A Little Soused on the Prairie

Six decades after Prohibition failed, a Colorado town known for living it up considers going dry

The eastern-plains town of Grover has never been bashful about its drinking.
Tammie Byner recalls the time her mother was roped by a drunken cowboy while walking down Main Street during the annual Earl Anderson Memorial Rodeo. Revelers have been known to topple clean off the Pawnee Buttes that tower over the short-grass prairie east of town. And of course everybody remembers the dark days of June 1995, when the Weld County sheriff and his mounted volunteer posse rode in to restore order after word got around that rodeo fans were whooping themselves into a booze-fueled frenzy.

"It got a little, oh, I'd hesitate to say wild, but it got a little bit like that," says Weld County Commissioner George Baxter, a farmer and co-owner of the grain elevator in the nearby town of Briggsdale. "You had a bunch of independent people who never see the law very much, and all of a sudden, there's this big presence of deputies."

Before leaving town, the cops accused the mayor himself of fanning the flames, claiming that he was charging admission to the basketball slam-dunk contest he holds each summer at his home and then supplying would-be Michael Jordans with enough firewater to send them floating to the rim on fumes alone.

The big stink of '95 has long since blown away in Grover, a town of 140 souls that begins where the pavement ends on Weld County Road 120. There hasn't been much trouble at the rodeo the last two years, notes sheriff's department spokeswoman Margie Martinez--a good thing, since the nearest place to lock someone up is 55 miles away at the county jail in Greeley. The volunteer posse has washed its hands of the town after members received death threats for their role in the crackdown. "They got mad and won't come back," says Elaine Riegel, who owns the Market Basket food store on Main Street.

That's true, says posse coordinator Monty Lemley, a sheriff's deputy who lives near Grover and remains a big fan of the rodeo. "It's hard to get volunteers to do something like that in the first place," he says. "They're very reluctant to go back up there and be insulted and everything. We have other events we can get beat up at."

But though the posse is keeping its distance, Grover is once again embroiled in a controversy over alcohol. That's because the farming town long known for rolling out the barrels is now on the verge of swearing off the devil's brew forever. Much to the chagrin of space-jamming mayor Scott Duggan, his constituents are thinking about doing something that no town in Colorado has done in decades: going dry.

A special election has been called for December 9 to decide the question. And as the date approaches, the tension is such that some Groverites are barely speaking to one another. Many locals don't want to get involved--"We live outside of town and don't have to vote," says one relieved rancher, speaking for a tableful of buddies who've gathered at the Market Basket one recent weekday morning. There is even talk that prominent wet A.J. Hayes, the owner of Trudy's Cafe, got so ticked off that she tore up a promotional poster for the Lions Club oyster fry.

As she sits at a table in her restaurant, chain-smoking Basic Ultra Lights and watching her noon-hour customers trickle through the door, Hayes denies being angry at anybody. Her husband, Ralph, isn't so diplomatic. "The biggest thing about this town is, if they do dry it up, they'll kill it," he says. Then he abruptly pushes his chair away from the table and stands up. "I'm leaving before I get irritated," he announces, before stomping out to the backyard in his grease-stained coveralls.

The Hayeses certainly have reason to be in a mood. After all, it was their seemingly innocent attempt to get a liquor license for Trudy's--"Food So Great You'll Scrape Your Plate"--that started the whole uproar. Oddly, the controversy has continued to rage despite the fact that, as things now stand, it's not possible to buy liquor within Grover's town limits anyway.

You used to be able to pick up a six-pack of 3.2 beer down at the Market Basket until concerns about insurance premiums prompted Riegel to stick to soda pop. Today none of the town's handful of merchants sell anything stronger than Beer Nuts. Rodeo fans have taken to bringing their own, and locals in search of a snort have to motor ten miles north to the crossroads town of Hereford, where a former bowling alley has been converted into a preternaturally large bar and grill.

Scott Duggan says he understands that under Colorado law, incorporated towns have a right to vote out booze. But he says he doesn't really understand why Grover's drys are pressing ahead with the election, which, if successful, would put a symbolic end to more than 100 years of hell-raising.

"Those people must have a lot more time on their hands than I do," says the mayor. "I don't have a minute in the day to worry about what the hell someone else is doing."

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