The cost of trying to regulate morality
A traveling Baptist minister in Richmond County for a revival in the 1870s said, “If reports which reach my ears are true, there is more whiskey drinking and gambling carried on in Rockingham and Wadesboro than in any other two places of like size this side of hell,” quoted John Hutchinson in “No Ordinary Lives.”
People in the county seem to have a love/hate relationship with alcohol as the Richmond County Historical Society looks back over its history.
“From the county’s beginnings in the 1700s until perhaps the 1970s, homemade liquor was a part of local culture,” Hutchinson said.
For the past 20 years or so, bootlegging has been replaced by the growing and selling of marijuana, alcohol shot houses and a variety of homemade and illegally sold prescription drugs.
Many county pioneers got their start operating taverns, especially along transportation routes. Early on, some 34 licenses were issued for them.
Many private residences had their own private distilling operations. William Snead, farmer and liquor manufacturer, willed his copper still be sold and proceeds go to daughters Temperance and Betty.
Until outlawed, bars were plentiful throughout North Carolina.
Alcohol, like drugs, becomes a “public sin” when no tax money is collected on any sales.
A lot of public funds were spent fighting bootlegging in its day only to be conquered when legal taxed sales put most bootleggers out of business. Health issues were put in the background in favor of taxes.
A similar battle is going on today with marijuana.
In 1784, the Richmond County’s Court of pleas and Quarter Sessions (today’s county commissioners) regulated prices that ordinary (tavern) keepers could charge, Hutchinson said. They were selling West India rum, brandy, cider and whiskey. Later it was said the woods in Richmond County teemed with bootleggers making moonshine.
In the late 1880s, Thomas Franklin Boyd first made legal whiskey in Hamlet, By 1906, Hamlet had three such legal distilleries. E-sheriff Republican John M. Smith and E. A. Lackey together owned two of them.
In a manner of speaking, much of early Hamlet was built on money from liquor production. The Lackey liquor fortune made its way in to the creation of the Hamlet Opera House and many hotels and businesses.
The county – then including Scotland County before 1899 – had its problems with alcohol use and abuse among some residents. An effort was then made to change the community’s alcohol culture.
Richmond County once had its own Temperance Hall (The Richmond Temperance and Literary Society established in 1855) to help citizens overcome the demons of alcohol.
Unfortunately, it was a long way from either Rockingham or Hamlet. In 1899, it got a lot farther when Scotland County separated from Richmond. The Temperance Hall was, and still is, in Wagram in Scotland County.
That unique hexagonal brick building is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the John Charles McNeil House and Memorial Garden Museum. McNeil was North Carolina’s first poet laureate in the 1800s (unofficially).
However, another account of a temperance hall in Rockingham was given in 1857 William R. Terry of Rockingham wrote a letter to the Fayetteville Observer describing Rockingham. He said there were several stores and mechanical factories, two public houses (alcohol-drinking establishments) and only one church building.
In the center of the town there was “… the large and beautiful ‘Sons of Temperance Hall.’ It is a two-story wooden building, beautifully painted, and is in every way a handsome building. Its meetings are attended by a large body of members, reflecting much credit on them as people.”
On May 26, 1908, North Carolina voted by referendum to become the first Southern state to enact statewide prohibition of alcohol beverages in 1909. It was a real boon to bootleggers.
That was 11 years before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which brought prohibition and a new set of criminals to America in the name of reforming morals.
Local prohibition was probably aided by the 1891 report in the Rockingham Rocket newspaper that a crowd of “drunken rowdies” came to town and created problems. “Some mean whiskey made near Hamlet was the cause of trouble,” the newspaper said.
Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Officers were busy in Rockingham in 1890 even before prohibition because untaxed liquor was against the law. At one time, two officers went into four bars in town and seized eight barrels of illegal corn whiskey.
When the U.S. Federal Court (now chambers for Richmond County Commissioners to meet) was established in the U.S. Post Office building (now the county administrative offices), that court was kept busy trying cases involving illegal liquor for the region. Several federal officers were stationed in Rockingham to assist local officers.
For the sake of trying to regulate morality, a great expenditure federal, state and local money was made with no good result.
During the 1918 flu epidemic, a “nurse,” according to “Mixed Blessings,” wrote to the governor for 10 gallons of whiskey for flu victims saying they had a better chance of recovery with whiskey. Unfortunately, the three Hamlet Lackey whiskey distilling brothers died within days of each other because of the flu.
Whiskey and brandy were not removed as medicinal drugs from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1915.
There are many local stories involving liquor from the “Happy Hooligan” bootleg establishment in Hamlet known nationwide to all who rode trains through Hamlet, to the Cagles of the River Hills, all perhaps worthy of a television movie for their antics.
As an indication just how “serious” people took prohibition here in 1932, the Richmond County Journal printed bootleg liquor prices for the holidays, a banner time of year for it. Prices were for short pints, quarts, half-gallons and gallons for white corn liquor in Rockingham and another price list for the county and a corn-rye bootleg blend in the county.
In 1933, the 21st U.S. Amendment repealed prohibition, but North Carolina decided to keep the bootleggers in business until 1937 when local option was put into effect with the Alcohol Beverage Control Boards. But, Richmond County kept bootleggers in business until the 1960s when Hamlet first, and then Rockingham, established ABC Boards.
In the meantime, beer and wine were being sold everywhere.
It was in the “progressive era” when public sale of alcohol was promoted by local governments and the Richmond County Chamber of Commerce as a good business move, and so alcohol once again became respectable with Richmond County voters in the 1960s and towns benefited from the “sin” taxes.
It wasn’t until 2000 that liquor by the drink was available in Rockingham and Hamlet by public vote.
In recent years, bootlegging has been largely replaced by people selling individual shot glasses of whiskey out the back door. A bar owner once complained in Dobbins Heights that such “shot houses” were reducing his legal sale of alcohol.
A lot of federal, state and local money has been spent, and still is being spent, to eradicate the growing, transporting and selling of marijuana in and through Richmond County.
When Richmond County Deputy Sheriff Robert Smith was shot in a leg during a raid in the Derby area, it was perhaps a turning point in evaluating whether it was worth someone losing his life over prohibition of marijuana.
That was all before the drugs of choice changed to things like methamphetamine, “bath salts,” and illegal use of prescription drugs.
Just as demon rum was once the scourge of humanity until it was realized people could not, and would not, be regulated into abstinence, opinions on marijuana are following suit.
The number one public enemy drugs in Richmond County today are deadly manufactured ones and illegal sales of prescription drugs. Thieves are concentrating on breaking into drug stores and homes to obtain them.
Considering the checkered past of alcohol from where we have come with pioneers selling legal alcohol, then through prohibition, to legal sales again, from cocaine once openly sold in the 1800s to today’s controlled substances and now shifting opinions on marijuana, it will be interesting to see what tomorrow brings.
Whatever happens, we don’t anticipate a Temperance Hall being established anytime soon in Richmond County once again.