That Was the Question

On St. Patty’s Day, it is customary to down a few beers at the local pub celebrating the day when everyone is Irish. But, such wasn’t the case a century ago in the City of Dublin. City officials objected to anyone drinking a brew on St. Patrick’s Day or any other day for that matter. Then someone came up with the idea of "near beer," a refreshment which looked like real beer and tasted somewhat like real beer, but which wasn’t supposed to get you drunk. At least that what the bartenders said. But, the church going folk weren’t buying it. They believed drinking any beer, near or regular, was immoral to say the least.

Near beer was defined as a malt beverage containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol. The most popular brands were Bevo, Pablo, Vivo and Famo. Often, barkeepers would spike their near bear by injecting closed bottles and kegs with alcohol to give it a little extra kick. The Dublin city council met on December 1, 1908. The entire board of aldermen voted to suspend the sale of near beer. Alderman G.H. Williams wanted to close the beer joints by Christmas, while two aldermen wanted them to shut down immediately. City Attorney Earl Camp vowed if the saloons contested the matter, that he would give them "the strongest fight within his power." Though there were doubts that a ban would be legal, the council unanimously adopted an ordinance stopping the sale of near beer after December 31, 1908.

Messers Frank R. Radford and J.C. Kennedy opened their near beer stand just after Christmas Day in 1908. The men, along with their clerk, J.W. Moore, were arrested on a charge of illegally storing intoxicating whiskey. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Moore and Kennedy and opted to make Radford their primary target. Mercer University professor Sellers analyzed the seized beverages and testified that the beer contained 3.48 to 3.71 percent alcohol. His uncontroverted testimony led to City Recorder S.W. Sturgis’ finding of guilt.

The conviction didn’t stop the sale of near beer because Attorneys Kendrick J. Hawkins and Jule B. Greene sought and were granted a restraining order by Judge John H. Martin just before New Year’s Day. Their case was based primarily because their clients had been granted a license from the Judge of the Court of Ordinary and paid the requisite taxes.

Radford and Kennedy had been successful in being granted a temporary injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing its ordinance banning the sale of near beer. But, the proprietors decided on their own to stop selling the popular drink. In fact, Kennedy had enough of the controversy. He promised Dublin mayor W. S. Phillips to stop selling near beer if the $100.00 fine against him was nullified, a proposition which was accepted by the mayor.

The city council quickly adopted an ordinance which declared that the sale of near beer was a nuisance. In doing so, the council went around the injunction and stopped the sale under its powers to abate activities which are annoying and disturbing. Realizing the futility of staying in business, the Tindol brothers quit selling and closed their shop. Radford was determined to stay in business. He closed his place in Dublin until the court made a final determination. He set up his tavern outside the city limits and gave his customers a free ride there from the courthouse. Everyone else in town waited for a hearing before Judge John H. Martin on the fourth Monday in January.

Judge Martin found that the sale of near beer was legal, but granted the city the authority to abate nuisances. Martin, after more than six weeks of deliberating during an illness and busy court schedule, tendered his written decision on St. Patrick’s Day, one hundred years ago today. Judge Martin reasoned if the state of Georgia was levying a tax on the sale of near beer, then the city had no right to ban it from being sold. The judge maintained that the city could prohibit the sale of "spiked" near beer or any regular beer. He also upheld the conviction of Radford and Kennedy and denied their request for immunity. Martin left the door open for the police to shut down any establishment which could be determined a nuisance under the city code.

The city council met in an emergency session on March 22; an ordinance was adopted to regulate the sale of near beer. The ordinance effectively prohibited its sale by requiring a license seeker to obtain the unanimous approval of all property owners within 100 yards of their establishment and pay an exorbitant annual fee of $200.00. If such approval was granted, the saloon must not have tables, stands or any thing on the windows to block a view inside.

Additionally, near beer barrooms could only be open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.. Further, the city required all near beer establishments to be located in the high rent zone. That is, they had to be located on the first two blocks west and south of the courthouse on Jackson and Jefferson Streets, making the rent too high. Sales could not be made to minors and women and could not be made on holidays and election days.

But near beer continued to be sold much to the consternation of the town’s people, Who desperately sought to suppress the evil liquid. The prohibitionists continued to charge that the near beer was actually regular. No case could be proved. Three establishments were selling out of the highly coveted ale. Opponents cited the fact that there was more drunkenness in Dublin in the past three months than in several years previously.

In August, the Georgia legislature approved the sale of near beer in Dublin, since its population was more than 2,500. By New Year’s Day of 1910, Laurens County was declared "dry as a bone." Not a solitary near beer saloon could be found in the county outside the city limits.

By the end of August, Confederate Veteran H.P. Hale gave up the fight and closed his near beer stand. Though his business had been operated solely by two men from Dexter, Hale, then in bad health, and other near beer operators were indicted. With Hale’s closing, only two were left open and running.

The following summer, the Supreme Court of Georgia effectively killed the sale of near bear in Dublin. The court approved the lower court’s ruling without an opinion. The decision effectively ruled that every near beer saloon may be classified as a nuisance and may be abated as a nuisance. The high court’s decision effectively gave all Georgia cities the right to ban the sale of near beer.