LINEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Clay County has almost 14,000 residents, around 100 churches and not a single place where you can buy a beer legally.
There’s no Bud Light in the cooler at the corner convenience store and no fine wine for sale at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket.
But bootleggers a few streets away will sell you a can of beer for $1.25.
This scenic but poor county in the hills about 50 miles east of Birmingham harks back to the 1920s, when Prohibition was the law of the land. After a neighboring county recently voted wet, Clay County became the last bone-dry county in Alabama and one of a dwindling number across the nation.
Nestled at the southern tip of the Appalachians and lacking so much as a federal highway to bring in visitors, people here pride themselves on scraping by. To some, prohibiting legal alcohol sales is both a moral issue and part of being off the beaten path.
“Clay County is more of a rural setting. Family values are held more dearly to the heart,” said the Rev. Bruce Willis, a staunch alcohol opponent and missions director of the Carey Baptist Association. With 33 churches that have 5,371 members on their rolls, the association accounts for about 39 percent of the county’s entire population.
It’s not that no one drinks in Clay County; possession of limited amounts of alcohol is legal, and plenty of residents buy beer and liquor across county lines and take it home. It’s an open secret that bootleggers buy beer or liquor legally elsewhere and sell it in the county, said County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts, a former police chief of Lineville.
“It’s pretty wet to be dry,” said Watts, driving through a part of town where empty beer cans litter the ground marking bootleggers’ homes.
But even supporters of legalizing alcohol sales see little chance things will change in a county that’s best known for winning high school football teams and its most famous native, the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.
“There’s just hasn’t been an appetite for it,” said Matt Hooten, a businessman who splits his time between Clay County and Montgomery and favors the legalization of alcohol sales.
The issue last came up for a countywide vote in 1986, when overwhelming opposition from churches helped defeat the proposal 2,716-2,223. Local papers were filled with advertisements and letters from alcohol opponents leading up to the vote.
“Is placing my approval upon liquor morally right or wrong? God’s word says it is wrong!” said one ad, placed by a pro-dry group whose chairman is the namesake for the local National Guard armory.
A petition for another referendum died about four years ago, and no one has tried again since then. Jimmy Barton, who remembers buying alcohol from bootleggers years ago and now owns an auto parts store, favors going wet. He still has one of the old petitions with only a few signatures and lots of empty lines where no one signed.
Staging a vote requires signatures from 25 percent of the people who voted in the last countywide election, and Barton said he’s not sure when that will happen again.
“It’s hard to read. You have closet drinkers who will vote it dry every time,” he said.
No one keeps such statistics on exactly how many U.S. counties are totally dry, but the number appears to be decreasing, said Margaret Barchine. She’s a spokeswoman for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Associations, composed of industry members and alcohol agencies in 17 states that have control organizations.
“Each state has its own way of operating,” she said. “That makes it difficult.”
But hundreds of counties prohibit sales at least in part.
Fewer than 50 of the 254 counties in Texas are totally wet, with the remaining banning sales at least in part, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Kentucky is one of the soberest states, at least by law, with 39 of its 120 counties totally banning alcohol sales, just like Clay County.
Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 25 are dry in unincorporated areas yet also have cities where alcohol sales are legal. Blount County recently voted against allowing legalized sales yet it has two country clubs where the booze flows freely — and legally — under a special exemption.
Clay County’s neighbor to the east, Randolph County also was totally dry until residents voted last month to legalize alcohol sales. The “wet” vote was bolstered by outsiders who have moved to the county from metro Atlanta because of Lake Wedowee, where development is booming.
The Randolph vote left Clay as Alabama’s last totally dry county. Because of a local law passed by the Legislature several years ago, cities in the county aren’t allowed to legalize sales on their own. Unlike other counties, the whole county must go wet at once.
It’s a place where the legal status of alcohol sales sometimes makes for odd situations.
Some business owners and residents say allowing alcohol sales would help bring in new restaurants and promote new development. Stan Gaither, director of the Ashland Housing Authority and a former business owner, envisions restaurants in downtown Lineville or nearby Ashland serving evening meals and wine to out-of-towners who come to hike or ride bikes in Clay County’s endless forests and craggy mountains.
Yet the county chamber of commerce hasn’t taken an official position on legalization, and executive director Mary Patchunka-Smith said she’d never serve alcohol at a chamber event. The topic is too touchy, she said.
“I’d lose members right and left,” said Patchunka-Smith.
It’s rare to see alcohol at wedding receptions or public events, residents say, yet many people drink at home. Even the Rev. Zenus Windsor, who publicly opposes legalizing alcohol sales in the county, says he buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks a glass at home each night to help keep his high cholesterol in check.
“I told my church about it,” said Windsor, 77. “My Lord drank wine. He turned water into wine.”
One reformed bootlegger, who declined to give his name because he both still fears police and has a criminal history, said the number of people selling alcohol illegally in the county has dropped dramatically through the years; most drinkers now go get beer or whiskey on their own rather than relying on a bootlegger to get it for them. To him, it’s past time to legalize alcohol sales in the county.
“I’d be in favor of it,” said the man, who is now elderly.
With the highest unemployment in east Alabama and an economy built on farming and cabinetry shops, Clay County lacks a hotel or a chain restaurant. The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board gives the county about $315,000 annually to make up for the lack of alcohol revenues, said William Thigpen, associate administrator of the agency.
Thigpen said it would be difficult for a county with such a small population to make up that amount in alcohol taxes quickly if residents voted to go wet. Watts, the commission chairman, favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County’s cities, but he fears it could take years to make up the lost state revenue if the county went wet.