Thirty-five years ago, after multiple votes, it finally became possible to order a mixed drink in a Charlotte restaurant. Here’s the story of the backroom deals that made it happen
Bill Hensley, left, and state Rep. Ben Tison set brown bags on fire to celebrate the end of a statewide ban on mixed beverages on September 8, 1978. Mecklenburg County voters approved liquor-by-the-drink sales that day, ending the practice of brown bagging.
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September 8, 1978—It started like any other election-watch party. Chamber of Commerce members and big-name developers schmoozed with local politicos in the ballroom at the Sheraton Center Hotel. As the results poured in, showing an overwhelming victory for their side, the crowd became giddy. By the end of the evening, they were cheering as they set fire to brown paper bags.
The flaming bags were symbolic—the end of a tradition that made many businessmen cringe when entertaining out-of-state clients and kept convention hotels and chain restaurants wary of setting up shop in Charlotte. Mecklenburg County voters had, for the third time in less than 10 years, voted to approve liquor-by-the-drink sales, each time by about a 2-to-1 margin. This time it was destined to stick, ending a decade-long battle between Charlotte’s business community and much of the rest of North Carolina.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for 20 years,” Jim Catlis, owner of Central Avenue’s Little Italy restaurant, told The Charlotte Observer. An exuberant Bill Veeder, then the chamber director, predicted a convention hotel boom: “I’ve heard all kinds of names tossed around—Hilton, Holiday Inn, Hyatt House—but I don’t know anything for sure. Take your pick.”
A few blocks away, at First Baptist Church, about 50 preachers, deacons, and churchgoers licked their wounds and predicted doom for the city.
“If the people insist on bringing this poison on themselves, that’s their problem,” said a dejected Henderson Belk. A member of the prominent department-store family and the old-line-Charlotte First Baptist Church, Belk had led the dry defenses.
“I’m convinced people want Charlotte to be another Atlanta or New York,” said Kannapolis preacher and Baptist lobbyist Coy Privette.
Privette was right, though wanting to be Atlanta or New York meant different things in different parts of the state. In 1978, Charlotte was at the tail end of the textile bust and on the cusp of the banking boom. The Johnston Mill, the last major textile mill in a city built with mill money, had closed in 1975. Downtown, once a busy grid of department stores, offices, and, of course, churches, had seen shop after shop flee to suburban strip malls until Tryon Street was desolate after dark and the bulk of business on Trade Street was illicit.
But in the boardrooms of the uninspired mid-century office towers, people with big ideas—and big corporate wallets—were making big plans for the city’s future. A series of local bank mergers had already made Charlotte a headquarters city, and it would continue to grow through the interstate banking push in the 1980s and the later emergence of behemoth Bank of America. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce had an outsized stake in city politics. Two of its former presidents, Stan Brookshire and John Belk, controlled the mayor’s office from 1961 to 1977. The Chamber of Commerce aggressively sold the city to Rust Belt and Northeastern companies looking to relocate or expand. Their efforts came to a head in 1978, when IBM built a branch headquarters amid the forests off I-85 that would become University Research Park.
The Chamber had plans for downtown, or “uptown” as it would soon be called, too. A Civic Center opened in 1973 at the corner of College and Trade (it became the first Charlotte Convention Center, which was demolished in 2006 to make way for today’s EpiCentre). Hugh McColl’s North Carolina National Bank had supported residential revitalization of Fourth Ward. More ambitious plans—for grand hotels, fine restaurants, even a “Convention Boulevard” spanning the abandoned tracks where today’s light rail runs—fell through. A big roadblock was the lack of liquor sales.
It’s all a little hard to imagine in 2013 Charlotte, where you can’t walk half a block uptown without bumping into one or seven sidewalk signs advertising drink specials. But 35 years ago, state law prohibited restaurants (and the handful of “bars” in existence) from selling liquor. Establishments could sell beer and wine, but patrons who wanted hard alcohol had to bring their own bottles in paper bags. Waiters could sell “set ups” of ice and mixers. Bottles had to remain in the bag at all times, and drinkers were supposed to do all their pouring under the table.
