall any person be authorized to sell alcoholic beverages at retail to be consumed on premises licensed pursuant to the provisions of section sixty-four of this chapter?” Fortunately the state clarified the wording of the question in 2007: “shall the operator of a full-service restaurant be allowed to obtain a license which permits the restaurant operator to sell alcoholic beverages for a customer to drink while the customer is within the restaurant. In addition, unopened containers of beer (such as six-packs and kegs) may be sold ‘to go’ for the customer to open and drink at another location (such as, for example, at his home)?”.

Franklin is not completely dry, more like damp. In 1998, the owners of RK’s Grocery and Barlow’s General Store respectively, organized a petition drive on the question of retail sale of beer but failed to get it onto the ballot. The next summer, they gathered enough signatures (294) and the questions were on the ballot. In November of 1999, the retail sales question passed 429 to 274, though the other four did not. As a result, today we can buy endless cases of beer for a party in our yard but not a single glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant.

Today

We remain in a select group. Of the 932 towns in New York State, only 12 ban the consumption of wine and beer in restaurants but not their retail purchase; that is only 1%. (In 1914, 45% of the towns were dry and 21% were partially dry.) All are in counties of the southern tier: Cattaraugus, Cortland, Delaware, Ontario, Steuben, Tioga, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates. All the towns are west of Interstate 81, except Franklin. These 12 towns have only 0.1% of the population of the state.

Law in our state protects the status quo by making it difficult for citizens to get a question on the ballot for a village or town. (New York State does not even allow state-wide voter’s questions.) The subject of the petition must be in the form of a question that can be answered either yes or no. A prohibition petition for a town must be signed by more than 25% of the number who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In Franklin today, that’s more than 211. An even higher hurdle is that the signatures must be not merely the recognizable signatures of registered voters, but each line must be completed in the precise form specified by law: date, signature, address, and town. Nowhere does our government list the precise steps required to place a question on the ballot.

On the deadline of Friday the 4th of September, a designating petition was filed with the town clerk for question #2, restaurant. It contained 338 signatures – more than half again as many as necessary – which had been collected over a week and a half in late August and early September.

Just as any voter in a village or town may submit a petition, any may challenge the validity of that petition. On Thursday the 10th (within the specified 3 business days) a notice of intent to challenge was filed with the clerk, and on Monday the 14th (within the subsequent 5 business days) the challenge was filed.

After consulting with the County Board of Elections, the attorney of the Association of Towns, and the town attorney, on Wednesday the 23rd of September, the town clerk ruled that the petition did not qualify. The legality of this ruling was disputed by a number of citizens, though it was too late to file an official challenge. The protests sparked a write-in candidacy for the position of Town Clerk in the November election.

On Monday, September 28th, the Board of Elections finalized the ballot for Franklin without a prohibition question.

The debate continues.