A Little Soused on the Prairie
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."
A.J. Hayes says she likes the pace of life in Grover, an isolated outpost closer to Wyoming than it is to Greeley. "What's not to like?" she asks. "You've got peace and quiet. And dust--lots of dust."
Hayes, however, is none too happy about the town's reaction to her request to turn Trudy's, where today's lunch special is homemade spaghetti, into a sophisticated "supper-club-type deal." The idea was that customers could knock back a few cocktails before sampling evening entrees such as the Yankee pot roast. It didn't get far.
First the town board shot down Ralph and A.J.'s son Rick's request to sell package liquor out of the cafe, which sits on a dirt road next to an abandoned railroad right-of-way. Then, after A.J. herself submitted a request to sell booze by the drink, local homemaker Wilma Kidd and several others circulated a petition to put a measure on the ballot prohibiting the sale of anything stronger than 3.2 beer. (That watered-down substance can't be banned outright because under federal law, it's not considered an intoxicating beverage, says a state liquor official.) The abstainers got eighteen signatures, and that was enough. "They basically denied me my right to due process," complains Hayes.
Should the ballot measure pass this coming Tuesday, Hayes's latest liquor application would instantly be rendered moot. And Grover would make history--of a sort. It would become only the second dry town in the state and the first to have actually voted in the distinction since 1954, when the citizens of Milliken, spooked by a Saturday-night stabbing at the local ballroom, voted to shut off the tap. It's a distinction Mayor Duggan would rather avoid.
"When they first applied for the license, people were coming out of the woodwork against it, and 90 percent of them were older people," he says, adding that the opening of the Prairie Village retirement home in the 1980s seems to have saddled Grover with a more conservative attitude toward alcohol. "People had concerns of being shot by drunks, being run over."
The mayor, who says he enjoys going out for a beer and a game of pool, describes himself as an outcast these days at town board meetings. "I don't live in fear and bow down to other people just because something might happen because somebody's being an idiot," he says. "I refuse to live that way."
But wets like Duggan face an uphill battle, even from neighbors who might be expected to have a certain fondness for distilled spirits. Over at the Prairie Village home on Laramie Street, for instance, lives Paul Vey, who for sixteen years in the 1960s and '70s kept a steady stream of 3.2 beer flowing at the P&E Tavern on Main Street. Now eighty years old, Vey doesn't spend much time reminiscing about his long-defunct beer joint.
"I worked seven days a week," he recalls, punctuating the memory with a tired grunt. Not only that, he says, he had to be constantly on his guard for customers trying to smuggle in 6 percent beer from Wyoming. Vey says he's going to vote to take the town dry next month, and he makes no apologies about it.
He gets along with A.J. Hayes, he says, and can stop by Trudy's for a cup of coffee if he feels like it. But he also believes Hayes is "always trying to stir up trouble." The cafe owner may think that "if she has whiskey in there," people will limit their boozing to before-dinner drinks, he says. But he thinks different.
"You know how that is," says Vey, knowingly. "If you get someone selling whiskey and they get people to come into town, they'll take over. And it's gonna be rough."
Dry towns are a relatively rare phenomenon in the mountain West, where save for the radar blip of Prohibition, the booze has tended to flow freely. But they're nothing new in northern Colorado.
The Weld County seat of Greeley was founded as a liquor-free "colony" by New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley and his colleague Nathan C. Meeker in 1870. One of the guiding "commandments" of the utopian social experiment was, "Thou shalt not sell liquid damnation within the lines of Union Colony." Of course, what went on outside the lines was another matter, and a string of watering holes quickly sprouted in the southern suburbs, leading to the popular observation that Greeley was surrounded by (the town of) Eaton on one side and Drinkin' on the other.
Greeley stayed dry for 99 years, until in 1969 voters goaded on by the Help Greeley Grow Committee decided to give damnation a try. The election dashed the Keep Greeley Great Committee's hopes of completing a full century of clean living, but it helped Greeley keep pace with Fort Collins and Longmont, which had ended their own lengthy dry spells two years earlier.
Even the college enclave of Boulder swore off alcohol until 1967, when the haze of marijuana smoke hovering over the University of Colorado campus must have made the blue laws of 1907 seem particularly ludicrous. Little Milliken held out until 1984, by which time voters were thirsty enough to have forgotten the misunderstanding down at the ballroom.
Even as the region's major towns relit the drinking lamp, however, vestiges of Prohibition-era behavior lingered in the state's northern reaches. As recently as the late 1980s, state liquor agents busted a moonshiner operating in Fort Lupton. The Arkansas native was cooking up sourmash in a still and selling the hooch out of his apartment in a retirement village, recalls state liquor enforcement director David Reitz: "For him it was as much cultural as it was making a buck."
Booze was certainly part of Grover's cultural fabric by the 1980s--at least over rodeo weekend. "It got well-known around northern Weld County that kids could drink up there," says Monty Lemley. As many as 3,000 people would stream into town, Lemley adds, and the closest many of them came to a horse was tapping a pony keg.
