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Last no-alcohol Alabama county votes dry, drinks wet

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Rev. Zenus Windsor talks to a friend in downtown Lineville, Ala. Windsor favors keeping alcohol sales illegal in Clay County, the last totally dry county in Alabama, but he says he still buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks it at home daily to keep his cholesterol in check. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Rev. Zenus Windsor talks to a friend in downtown Lineville, Ala. Windsor favors keeping alcohol sales illegal in Clay County, the last totally dry county in Alabama, but he says he still buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks it at home daily to keep his cholesterol in check. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Clay County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts poses with an old moonshine still in a storage room in Lineville, Ala. Watts favors legalizing limited alcohol sales in Clay, the last totally dry county in Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Clay County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts poses with an old moonshine still in a storage room in Lineville, Ala. Watts favors legalizing limited alcohol sales in Clay, the last totally dry county in Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Clay County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts poses with an old moonshine still in a storage room in Lineville, Ala. Watts favors legalizing limited alcohol sales in Clay, the last totally dry county in Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Clay County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts poses with an old moonshine still in a storage room in Lineville, Ala. Watts favors legalizing limited alcohol sales in Clay, the last totally dry county in Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Rev. Zenus Windsor talks to a friend in downtown Lineville, Ala. Windsor favors keeping alcohol sales illegal in Clay County, the last totally dry county in Alabama, but he says he still buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks it at home daily to keep his cholesterol in check. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Rev. Zenus Windsor talks to a friend in downtown Lineville, Ala. Windsor favors keeping alcohol sales illegal in Clay County, the last totally dry county in Alabama, but he says he still buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks it at home daily to keep his cholesterol in check. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Jimmy Barton, speaking with a customer at his auto parts store in Lineville, Ala., favors legalizing alcohol sales in Clay County, the last completely dry county in Alabama. Barton, who once bought alcohol from bootleggers illegally, believes legalizing beer and whiskey would help the poor county develop economically. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Rev. Zenus Windsor talks to a friend in downtown Lineville, Ala. Windsor favors keeping alcohol sales illegal in Clay County, the last totally dry county in Alabama, but he says he still buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks it at home daily to keep his cholesterol in check. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Clay County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts poses with an old moonshine still in a storage room in Lineville, Ala. Watts favors legalizing limited alcohol sales in Clay, the last totally dry county in Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Clay County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts poses with an old moonshine still in a storage room in Lineville, Ala. Watts favors legalizing limited alcohol sales in Clay, the last totally dry county in Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 photo, Rev. Zenus Windsor talks to a friend in downtown Lineville, Ala. Windsor favors keeping alcohol sales illegal in Clay County, the last totally dry county in Alabama, but he says he still buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks it at home daily to keep his cholesterol in check. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Clay County has almost 14,000 residents, about 100 churches and not a single place where you can buy a beer legally.

There’s no Bud Light in the cooler at the corner convenience store and no fine wine for sale at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket.

But bootleggers a few streets away will sell you a can of beer for $1.25.

This scenic but poor county in the hills about 50 miles east of Birmingham harks back to the 1920s, when Prohibition was the law of the land. After a neighboring county recently voted wet, Clay County became the last bone-dry county in Alabama and one of a dwindling number across the nation.

Nestled at the southern tip of the Appalachians and lacking so much as a federal highway to bring in visitors, people here pride themselves on scraping by. To some, prohibiting legal alcohol sales is both a moral issue and part of being off the beaten path.

“Clay County is more of a rural setting. Family values are held more dearly to the heart,” said the Rev. Bruce Willis, a staunch alcohol opponent and missions director of the Carey Baptist Association. With 33 churches that have 5,371 members on their rolls, the association accounts for about 39 percent of the county’s entire population.

It’s not that no one drinks in Clay County; possession of limited amounts of alcohol is legal, and plenty of residents buy beer and liquor across county lines and take it home.

It’s an open secret that bootleggers buy beer or liquor legally elsewhere and sell it in the county, said County Commission Chairman Wayne Watts, a former police chief of Lineville.

“It’s pretty wet to be dry,” said Watts, driving through a part of town where empty beer cans litter the ground marking bootleggers’ homes.

But even supporters of legalizing alcohol sales see little chance things will change in a county that’s best known for winning high school football teams and its most famous native, the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

“There just hasn’t been an appetite for it,” said Matt Hooten, a businessman who splits his time between Clay County and Montgomery and favors the legalization of alcohol sales.

The issue last came up for a county-wide vote in 1986, when overwhelming opposition from churches helped defeat the proposal 2,716-2,223.

Local papers were filled with advertisements and letters from alcohol opponents leading up to the vote.

“Is placing my approval upon liquor morally right or wrong? God’s word says it is wrong!” said one ad, placed by a pro-dry group whose chairman is the namesake for the local National Guard armory.

Staging a vote requires signatures from 25 percent of the people who voted in the last county-wide election, and Barton said he’s not sure when that will happen again.

“It’s hard to read. You have closet drinkers who will vote it dry every time,” he said.

Clay County’s neighbor to the east, Randolph County also was totally dry until residents voted last month to legalize alcohol sales.

The “wet” vote was bolstered by outsiders who have moved to the county from metro Atlanta because of Lake Wedowee, where development is booming.

The Randolph vote left Clay as Alabama’s last totally dry county. Because of a local law passed by the state legislature several years ago, cities in the county aren’t allowed to legalize sales on their own.

Unlike other counties, the whole county must go wet at once.

It’s a place where the legal status of alcohol sales sometimes makes for odd situations.

Some business owners and residents say allowing alcohol sales would help bring in new restaurants and promote new development.

Stan Gaither, director of the Ashland Housing Authority and a former business owner, envisions restaurants in downtown Lineville or nearby Ashland serving evening meals and wine to out-of-towners who come to hike or ride bikes in Clay County’s endless forests and craggy mountains.

Yet the county chamber of commerce hasn’t taken an official position on legalization, and executive director Mary Patchunka-Smith said she’d never serve alcohol at a chamber event. The topic is too touchy, she said.

“I’d lose members right and left,” said Patchunka-Smith.

It’s rare to see alcohol at wedding receptions or public events, residents say, yet many people drink at home.

Even the Rev. Zenus Windsor, who publicly opposes legalizing alcohol sales in the county, says he buys wine in a neighboring county and drinks a glass at home each night to help keep his high cholesterol in check.

“I told my church about it,” said Windsor, 77. “My Lord drank wine. He turned water into wine.”

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