“Prohibition in McLennan County and the State of Texas”

The term “Prohibition” conjures up a variety of images including flappers, speakeasies, moonshiners, bootleggers, and extravagant parties. However, it is important to remember that the 18th  Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol was not a moment in time, rather, the end of a long-waged campaign, one that often had local roots. Beginning in the 19th century, the Temperance Movement was an effort to combat the consumption of alcohol in the United States. The concept of temperance often found fertile soil among religious groups, particularly women. The original focus of the movement was on moderation and the individual person. However, by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the focus had shifted to complete abstinence from alcohol (known as “teetotaling”) and an emphasis on the legal prohibition of alcohol throughout society. As Prohibition gained more support, reformers, known as “drys,” sought to implement local options on city and county levels. Initially met with great resistance, the push towards Prohibition ultimately gained significant traction.

Society’s gradual shift towards accepting Prohibition can be seen in the history of McLennan County. From 1885 to 1917, there were at least five elections regarding prohibition in the county. The Day, a Waco newspaper, reported on September 1, 1885 that Prohibition had failed with 3,681 votes against and only 1,733 in favor.[1] Thirty-two years later, on October 24, 1917, the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune announced that Prohibitionists had finally triumphed in an election by 1,273 votes.[2] This newspaper article also examined the past four local option elections, starting in 1895. Over the 22-year period, it is evident that Prohibitionists were slowly gaining ground. As a result of the reformers’ perseverance, McLennan County went dry on December 1, 1917.

When considering these election results, it is important to remember that only white males over the age of 21 could vote at this time. Although African American men could theoretically vote due to the 15th Amendment (1870), they were, in reality, disenfranchised by various means including poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. Women were also prohibited from voting.

The 1920 U.S. Census reported a population of almost 83,000 people.[3] Taking into account the voting restrictions addressed above, a vote by an estimated 11% of the population caused McLennan County to transition to a dry county.

While the major focus of the Prohibitionists’ efforts tended to be on the county level, advocates were also working on the state and federal levels. An article in the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune dated July 26, 1911 referenced the current state-level prohibition election as well as a similar election held in 1887.[4] In 1907, the Baskin-McGregor Act was passed by the Texas Legislature. This law “defined licensing procedures and prescribed operating hours and conditions”[5] for a wide array of activities and actively prohibited

  • prostitutes or lewd women;
  • any woman from entering or remaining in bars;
  • any vulgar or obscene pictures;
  • keeping or using any piano, organ, or other musical instrument;
  • any boxing, wrestling, or sparring;
  • and any games such as billiards tables, card, dominoes, etc.[6]

Ultimately, Prohibition became the law of the land when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on January 26, 1919. The law went into effect a year later. The state of Texas also passed a state constitutional amendment in favor of Prohibition in 1919.[7] The state amendment was not repealed until 1935, although the 21st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution effectively ended national Prohibition in 1933. After alcohol was legalized in Texas once again, the local option persisted as a means to combat the consumption of alcohol. Over the past 90 years, McLennan County has remained a partially wet county, with certain precincts and cities oscillating between wet and dry.

A pamphlet of songs for Prohibition that was printed in Waco, Texas. Texas Prohibition Songs. Circa 1900-1935. Texas RBT HV5090.T4 T49 1900z, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
The results of Prohibition elections from 1895 to 1917. “Pros Win County by 1,273 Majority,” Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, October 24, 1917, Vol. XXIII No.43 ed., The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
A map of Texas that depicts wet and dry counties in the state. Prohibition Map of Texas. Circa 1908. Drawer 27, Folder 1 (31263030918335), The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
The Prohibition Amendment to the Texas State Constitution. The Dean Law and the Prohibition Amendment to the Texas Constitution by R.V. Nichols and L.C. Sutton. Austin, 1919. Texas HV5090.T4 N5 1919, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

[1] The Day (Waco, Texas), September 1, 1885, Vol. 2 No. 240 ed., accessed July 21, 2020, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/the-day-waco-texas-vol.-2-no.-240-tuesday-september-1-1885/482322.

[2]  “Pros Win County by 1,273 Majority,” Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, October 24, 1917, Vol. XXIII No.43 ed., accessed July 21, 2020, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/waco-semi-weekly-tribune-waco-texas-vol.-23-no.-42-wednesday-october-24-1917/581383.

[3] United States, Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Population 1920: Number and Distribution of Inhabitants, (Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1921), page 637, accessed July 21, 2020, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1920/volume-1/41084484v1ch5.pdf.

[4] “The Battle of Ballots Over,” Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, July 26, 1911, Vol. XVII No. 17 ed., accessed July 21, 2020, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/waco-semi-weekly-tribune-waco-texas-vol.-17-no.-17-wednesday-july-26-1911/568271.

[5] Motl, Kevin C. “Under the Influence: The Texas Business Men’s Association and the Campaign against Reform, 1906-1915.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 109, no. 4 (2006): 494-529. Accessed July 21, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/30242333.

[6] Texas, State Senate, Journal of the Regular Session of the Thirtieth Legislature (1907), page 954; 963, accessed July 21, 2020, https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/Senatejournals/30/S_30_0.pdf.

[7] Handbook of Texas Online, K. Austin Kerr, “Prohibition,” accessed July 21, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/vap01.

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