LINEVILLE – Wayne Watts is familiar with most of the bootleggers in town. It used to be his job to bust them.
The former Lineville police chief and current Clay County commissioner has long since traded in his patrol car for a pickup truck, but he can still point out every house in the neighborhood where someone is selling cans of beer and shots of whiskey out the back door.
“Every other house on this street used to be a shot house,” Watts said, driving around the back roads of Lineville. “It used to be a lot of single mothers who did it, because they didn’t have any money.”
After Randolph County residents voted in a referendum held last year to allow legal alcohol sales, Clay County became the last holdout in the state - the only place left in Alabama with Prohibition-era laws completely banning the legal sales of wine, beer and hard liquor.
And while Watts said the number of bootleggers has dwindled since his law enforcement days, he guesses there are still about a dozen places in Lineville where someone can illegally buy alcohol. It’s why the Ashland native calls Clay, “the wettest dry county in the world.”
‘A pretty good living’
While Clay County is a now an anomaly in Alabama, being dry used to be the norm throughout the state. When the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920 ushering in Prohibition, Alabama had already banned the sale of alcohol five years prior.
Part 1 - Good Book vs. Good Time | Part 2 - Alabama's Last Dry Soil
Part 3 - A County Cashes In | Part 4 - Shift to Sunday Sales
But just like today, the laws then didn’t mean consumption, distribution and sale of alcohol weren’t rampant throughout the state. According to David Hanson, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam specializing in alcohol research, the state of Alabama led the nation in the seizure of illegal whiskey stills during Prohibition.
When Watts was Lineville’s chief in the 1960s and 1970s, he said it wasn’t the moonshiners causing problems, but residents reselling beer they bought legally across county lines.
Watts’ relationship today with most of the old bootleggers is more friendly neighbor than law enforcer. On a recent drive around the neighborhood, he stops at one house and asks the man inside if he can get a case of beer to go. Both start laughing when they recall the first time Watts arrested him after discovering 10 cases of beer in his deep freezer.
The man, who declined to give his name because he’s still concerned law enforcement might come after him, said he got into the bootlegging business by accident. He’d stock up on beer while visiting Anniston or Talladega, and his friends and neighbors, who didn’t want to make the trip out of town, would offer to buy some off him.
“You’d just stock up and sell it when you can,” he said. “You could make a pretty good living doing it.”
The man said he’s out of the business now, but it doesn’t take much of a drive through the county to see there’s plenty of drinking going on. At one of the many shot houses Watts points out, a woman, identifying herself only as Rhonda, dodges questions about how much a can of beer might cost. But when Watts asks her what she thinks about Clay County getting alcohol sales, she doesn’t hesitate with her answer.
“Absolutely, it should go wet,” she said. “We could use that money.”
But one look at her front lawn, littered with empty Bud Light cans, gives the impression there’s nothing currently dry about Clay County.
“That’s the thing, we got the beer cans, we just don’t get the tax revenue,” said Jimmy Barton, an employee at the Lineville NAPA auto parts store, and the man who helped organize the last wet-dry referendum in Clay County in 1990s. “We’re living in the dark ages here.”
And if all Watts’ old bootlegging buddies have something in common -- besides running into the wrong side of the law when Watts patrolled the streets of Lineville -- it’s that all of them think Clay County should go wet.
“Look at the big school they just put up there,” said Joe Bob Carter, another Lineville resident who said he’s only recently stopped bootlegging, referring to the Clay County Central High School. “I’m sure we could put a lot of money in there.”
‘Too many good people’
At first glance, the only difference between Billy Campbell’s White and Blue Restaurant on Alabama 77 in Ashland and the illegal shot houses in Lineville is an “open” sign welcoming customers. And, of course, a valid business license.
But the restaurant, with its unbalanced tables and peeling paint on walls lined with Elvis and Babe Ruth photos, feels like it could be in a backyard shack anywhere in the county. Campbell, who’s operated the Blue and White for 17 years, and blends in with his customers wearing a do-rag and smoking a cigarette, chooses his words carefully when asked why Clay County doesn’t have alcohol sales.
“We got too many good people here in Clay County,” he said with a smile while ringing out a customer.
“Good people who go to Talladega County to buy beer,” a patron yells from a back table.