Things had gotten so rowdy by the 1990s, says veteran sheriff's officer John Cooke, that a few Groverites were glad when the sheriff finally put his foot down. "Some people were upset about it, but others were glad we came up there and worked it," says Cooke. "It was supposed to be a family thing, and people were bringing truckloads of beer and booze and getting all tanked up."
Whatever civic outrage may have resulted from Grover's summertime brews, though, nobody went so far as to suggest that the town go dry. The community, after all, had a history of tolerating borderline activity by adults and minors alike. Mayor Duggan not only remembers the P&E Tavern but says, "Hell, I grew up there." Paul Vey says he wants to keep booze out of town in part to protect Grover's teenagers, but he adds, "Hell, if they get someone to go to Hereford and get it for them, that's their business."
In fact, though the 1995 ruckus at the rodeo briefly got Grover into the news, nothing even resembling a temperance movement surfaced until the dustup over the liquor license at Trudy's. As is so often the case with small-town disputes, it can all be traced back to a feud.
In this case, the tiff pits the Hayes family against the entire rest of the town--more or less.
"What it actually boils down to is, we have a group of people wanting to get the bar who aren't really well-liked in this community," says Duggan. He doesn't have any problem with the Hayeses himself, the mayor hastens to add. But plenty of other people do, especially older folks who've lived in Grover all their lives and view the Hayeses, who first came to town in the 1970s, as troublemakers.
"They just think they don't have to follow the town rules at all," complains Vey. "If they want a ditch dug, they dig it and don't ask or nothin' else."
"I'm an outsider, and that's pretty much the trend," confirms A.J. Hayes, who has called her opponents "good old boys" and accused them of discriminating against her and her husband on water bills and other civic matters. "Seventy-five percent of the town don't frequent this place," she says, adding that she gets most of her trade from cattle-truck drivers hauling stock between Sterling and Cheyenne.
That doesn't mean the Hayeses have shied away from involvement in local affairs. The couple used to come to meetings of the town board "and just raise holy hell about anything and everything," recalls Duggan. For a time, things got so tense that boardmembers asked sheriff's deputies to sit in on meetings, says county commissioner George Baxter. "They were just at each other's throats for some time."
Ralph Hayes even got himself elected mayor, though he quit in a huff before completing his two-year term. Hayes resigned about three months ago, allegedly tired of hearing people complain that he might influence his wife's and son's attempts to get liquor licenses. "Something come up that made him mad, and he just pulled the keys to the city hall out of his pocket, threw them on the desk and said, 'I quit!'" recalls Paul Vey, a former mayor himself.
According to Duggan, when it became obvious that the situation at Trudy's qualified as a bona fide controversy, the town board decided to mail out surveys in its water bills asking townspeople what they thought. The responses allegedly showed Groverites split down the middle on the booze question. But Duggan says suspicions arose when Mayor Hayes and his daughter-in-law Mona, the town clerk, wouldn't let anyone else see the survey results. "A lot of people had a hard time with that," he says.
A.J. Hayes won't comment on why her husband--who remains sequestered in the backyard as his wife continues an interview--threw in the towel. "When he was mayor, I never went to a meeting, and now that he's not, I don't miss it," she says. But Duggan says things have calmed down at board meetings since he took over. "I set them straight the first meeting I held, just by being firm with them and telling them that, by God, if they want to speak, they'll raise their hands," he says of the town's malcontents. "If I want to hear from 'em, I'll call on 'em, and if I don't call on 'em, they can sit down and shut up. The other previous mayors, even Ralph, used to just let people come up there and run all over 'em."
Even today, says Duggan, parliamentary procedure is sometimes a rare commodity at board meetings--one reason the town initially botched its handling of the Hayeses' liquor license requests. "We come to find out that we as a town did everything wrong as far as what we did with how they applied," says Duggan. The Hayeses screwed up their applications just as badly, he claims, failing even to obtain the proper forms from the state. Both the Hayeses and the town board have since retained attorneys.
Now that lawyers are involved, says Duggan, people are starting to worry. The fear is that, since state liquor laws require an applicant to prove only that a "need or desire" for alcohol exists in order to get a license--and to show whether a current outlet exists, which it doesn't--the Hayeses might have grounds to sue the town if it turns them down a second time. "If they show a need and there's no outlet, it's against the law for us to deny 'em," he says.
It's a very modern problem that has been met with a very old solution.
Just who hatched the notion of Grover going dry is uncertain. Duggan suspects that the town's two churches are behind it. Wilma Kidd says local resident O.A. "Al" Tim, a religious man (though not a preacher), cooked up the concept. Adds Kidd, "I just took the paper around and let the people that wanted to sign, sign."
The soft-spoken Kidd runs little risk of being compared to Carry Nation, the wildly intemperate temperance crusader who terrorized Kansas saloonkeepers around the turn of the century. Nation, the daughter of a lunatic who claimed to be Queen Victoria, bragged of having regular talks with "big brother" Jesus Christ. When she wasn't on the hotline to heaven, she railed against the unholy trinity of liquor, tobacco and sex, chopping up bars with her hatchet and becoming a media darling before dying in a mental institution in 1911.