“It was the biggest local issue for the Charlotte business community,” Charlotte lawyer James H. Carson remembers, sitting in the study of his high-rise condo in the Eastover neighborhood. As a young state representative in the late 1960s, Carson helped lead the earliest pro-liquor-by-the-drink attempts. “You’d have these Northern businessmen coming down, and they’d say, ‘Would you like to get a Manhattan before dinner?’ Well, you’d have to go back to Manhattan to get it.”
Brown bagging was one of those odd rituals accommodating the often conflicting and always confusing patchwork of local and state alcohol laws, especially in the South. Prohibition ended in 1933, returning regulation of beer, wine, and liquor to the states. States could stay dry—and a handful did until the 1960s—allow statewide sales, or opt for the most common solution, passing the decision to cities and counties. As early as 1933, the North Carolina Legislature gave local areas the option to vote on beer and wine sales. Mecklenburg quickly approved the option. State-owned ABC liquor stores were a tougher sell. Mecklenburg County voters rejected the stores in 1937, then approved them in 1949. But mixed-drink sales stayed off-limits.
Starting with Georgia in 1964, though, liquor by the drink spread across the South. When South Carolina passed a statewide referendum in 1973, ushering in the era of the Myrtle Beach minibottle, North Carolina was the only Southern state where the ban remained.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. As early as 1966, the Chamber of Commerce and the Mecklenburg delegation of state legislators threw their full weight behind a bill giving counties (or at least Mecklenburg) the local option of selling liquor. Among Chamber of Commerce leaders, only W.T. Harris, whose Harris Teeter grocery stores sold no wine or beer until bought out by the Ruddick Corporation in 1969, took a principled stand against it.
A few simple numbers help explain what Charlotte was up against in Raleigh. One million Southern Baptists. Five hundred thousand Methodists. Those two groups alone made up one-third of the state’s population. Under Editor Marse Grant, the weekly Biblical Recorder sold 100,000 copies, topped only by the daily papers in Charlotte and Raleigh.
Grant’s Recorder carried several anti-liquor stories in each issue—drunk-driving tragedies, young lives destroyed, drunken muggers on dark and dirty city streets. The newspaper characterized liquor as “evil,” bartenders as “drug pushers,” and defeating liquor by the drink as “the most urgent mission cause at home or abroad.” To help in the fight, Christian Action League lobbyists tallied committee and floor votes, inviting the faithful to voice their disapproval to representatives who voted against the league’s stances. It was effective—so effective that one state senator joked that his Tuesday mail read like a second edition of the paper, as preachers reflected the paper’s themes in Sunday sermons and urged their congregation members to write Raleigh.
Religion was the biggest force aligned against the Charlotte business community’s quest. But so was Charlotte’s big-city image in the legislature. The eastern tobacco farmers had little love for “The Great State of Mecklenburg” to begin with, but even less after the delegation came out in favor of a tobacco tax. Urban issues didn’t play so well in a state dominated by rural interests.
“Most of the Republicans were from really rural areas where the Baptist Church is the dominant force,” says Carson, who in 1967 became one of the first Republican state representatives from Charlotte since Reconstruction. “I had more in common with the Democrats from Greensboro, Raleigh, or Winston.”
Some in Charlotte and other cities didn’t do much to help the cause, making fun of the drys with a bit of big-city smugness. Famed photographer and Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton campaigned statewide on behalf of the North Carolina Travel Council.
Pro-liquor, he created a mock fraternal organization with the humorous title “Loyal Order of the Holders of the Bag.” Some frustrated wets hurled around words like “stupid,” “backward,” and “archaic.” The Chamber of Commerce was so forceful that the Mecklenburg delegation had to ask them not to send a bus of businessmen to lobby in Raleigh because some undecided legislators thought Charlotte was taking too big a role in the bill.
“We tried every trick of the trade,” says Parks Helms, a Charlotte Democrat whose efforts for liquor by the drink in the General Assembly during the late 1970s would prove crucial. “But we just couldn’t get it out of the Legislature.”