And while that might frustrate Campbell, who said he’d love to sell beer at the White and Blue, state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, thinks Campbell’s assessment of Clay County residents is spot-on.
“I don’t hear it a lot from the people in Clay County,” Dial said. “Occasionally someone will call me, but I think most folks in Clay County are good Christians. If they want alcohol they can go to Randolph or Cleburne County.”
Dial’s proof that his constituents don’t want to go wet is the vote the last time the county hosted a wet-dry referendum in 1986. While residents of Lineville and Ashland showed support for the measure, enough residents in the rural parts of the county voted to stay dry and killed the measure by a vote of 2,716 to 2,223.
At the time, it was a moral victory for Pete Phillips, a lifelong Clay County resident and former director of missions with the Clay/Carey Baptist Association. Phillips ran the campaign urging residents to vote to keep Clay dry, and is a big reason why his lifelong home is the last in the state to resist the urge to go wet.
“You may call it pride, but I’d prefer to call it being right,” Phillips said. “It’s about being right, socially and morally, family health, raising children in the right atmosphere. I could go on and on about the plusses.”
Although retired, and in his 80s, Phillips said if Clay County hosted a wet-dry vote tomorrow, he’d be right back on the front lines, calling on people to oppose legalizing liquor sales.
“The word doesn’t change,” Phillips said about his faith in the Bible. “People change.”
Although, people don’t change much in Clay County, Watts said. While the long-time commissioner said he has no problem speaking his mind about alcohol sales, he’s something of a rarity for elected officials who’d rather keep their mouths shut than offend the wrong, or right, people.
“When I got into politics in the 70s, I asked Charles Carpenter, the probate judge at the time, ‘What do you say about this whole wet-dry thing?’” Watts said. “He told me, he said, ‘I have friends who drink, and I have friends who don’t drink, and I always support my friends.’”
An exception to the rule
Unlike Billy Campbell, Steve Simmons, the owner of Delta Grocery Stop just a short drive from the Cleburne County line, doesn’t mind sharing his opinion on the lack of alcohol sales in Clay County.
“It’s the stupidest thing in the world,” said Simmons, a Talladega County native who’s been running the store on Alabama 9 for seven years. “In Talladega we realized we better sell beer in 1970. It's 43 years later. How the heck is Clay County still dry?”
The answer might be because the law makes it difficult for Clay County residents to vote on the matter. In 2009, legislation passed in Montgomery that lowered the minimum population a municipality needed in order to have a wet-dry referendum. Cities now just need 1,000 residents in order to petition for a vote.
Cities in Clay County and neighboring Randolph County, however, are exempt from the law because of a special provision requested by Rep. Richard Laird in whose district the counties lie. So if 100 percent of residents in Ashland or Lineville, Clay County’s only two incorporated municipalities, supported going wet, it wouldn’t matter.
“He basically took my right to vote away,” said Richard Arnold, of Laird. “I don’t know how he could do that.”
Arnold, a former Clay County resident, who ran a now inactive Facebook page supporting alcohol sales in Clay County, isn’t alone in thinking his rights were taken from him. The constitutionality of the legislation is currently being challenged in court.
Laird did not return repeated calls requesting an interview. He had previously told The Star he made sure the cities in his jurisdiction weren’t allowed to host wet-dry referendums to protect the interest of both counties. He said he wanted to make sure cities couldn’t go wet independently and draw away business from the unincorporated areas of the county and prevent them from ever going wet.
Ironically, it looks like the law has had the opposite effect in Randolph County, which went wet last year. While the cities of Roanoke and Wedowee – the latter’s population of 800 would not qualify it for its own wet-dry referendum under the law – are thriving thanks to alcohol sales, the county hasn’t come even close to regaining its share of “dry” money it used to receive from the state.
The cut that dry counties receive from the Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control — called in-lieu-of tax, and designed to compensate dry counties who don’t receive sales tax from alcohol — is the biggest concern Watts has with going wet. Randolph County’s first year of tax revenue from alcohol sales fell $180,000 short of matching the money it used to receive from the state. Watts thinks Clay County would take an even worse hit. Currently, the county receives $318,000 annually from the state for not selling alcohol, and Watts thinks it’s highly unlikely sales tax from alcohol would come close to matching that.
“I think we’d be in a lot of trouble if we didn’t get that money,” Watts said. “I don’t know how we would recover.”
Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.