MONMOUTH, Ore. - Towns build identities from the stories they tell about themselves. In Monmouth, Oregon, those stories were about the town’s most distinguishing feature: prohibition. Monmouth was the last dry town on the West Coast.
Ten years ago, residents voted to allow beer and wine sales. Whitney Jones grew up in Monmouth. He went back to find out what has changed.
Wednesday, October 16, 2002. It was 7:30 in the evening. A couple hundred people packed into a room on the campus of Western Oregon University.
They were there for a debate over City Ordinance No. 1, the law which had kept Monmouth dry since its founding. On one side, arguing to end prohibition, was John Oberst, a local resident, giving his first public speech since high school English class.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve watched as Main Street slowly went downhill," he told the audience. "Our local merchants are fighting for their lives, I’ve talked to a lot of them. They don’t need any help pushing people out of town to go spend their money. They need help keeping people here.”
On the other side was Stan Peterson a local minister with all his trained rhetorical flourish.
Stan Peterson : “I’m not against change, but I want to see healthy, wholesome change come about," he said. "I want to see economic development that is going to encourage our people, not one that is guaranteed to bring about abuse.”
John Oberst’s argument was an economic one. Two years earlier Monmouth’s last grocery store had closed, partially due to the local prohibition. Oberst estimated around $12 million in restaurant and grocery money was leaving the town each year. He argued that alcohol sales would help attract new restaurants. Maybe even a new grocery store.
The Reverend argued that alcohol sales would damage the social fabric of the town and that Monmouth would get along fine even without the possible economic benefits.
“For 146 years we have survived here without alcohol," Peterson said. "Isn’t that amazing? The Depression, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, we made it through it all without alcohol.”
In 1859, there was no debate. Records from back then show that the town founders incorporated Monmouth primarily to kick out a local shop owner who was selling liquor. Over the years there were numerous attempts to end prohibition. They all failed.
That is, until election night 2002, when the measure passed, 58 to 42 percent. The new law allowed beer and wine sales only. And with that, nearly 150 years of tradition came to an end.
10 YEARS LATER
It’s been almost a decade since Monmouth allowed beer and wine. There are three bars in town. There’s the Main Street Pub up there, there’s Crush Wine Bar right across the street from me, and Rookies Sports Bar at the other end of town.
The other day I was out on Main Street with Scott McClure, Monmouth City Manager. He pointed to Crush and said “That business would not be here if the law didn’t change.”
Still, there haven’t been any “home runs.” The sit-down restaurants people talked about back in 2002, those aren’t here. Monmouth still doesn’t have a real grocery store. But, Reverend Peterson’s warnings that drunks were going to take over downtown, he now admits things didn’t turn out that way.
“I could just see it. You get a whole college community, college town with these kids who come in and have no restraint whatsoever and I could just see the big bars being opened up here and trouble coming," Peterson says. "Fact is, that hasn’t happened.”
In fact, alcohol related crime has remained flat since 1997. If you account for population growth, it’s actually decreased since Monmouth allowed beer and wine sales.
In the time I spent there, I didn’t see anybody sleeping on benches or stumbling around the streets. Still, Peterson says that something has been lost.
“Towns spend huge dollars to bring in people to help them get an identity and notoriety and we had it by leaving things alone and now we have nothing.”
“You can’t undo the fact that yes, 150 years of tradition has ended,” says John Oberst. He is now Monmouth’s mayor.
He told me that the town’s identity is bigger than its prohibition past.
“It’s still a wonderful town. It’s still a safe place to raise children, it’s still clean, it’s still friendly, it’s still everything that it was before except now I can have a beer with dinner when I go out for dinner. That’s the only change that I see.”
And as of a 2010 vote, Monmouth now allows hard liquor sales too. On all sides of this issue, people told me one thing over and over again: they and those they argued against were simply doing what they thought would make the town a better place.
Ten years ago, Monmouth residents were willing to sit down and argue with one another, and vote, and then to move on together as a community. Perhaps that’s the story they will start to tell about their town.
The audio of the 2002 debate comes courtesy of Western Oregon University Archives.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network