Benton County’s “dry” status, championed by University founder John E. Brown, could be washed away by voters this year as momentum is building to put the alcohol sale ban issue to a vote.
“Keep Dollars in Benton County,” a group advocating lifting the ban, is financially backed by Tom Walton and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The group is circulating petitions to gain the needed 40,000 registered voter signatures to put the issue to a vote in November.
The group said there are several reasons a new vote is needed. Since the last vote in 1944, the population of Benton County has changed from 38,000 to 220,000. Attorney Marshall Williams noted that the issue is economically important to the region, as the hospitality industry is becoming a key driver of economic development. According to the group’s data, there would have been $78 million in alcohol sales in 2010 resulting in a direct economic impact of $22 million. This includes jobs, tax revenue and new businesses.
“We respect, of course, that there are differing points of view on this issue, but that is all the more reason to take this to the voters and to give our democratic process an opportunity to work,” said Steuart Walton in a statement by the group.
Mayor David Allen said he would need time to review the details before taking a side on the issue.
Mathematics professor Don Siemens is wary of lifting the ban. While not pro-alcohol, he explained he doesn’t have a problem with restaurants being able to serve alcohol, which they already can do if they obtain a license. And he doesn’t have a problem with people being able to buy packaged liquor in Benton County if the wish. It is the possibility of bars and watering holes he fears.
“I am absolutely against having places spring up where people primarily go to drink and maybe get drunk,” said Siemens. “It’s lucrative, but it causes messes in the community.”
While living in Missiouri and Illinois, Siemens and residents referred to the bar areas as “skid row” where the smell of urine, fights and vandalism were constant problems.
“It brought money but was detrimental to the quality of life for the people in those towns,” said Siemens.
Lucas Roebuck, director of University communications, said that JBU is a non-partisan organization, and has no plans to take a position on the issue if it gets on the ballot, and if the county votes to liberalize its alcohol laws, it would not affect the community standards concerning alcohol use. The school covenant has students agree to abstain from alcohol while enrolled.
The school hasn’t always been so neutral. In Siloam Springs, alcohol has constantly been an issue, and John E. Brown, JBU’s founder, became a passionate voice against it. Siloam historian Don Warden explained the progression of policy in Siloam Springs through the decades.
1882 – City Ordinance 18 prevents the selling or giving away liquor in quantities of less than a quart which essentially forbade liquor by the drink.
1882 – City Ordinance 21, approved the same year, requires a license to sell spirits in quantities of no less than a quart.
1882 The town passed an ordinance allowing for the licensing of dram shops, which is liquor by the drink.
1889 “History of Benton County” does not mention saloons or liquor stores, but does mention Distillery No. 129, operated by C. E. Noyes, which was federally licensed. “I don’t know when this distillery closed, but suspect it wasn’t more than a few years before Earl Allen opened his first cannery there in 1926,” noted Warden.
1889 – Profile of the town declares: “There are no saloons and no drunkenness and none of their attendant evils.”
1903 – The “Atlas of Benton County” states “There are seven churches and not one saloon in the city nor a place where liquor can be bought. The moral atmosphere of the city is pure and no one should hesitate to move to Siloam Springs to rear his family.” No such boast is made in promotional brochures printed about 1910, 1919, 1922 and 1925, but no saloon or liquor store is listed in the 1915 list of businesses.
1919-1933 – Prohibition of alcohol became law which lasted nearly 14 years. Local governments were then allowed to decide their own liquor policies.
“Head, Heart, and Hand: John Brown University and modern evangelical higher education,” by Richard Ostrander explained Brown’s crusade against alcohol in the 1940s.
According to Ostrander, because of Brown’s fundamentalist inclinations, he desired to re-Christianize American culture where he could. This inspired him to oppose alcohol in Benton County. Brown petitioned the Benton County government in 1944 for a local option vote and the county voted to become dry. Bars, liquor stores and drinkers were furious. Soldiers returning from World War II sparked a new petition drive to repeal the ban. “Dry” opponents accused Brown of raising the issue while heavy-drinking soldiers were off fighting and unable to vote. The issue would be decided by another vote in November 1947. Brown toured every city in the county with his “Bread or Booze” speech and dropped 25,000 leaflets from airplanes. It proved successful.
Sixty-one percent in the county voted to remain dry, with 64 percent of Siloam Springs voting “dry.” The ban has remained for 68 years and hasn’t been voted on since.
Thirty-four of Arkansas’ 75 counties are “wet,” while the sale of alcohol is generally prohibited in the other 41 counties. Alcohol can be served in some dry counties at private clubs. City Wire reported in 2009 that Benton County had the most number of private liquor licenses in the state with 123.