Fort Smith Celebrated 'Dry Spell' 89 Years Ago

By Ben Boulden

On Sunday, Feb. 13, 1916, the New Theater at North 10th Street and Garrison Avenue was packed with a crowd that just wanted to say 'no.' The drys who gathered in the entertainment space were there to celebrate the prohibition of the sale of liquor in Arkansas and Fort Smith, not enjoy entertainment.

Arkansas had gone dry in 1916 as had the city a few months earlier. The teetotalers urged the state's congressional delegation to make Washington, D.C., just as liquor free and vote for a bill that would extend prohibition to the nation's capital.

Nineteen young ladies dressed all in white occupied center stage at the New Theater, representing the 19 states that already had prohibited the sale of liquor within their borders.

Mayor Read endorsed President Wilson's "preparedness for peace" policy prior to U.S. involvement in World War I and opined that what would do the most for preparedness would be stopping the "manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors." Many speakers noted efforts to prohibit or curtail the sale of drink in the warring European countries and like Read equated prohibition with an alert defense of a nation.

Read refuted the claim prior to citywide prohibition that Fort Smith's municipal government couldn't survive without saloon license revenue with his own claim that the city was running fine without the money. Read even said the deficit of the previous administration was even being paid off. Police had rigorously enforced prohbition in Fort Smith, he said.

Noting that the change in the character of the town had been "phenomenal," Read quoted a salesman from one of the leading distilleries who had called Fort Smith "the best whiskey town in the United States."

Fort Smith didn't give up its whiskey without a long fight though. Lush-like, the city returned to the bottle at least once before taking the pledge for a prolonged dry spell. From August 1914 to January 1915, Fort Smith closed its saloons and prohibited the sale of liquor, hard and soft.

On Jan. 2, 1915, Judge Ezra Hester ruled in county court that a petition valid that requested that liquor licenses be issued. Fort Smith was wet again until Aug. 1, 1915.

Judge Paul Little in March 1915 had ordered that all sales of liquor be prohibited in the city beginning on that date. At 11 p.m., Saturday, July 31, 1915, Fort Smith went dry and officially stayed dry until prohibition was repealed in 1933. In that year, Arkansas returned to a local-option law and placed an excise tax on liquor to raise money for a cash-strapped, Depression-era state government.

Source: "Prohibtion Celebrated," Fort Smith Times Record, Feb. 14, 1916, p. 1; "City Closing Hour of 11 p.m. Observed As Saloons Quit Fort Smith For Good," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 1, 1915, p. 1; "Hester Rules For Saloon Licenses," Fort Smith Times Record, Jan. 3, 1915, p. 1.