Story by Shaun Treat
Since we're in the throes of campaign season for City Council, we've excavated some tasty morsels of elections past from Denton’s colorful history. Full of more stories than you can wag a stick at, Denton County has some fascinating tales of bygone political rows.
Denton today is also a wonderfully diverse community of educators and artists, steely entrepreneurs and businesspeople, students, musicians, and political renegades. It turns out this is pretty much built into our hometown DNA. Denton County was forged by an eclectic variety of Peters Colony pioneers settling a wild untamed frontier: farmers, ranchers, immigrants, Bible-thumpers, whiskey traders, gamblers, teachers, preachers, painted ladies, and outlaws. Our “Go along to get along” attitude as a matter of practicality was required to survive clashes with displaced Native American tribes, sparse supplies, drought, freezes, and fires within an always unforgiving environment. This may explain why Denton strikes most as one of the most neighborly places to visit. In his History and Reminiscences of Denton County (1918), Edmond Franklin Bates paints a rosy romantic portrait of a harmonious community that’d make Andy Griffith’s idyllic Mayberry Hulk-out green with envy.
"From the organization of Denton County in 1846 up to September of 1888, a period of forty-two years, we never had any political divisions as to county affairs. Not even representatives from the county to the legislature were nominated... [since] the county officers were left to a free, open race, every candidate standing on his merits before the whole people. But the Spirit of unrest came over the people in the State." (Bates, 143)
These troubled times, of course, were the tensions that would lead to the American Civil War and the deep political divisions that would inevitably follow. Bates explains Denton County was represented at the 1861 Secession Convention in Austin by the legendary J.W. Throckmartin, a future Texas governor who famously voted against joining the seceding South to thundering boos from the chambers, only then to loudly proclaim: "When the rabble hiss, well may Patriots tremble!" By 1888, "The Farmer's Alliance" would soon align with "The Knights of Labor" to form an anti-Democratic ticket, organizing meetings for political clubs "at every schoolhouse in the County of Denton." In May, a convention of men was held in Denton calling themselves "The Farmers, Laborers, and Stock-Raisers of Denton County," who adopted a twenty-plank political platform under the chairman Dr. J.T. Blount. The Democratic Executive Committee of Denton County then held meetings for nominating tickets and speaking venues at the Denton Courthouse, and thus began the county’s genuine multi-ticket political system. But Denton politics ain't never been exactly what you probably think it is, and the most hotly debated issues weren't just the expected topics of slavery, State sovereignty, or even fresh water supplies, which became lightning rods for contention and violence in places not so far away. No, the hot button issue for decades of Denton County politics was booze.
Y'see, as Bates tells it, the most divisive local issue in these early decades of Denton was the debate over Prohibition versus a Local Option on alcohol. “This issue has been one upon which the people of Denton County have often divided and the only real county issue before our people,” Bates soberly opines (145). Then again, writing his book of historical reminiscences in 1918, Bates’ recollections may’ve been colored by the looming momentum for national prohibition that just months later would become ratified as the 18th Amendment. As a wild frontier settlement, Denton always had more than its share of saloons and brothels eager to service a steady stream of thirsty cowhands and plowboys, which some of the God-fearing folk never quite cottoned to but most others seemed to tolerate. Heck, rumor has it that the first Denton County meeting cabin in Old Alton was ceremoniously burned to the ground by its elected officials during a night of free-flowing Tom and Jerry consumption. And lest we forget, the Paschal brothers made a living off importing and distributing whiskey from their namesake building on the Denton Square.
It was only after the Reconstruction “statutory prohibition” option was introduced into Denton County that the issue became politically contentious, after which all intoxicating spirits were outlawed in 1875 by the Legislature in both Lewisville and Pilot Point. The laws were widely unpopular and often unenforced, however, so the 1876 Constitution of Texas offered “local option” laws for municipal control of liquor traffic. Preachers had long denounced the evils of the bottle from their Sunday pulpits, even as the same building would host Masonic cocktail meetings on a different night of the week, but the zeal for the so-called-Temperance Movement had slowly become politically radicalized into a Zero Tolerance moral crusade. Then, as they say, things got real.
Now a local issue pitting Teetotalers against Drinkers, the Prohibition issue during Reconstruction would become a recurring issue animating Denton politics over the following decades and it was a constant tug-of-war. Denton’s first special election was in 1877, with 716 votes against prohibition and 583 in favor. In 1885 the tables had turned as there were 1,516 in favor and 1,346 against, although Bates notes the resulting laws “were not well enforced.” Just two years later, another vote resulted in 1,354 votes against prohibition and a mere 496 votes to maintain the ban. Prohibition returned in 1902, winning by a mere 117 votes, and a 1911 statewide ban was voted in by a margin of 801 votes out of 4,341 total ballots. During a very short tenure, one Denton County Sheriff actually raided the open-secret Paschal Building speakeasy of its illegal whiskey, making a grand public display of dragging its barrels of booze into the street and bursting them wide open with an axe to the applause of a small group of supporters. The rest of the streets were lined with forlorn faces, one report observed, as they thirstily watched the liquor drain down East Oak Street. The sheriff was defeated by a landslide in the next election.
The Roaring 20's and an ensuing Great Depression would soon usher in a change in public sentiment, and the 18th Amendment Prohibition experiment ended after 14 years. But its pretty darn striking to reflect on the sheer numbers of local votes that the Prohibition issue could pull in! When we consider that some of our local races for City Council have been decided on as few as 19 votes, it makes me wonder if our local politicians may return to courting Denton’s “Hooch Voters” or “Drink-and-Thinkers” to rock the vote in local elections, chilled cocktails in hand. Maybe we could increase voter turnout by making The Oak Street Draft House & Cocktail Parlor a voting precinct? Somebody get Glenn Ferris and Kevin Roden on that!
Shaun Treat is an assistant professor in
Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the
Once a month, he provides We Denton Do It with a look into our always-interesting past.