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Local Option


In 1888, the days of the Wild West were passing in Dakota Territory. This was manifested in the fact that the number of churches per capita was catching up to the number of saloons in the eastern part of the Territory. Even the frontier editors had moved westward, more interested in finding a new source of homestead proofs to publish than eking out a living selling advertising and publishing the local gossip. The adventurers, the track followers and the gamblers had also moved on is search of easier pickings at the end of the track or in the mining camps of Montana.

In their wake came the community builders – the merchants, tradesmen and professional workers, people looking to establish an orderly way of life for themselves and their families. But a remnant from the earlier period was the large number of saloons. The City of Grand Forks, for instance, had a population of approximately four thousand citizens, but still had more than twenty-five liquor establishments. But there was a way of dealing with this issue.

In the 1887, under pressure from the Ministerial Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Territorial Legislature passed a bill to allow prohibition by local option. If one third of the citizens of a county signed a petition, they could call for an election to prohibit the sale of alcohol in that county. Cities operating under their own charters were exempt from the county ban.

The local option to prohibit the sale of alcohol was almost a complete failure in county elections in November of 1888. However, another bill passed in 1887 allowed the counties and cities to double the cost of a license, and liquor licenses went from five hundred to a thousand dollars per year. The voters in Grand Forks chose this option to reduce the number of saloons with some effect, but bar owners merely watered down the drinks to make up for the cost of the license. They added cheap drugs and cleaning fluids to enhance the effect of the drink.

While the local option bill did not create the effect the anti-alcohol groups desired, it gave the anti-prohibitionists a false sense of security. This was something they would live to regret. Secure in their belief that prohibition was not a concern, they failed to show up at the voting booth when the Prohibition clause of the Constitution came up for approval the following year. They would then have to wait forty-five years for their next legal drink in North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


Laws of Dakota 1887 Tribune Printers and Binders, Bismarck

Grand Forks Weekly Herald November 19, 1888

The Jamestown Capital November 16, 1888