Monday, May 10, 2010

Bovina, Wet or Dry? - Part I

Until November 2007, Bovina was known as a dry town. This has nothing to do with weather, but instead refers to the sale of alcoholic beverages. Bovina was officially dry for 60 years, becoming a dry town in November 1947. Before 1947, Bovina was sporadically wet. In the early days of Bovina, alcohol was readily available for sale. And it was consumed pretty freely.

This doesn’t mean Bovina was an unusually drunk town. The period from 1790 to the 1830s saw the highest per-capita consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States ever. Whiskey and other hard liquor were cheap and plentiful. Bovina was no different from many other American communities in the early 19th century.

Sellers of liquor had to be licensed. One of the first licenses issued when Bovina was created in 1820 was to John Hastings. The Commissioners of Excise for the Town of Bovina met at the home of Thomas Landon on May 3, 1820 to review Hastings’ request to operate a ‘Inn or Tavern.’

The commissioners, “having Satisfactory evidence that the said John Hastings [is] of good moral character and of Sufficient abilities to keep an Inn or Tavern … [and] that an Inn or Tavern is absolutely necessary at their houses respectively for the actual accommodation of travelers.”

The license (or recognizance) reads, in part: “John Hastings shall not during the time he shall keep an Inn or tavern keep a disorderly inn or tavern or suffer or permit any cock fighting, gaming or playing with cards or dice or keep any billiard table or other gaming table or shuffle board within the inn or Tavern … and shall in all things conform himself according to the true interest and meaning of the act entitled an act to lay a duty on strong liquors and for regulating inns and taverns passed April 7, 1801...”

A ledger believed to have been from Hastings shows ample evidence of the sale of alcohol, with sales of whiskey, gin and rum showing up frequently along with the sale of shingles, spoons, cotton cloth and snuff.

While the sale of liquor was legal, certain parties, particularly the Associate Presbyterian Church, frowned on it. When Reverend John Graham came to Bovina in 1832 as the church’s new minister, he found “rather too free use made of intoxicating liquor.” It was used “freely at births, marriages, and funerals, at logging bees, husking bees, chopping bees, raisings, vendues [auctions], and in the harvest field.” The session of the Bovina UP Church repeatedly had to admonish members for intoxication. On 11 December 1832, an Elder reported his conversation with a particular member, “respecting some imprudencies laid to his charge, among which was his having been seen in a state of intoxication.” The member in question at first denied this, but admitted it was true. “[H]e expressed his sorrow, and promised he should be more careful for the time to come.” Similar admonishments continued through the 1830s through the 1860s. Most of those so admonished promised to do better in the future. Some were more successful than others. Those who repeated the offense could find church privileges denied them.

The position of the church did not halt the sale of alcohol, but a couple of serious attempts were made in the 1840s via the ballot box. In 1841, a vote was held to go ‘no-license’ – meaning no sale of alcohol. The vote was close, with 83 supporting no-license and 72 supporting license. It doesn’t appear this vote led to a ban, however, for in 1843, there is in the Bovina files a tavern bond. In 1845, towns in New York got the option to vote ‘no-license,’ and while it appears that Bovina again voted for no-license, the State Legislature in 1847 rescinded this. The issuance of tavern licenses continued.

Here's a license from 1857 allowing Dorcas Hamilton, James Douglas and John Davis to allow the sale of alcohol at their hotel.

As the 19th century drew closer to the 20th century, however, Bovina became drier and drier. In 1896, a new local option law was passed by the State Legislature that allowed towns to vote whether to allow the sale of alcohol. It appears that Bovina exercised this option soon after the law passed and started the 20th century as a dry town. By the time of Prohibition in 1919, Bovina likely had already been dry for around 20 years.

Bovina also ended the 20th century as a dry town, but it had one brief wet period. I'll talk about that in the next installment about Bovina, Wet or Dry.

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