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Something You Might Not Have Known: Augusta has a long history of prohibition

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Augusta has had a long on again off again relationship with alcohol going all the way back to the colonial era.

When James Oglethorpe founded Augusta in 1737, he envisioned it to be a part of a colony that would offer a new start for debtors and arrived in the future state armed with a charter from King George III as well as a decree banning alcohol that was also signed by the monarch.

“Whereas it is found by Experience that the use of Liquors called Rum and Brandy, in the Province of Georgia are more particularly hurtful and pernicious to Man’s Body and have been attended with dangerous Maladies and fatal distempers… NO Rum or Brandy nor any other kind of Spirits or Strong Waters by what-so-ever name they are or may be distinguished… shall be imported or brought to shore,” the decree reads.

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It was the first act of prohibition in America, according to the American Prohibition Museum.

Apparently very few debtors, or hardly anyone else, wanted to brave the ocean blue to get the opportunity to rough it in a frontier town with the Spanish dangerously close and go through all of that without the benefit of rum. According to late Augusta historian Edward Cashin, the colony had the decree reversed in 1742.

When the Temperance Movement swept across the country in the late 1800s, Georgia was on the forefront of eliminating alcohol from daily life. Records provided by the Library of Congress show that counties in Georgia were given the ability to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol in 1886.

By 1909, prohibition was in full force in Georgia, a decade before the 18th Amendment was ratified. Georgia also became the last state to ratify the 21st Amendment, which nullified the Volstead Act and effectively ended national prohibition. According to Library of Congress records, the amendment was ratified in Georgia in 1935.

Just because Georgia and the rest of the nation were technically “dry,” it doesn’t appear that anyone in Augusta was paying any more attention to the federal law any more than the generation before that scoffed at King George’s decree.

Walter Liggett, a prominent American journalist who was published by several newspapers in New York City, including the New York Times, The Sun, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News, went on a tour of the nation exposing the ties between prohibition, public corruption and organized crime.

According to archives from The Augusta Chronicle, Liggett singled out Augusta in a speech given in Athens in 1930 where he labeled the Garden City “the drunkest city in America.”

Liggett argued that Augusta, like many other small cities, did not have an organized crime problem because virtually no one enforced or even recognized the law.

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“In Augusta, I discovered that one out of every 22 persons is arrested within 12 months for being intoxicated,” Liggett was quoted in The Augusta Chronicle at the time, “which gives the city the unenviable reputation for having a rate of drunkenness higher than that of any other city in the United States.”

In a sad footnote, Liggett would be gunned down in Minneapolis in gangland style in 1935, just over a year after prohibition ended. According to Marda Liggett Woodbury’s book, “Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett,” the famed journalist was killed as retribution for his denying the mob a great source of income by opposing prohibition.

After prohibition ended nationally, Georgia has remained under the law that has existed since 1886, which gives counties the ability to decide to remain “wet” or “dry.” Over the years, many counties preferred to stay dry including Columbia County.

Many might remember seeing liquor stores across the street from one another at virtually every major county line ingress into Columbia County.

The county would be among the last in the nation to enforce prohibition by finally allowing alcohol to be sold in the county in 1991.

…and that is something you might not have known.

Scott Hudson is the Senior Reporter for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected] 

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article Scott! I worked on helping Columbia County get wet because of the economic impact. Hotels and restaurants were discouraged from opening because of the dry county law. I was the official envelope stuffer to get the facts out. Would love to have on of those letters now. Boxes and boxes of letters went out. I recruited everyone I could. Quite a job.

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