Historical scrapbook: Liquor in Brownwood

Ronnie and Donnie Lappe
Special to the Bulletin
Ronnie and Donnie Lappe

The Brown County Museum of History is opening a new exhibit called Bootleggers,Moonshine, and the Mob stating April 23, 2022. A special opening event will be April 22, 2022 from 6:30 p.m.. to 9:30 p.m. Go to browncoutymuseum.org for further information.

This exhibit at the BrownCounty Museum is significant because liquor played a part in Brown County history as is did in other counties in Texas.

When the county was first being organized, an election was held to determine the county seat between Brownwood and Baird's Store. On the road into the voting center, those who favored Brownwood as the county seat set up a wagon with a whiskey barrel and offered free drinks to the passerby. Very few of those who favored Baird's Store made in to vote and Brownwood was selected as the county seat.

No history is written of liquor being sold in Brown County from the time of the first settlements until after the Civil War except at the military post, Camp Colorado. Soon after the war, however, peddlers began coming to the city and selling whiskey. Sometimes between 1870 and 1874, several saloons opened. About 1876, liquor ads were published in local newspapers.

One bakery advertised, “the best in bread, pies, cakes, cider and beer.” The Brownwood saloon, located on the north side of the square, enticed potential customers advertising, “whiskey, brandies, foreign and domestic wines, and cigars.” One bar promised, “music every evening and sober and polite bartenders.” On the south side of the square, Happy Jack Young operated the Frontier Headquarters Saloon and Billiard Hall. The “OO” Saloon and gambling house was two doors down and served, “all kinds of liquors, cigars, and pure lemonade.”

On the corner of East Broadway and Clark Street, a man named Pomp Arnold, an unusual saloon keeper, had a saloon. By this time, the argument for prohibition was growing. One night a band of Salvation Army crusaders gathered in from of Arnold's saloon and began singing hymns and temperance songs. This infuriated the owner, and he ordered them to leave. They courteously moved to the other side of the street, but continued their singing. On the following night they set up again in front of the saloon. Arnold walked out and proceeded to kick a large hole in the bass drum being played by one of the Salvation Army people. On the third night the musicians came back. This time Arnold made no attempt to interfere. Instead, he stood on the sidewalk and listened attentively. The following morning he did not open for business. He spent the day visiting all the other saloons in town urging them, temporarily, to close their saloons and meet him at his business. When the others gathered there, Mr. Arnold entered and asked the men to help him carry all the bottles and barrels of liquor out into the street where he opened all the containers and poured the liquor into the gutter. That day he joined the Salvation Army and was an active member for more than forty years. Some people say that Carrie Nation. the famous prohibition opponent brought her demonstrations to Brown County.

During this period of history, there was a strong sentiment to get rid of liquor in the county. The movement was led by some churches, the Salvation Army and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. On election day the”wets” had 687 votes and the prohibitionists had 472. This settled the matter in Brown County until November, 1893.

Again, the prohibitionists felt they could win an election, but only in some voting precincts. The state law had changed to allow county to go “wet” by Justice of the Peace precincts rather than county wide. They had noticed during previous elections how some voting boxes voted to go “wet” but the county didn't. So, the “wets” petitioned for an election by precinct, rather than county wide. If it passed in some precincts, but not in others, alcohol could be sold only in those precincts.

This election became very vicious with name-calling and a no-holds-barred campaign. The “drys” outvoted their opponents by thirty-six votes. The county judge ordered the saloons within Brownwood to close. One establishment simply moved to another precinct on the road to Comanche. The owner called his new place of business “The Bulletin” to ridicule Will H. Mayes, the editor and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin, who had vigorously pushed for prohibition in the newspaper.

The “drys” were encouraged by their results within the city so one year later they had an election where The Bulletin Saloon was located. Again, the dry election prevailed by votes that abolished the saloon.

The fight for the sale of liquor was over. The “wets” requested an election in 1895 within the City of Brownwood precinct. The usual bitter campaign followed with Cyclone Davis (a well known prohibitionist of the time) joining Mayes and other leaders. Colonel Richard Wynne led the “wets.” This time the “wets” gathered 682 votes beating their opponents by twenty-nine votes, and the saloons opened again in Brownwood.

The fighting continued for nearly eight years when the drys petitioned again for a county wide election for September , 1903. This time the drys won by a small majority and that was the end of the open saloon in Brown County. Maybe it ended the “open saloon”, but in no way was it the end of the battle between the “wets” and the “drys”. Elections were brought up until finally liquor in the county was prohibited.

There were numerous elections through the years concerning the sale of alcohol, but Brown County remained dry for many years from the early part of the 20th century up to the 1950's,

Through the years, studies were done indicating which voting boxes favored the alcohol sales. The law had changed to allow counties to go wet by by individual voting precincts rather than count wide. A new precinct was set up that “gerrymandered” the “wet” voting boxes into am ameaba shaped precinct. An election was held in that one precinct. For many years, alcohol could only be purchased in a small portion of the town. Until an election in the late 1990's or early 2000's that changed the sale of alcohol to be county wide

Enterprising people had found a loophole because the state law allowed liquor to be held in private clubs where members joined a private club and the membership entitled the patron to an alcoholic drink. That method was used to skirt the law for many years. Many such clubs existed or were adjacent to steakhouses or other establishments

Other elections were held to allow wine and beer to be sold in grocery stores and convenience stores. Then elections allowed liquor by the drink. Some of the elections were for one precinct at a time that the proponents thought would allow the issue at hand. There were always restrictions for distances from churches or schools or playgrounds in the sale of alcohol.

Further articles will continue to the story of alcohol in Brown County.

Be sure to check out the exhibit at the Brown County Museum of History Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. until  2 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.