Nation and her cohorts in the Women's Christian Temperance Union took great glee in doing public battle with brewing interests, and along with the Anti-Saloon League, they were largely responsible for shaming Congress into voting for Prohibition in 1920. By contrast, both sides in the Grover booze war seem more comfortable duking it out in private.
The campaign one might have expected to see leading up to the election, for instance, has been virtually nonexistent. Asked if she's done anything to help people make up their minds, A.J. Hayes shrugs and says, "What's to make up? You're either for it or against it." Kidd takes a similar stance. "That's my opinion," she says of her dry platform. "Maybe someone else has a different one."
Many locals are apparently trying to avoid the line of fire by playing things down the middle. Paul Vey signed the Hayes petition for the liquor license before he turned around and endorsed Kidd's competing petition. And the former bar owner isn't the only one who has straddled the fence, says Duggan. "Most people in town, they're on the side of whoever's standing in front of them," notes the mayor.
Even among Colorado's small band of anti-alcohol true believers, the Grover crusade hasn't exactly caught fire. Earl Dodge, the Denver-based abstainer who runs the national Prohibition Party, isn't familiar with Kidd and Tim's effort. His group has helped fund dry movements as far afield as Point Barrow, Alaska, he says--"the Eskimos were having so many problems." But the Prohibitionists have stayed out of Grover, for a simple reason.
"I don't want to insult the people there, but I hadn't heard of it," says the 64-year-old Dodge, a perennial presidential candidate who says he's never taken a drink in his life. "I didn't even know it existed."
The temperance forces in Grover also can't count on much support from the state's sole existing dry town--Cheraw, a wide spot in the road just north of La Junta. Once the self-proclaimed "turkey capital of the world," Cheraw is now dying, and not just of thirst. It lost its turkey hatcheries and processing plants years ago, and just this past summer the Cheraw Cafe served its last meal and locked the door.
"Us and the post office are the only ones left," says town resident Arlene Waters, who works at the Holbrook Pump Company with town mayor and brother-in-law C.O. Waters. Given the generally sleepy state of affairs, she adds, the town doesn't spend much time worrying about its lack of a cocktail hour. "It's only eight miles to whatever bar you want," notes Arlene, referring to beautiful downtown La Junta. "It's no problem for anyone."
Besides, the few drinkers among Cheraw's roughly 200 citizens are used to ordering out. The property for the town was donated by a teetotaling Mennonite, and the community has been dry since incorporating in 1917. "There are still three churches there," says Don Lowman of the Otero County Historical Society. "Can you imagine that in this little old town that's blown away?"
The wind is howling like a banshee in Grover, but it's blowing no good to A.J. Hayes as she sits inside Trudy's, contemplating the future of her own cafe. The gusts whipping down from Wyoming send a few customers tumbling through the door, but the fact that few of them appear to be Mennonites is of little consolation.
Out on the county road, cattle trucks continue to rumble past--seven already this morning, notes Judy, a friend who helps out at the cafe. Though Trudy's can't serve liquor, Hayes has done what she can to get people to take an interest in the place. She recently made Rocky Mountain oysters a daily menu item, offering customers a chance to walk on the wild side by eating fried bull testicles.
But that may be about as much excitement as her fellow Groverites are willing to stand nowadays. Despite the doubts expressed by posse director Monty Lemley about the practicality of a booze ban--"Prohibition didn't work as far as I'm concerned," says the deputy--sentiment in the town seems to be running toward going dry. Even moderates such as Riegel, who moved out from Denver a few years back to start a new life as a small-town grocer, favor the ban. In part that's due to concerns about liquor being served in a town that has 35 children under the age of eighteen--and no local police force around to deal with rabble-rousers.
"I think it's for the best if we want to save our young," says Kidd. Adds a burly customer at the Market Basket, "God forbid some guy gets drunked up and rapes one of the girls. They'd never catch him."
Those sorts of attitudes would seem to make Tim and Kidd's proposal a slam-dunk, says Duggan. "I can almost sit here and tell you it's going to pass," adds the mayor, who seems resigned to the situation despite what he views as its troubling overtones.
Even if the measure passes, he'll still be able to serve beer at his annual "Slam-Fest." The sale of intoxicating beverages, not their consumption, would be prohibited. But to Duggan, that's beside the point. "Why should a group of people have the right to tell you what the hell you can do?" he demands. "As far as I'm concerned, we're still a part of America."
Whatever happens in the election, it won't take long to count the votes, says town clerk Mona Hayes. Only 64 people turned out for the last election in Grover, she notes, and that included people from out in the county who won't be eligible to vote this time around.
Mona, who mans the town hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays, is happy to show visitors the historic photos that hang on the wall, including a 1921 shot whose most prominent feature is the water tower that still looms over the town. But she has no interest in discussing the issue with which her in-laws are so closely identified--or in offering a prediction on the vote. Arching an eyebrow, the clerk says, "Who knows, with this town?
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