NH's Checkered Prohibition Past



illustration by Kristina rowell

Like many small towns, Sharon is easy to miss and even harder to find. It’s nestled in the Monadnock Region on high ground east of Peterborough. Even though Rte. 126 runs through the town, there are no stores, restaurants or much commercial enterprise at all (the nearest chamber of commerce has no Sharon-based members). But that’s not to say Sharon has nothing — it has a wonderful art center and a town forest, which encompass half the town’s land. And it certainly doesn’t mean that this place isn’t popular. Only two of the town’s 138 houses are for sale, at an average price of around a half million.

Sharon’s population has changed little in the last 150 years. The 360 residents — including political satirist and journalist P.J. O’Rourke — seem content, even happy in their little “Currier & Ives” hamlet.

That was until one resident tried to have a case of California wine shipped to his home address. The vineyard refused because Sharon is one of a handful of towns that prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages. “Most people didn’t know it was a dry town,” says Chester Bowles, the town administrator. It hardly mattered, he says, until the “advent of Internet sales.”

So a petition was circulated (five percent of the town’s voters required) and Bowles was set on the complicated path to lift Sharon’s ban on booze. Between the secretary of state’s office and the New Hampshire Municipal Association, he got what he needed. 

New Hampshire has checkered past when it comes to Prohibition. In the 1850s, the Granite State, along with several others, adopted the so-called Maine Law, which was the temperance movement’s first legislative attempt at prohibiting alcohol except for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes.”

State-by-state prohibition proved ineffective and after several years the laws were repealed. Then prohibition returned with a vengeance with the passage of the 18th amendment in 1920, but history repeated itself and in 1933 national prohibition was repealed. The government gave the states the authority to regulate liquor but not interstate commerce of the liquor business. The latter was necessary to be able to effectively move alcohol through dry states. In the end, the allure of state funds through taxes or from a state-run monopoly, as New Hampshire has, was too great and only three states remained dry.

The country was left with a hodgepodge of laws and regulations and a checkerboard of dry and wet counties and municipalities. New Hampshire decided to allow local municipalities to decide for themselves whether alcoholic beverages would be sold in their jurisdiction. “New Hampshire is not a ‘home rule’ state,” says Cordell Johnston, an attorney with the NH Municipal Association. “In other words, cities and towns do not have inherent authority to regulate whatever they want.”

"Most people didn’t know it was a dry town. But it hardly mattered until the advent of Internet sales."

All municipal authority comes from the state and this legal concept is known as “Dillon’s Rule.” Named for 19th century jurist John Forrest Dillon, the rule is the foundation of municipal law. It can “sometimes cause friction for selectmen or women,” says Meredith Attorney Christopher Boldt, who is the chair of the NH Bar Association’s Municipal and Government Law Section. He points to the desire of some communities to ban smoking in public areas or outright ban sales, like Westminster, Mass., is considering.

 RSA 663:5 establishes a very thorough procedure for the voters to decide whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in their community. In 1964, during the general election, every community was asked four questions, whether they would permit in their community 1) a state liquor store 2) retail sale of beer 3) retail sale of wine and 4) commercial enterprises where liquor is “sold for consumption on the premises.”

The vast majority of the communities approved all four questions. A dozen towns went wet but left some restrictions on sale of liquor. Seventeen towns, including Sharon, rejected all four questions and stayed firmly dry. Moving forward from 1964, dry towns had to petition to have the questions placed on the ballot. Over the past 50 years, the number of dry towns has dwindled to just four.

Shipping alcohol into dry towns seems to be the common reason for the change. That’s what motivated Pat Webb, a retired FBI agent, to press the tiny North Country hamlet of Landaff to adopt all four questions in 2010. “There wasn’t any opposition,” he says.

New Hampshire’s small wineries and breweries say the hassle isn’t worth the few mail order sales. Brenda Bailey Collins, of Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, says they only sell their products wholesale or at their stand. “We looked into it and it is one of the reasons we don’t do it,” she says.

Back in Sharon, the election results (“yes” prevailed on all four questions) have been certified and, without much fanfare, the change has occurred — from dry to wet. Bowles doesn’t think the town’s vote will have much of an influence. He notes that any business enterprise would have to get by the town’s zoning board and, of course, the state liquor commission.  When asked if the morals of his town have changed. He responds: “No. I suspect the morals of Sharon haven’t changed one bit.”

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