A growing thirst in Damascus

One of the state's last dry towns could get new vote on long-standing alcohol ban

March 24, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

DAMASCUS — — Stop by the Red Rooster, a 10-seat joint just off Main Street in this rural community an hour west of Baltimore, and you can order a burger, some barbecue or the fried chicken that some locals claim is the best on the East Coast.

But don't bother asking for a beer to wash it down with. The Red Rooster, like every other business here, is barred by law from selling alcoholic beverages.

And that suits co-owner Kevin Miller just fine. The lifelong Damascus resident says the local ban has helped preserve the quiet character of this unincorporated corner of northern Montgomery County. "It's nice to be not so citified."

On the other side of the debate, Jay Traverso says the ban is holding Damascus back. He isn't looking to turn its small downtown into another Inner Harbor, but he believes that legalizing the sale of beer and wine would attract "maybe two or three at the most, smaller restaurants" — enough, he says, to draw other businesses, spurring needed economic development.

"It's a nice little town, but it needs to grow," says Traverso, a government consultant who moved here from Frederick seven years ago. The town could accommodate only a few good restaurants, he says, "but it would be enough to rejuvenate the area."

Now, 78 years after the repeal of Prohibition, diners in Damascus — among the last dry towns in Maryland — may finally get the opportunity to raise their glasses.

State lawmakers, approached by Traverso and others who want to see the ban lifted, are poised to approve a bill that would put the question to local voters on the November ballot.

If the voters agree, local restaurateurs could apply for licenses to sell beer and light wine. The Class H license would not allow the sale of liquor or wine containing more than 13 percent alcohol.

"Folks in Damascus, they have to drive to Germantown or drive to Frederick to get a glass of wine with their dinner," says Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a Democrat and one of the community's representatives in Annapolis. "Constituents are continuing to contact us" about lifting the ban.

The House of Delegates passed the legislation this month by a vote of 134-0. The measure is scheduled for a hearing in the state Senate this week.

How or why Damascus banned alcohol is lost to history. In 1976, the weekly County Courier published a perhaps fanciful story about a long-ago election at the local Odd Fellows Hall at which organizers rewarded each voter with a tin cup "filled with the product of King's distillery."

"The refreshment was so well-received that about midmorning, one of the voters decided to go through the line again," E. Guy Jewell reported, in a story untroubled by names or dates. "His action was soon copied by others" — and not only by locals residents but by visitors from "the other bank of the Patuxent, from Kemptown, and from around the railroad station at Mount Airy," among other locales.

By the time the poll closed, the story goes, turnout in the local election district exceeded the entire population of Montgomery County.

Eventually, Jewell reported, the community agreed to void the results of the election — save one. While they were drinking, the participants had voted to ban the sale of alcohol. That vote was allowed to stand.

More recently, the ban has become the issue that would not die. The community has voted four times in the past 35 years to uphold the prohibition — but by a narrower margin on each successive occasion. In the most recent referendum, in 1996, the difference was only a few hundred votes.

Residents agree that Damascus has changed since then. Apartment buildings and condominiums have sprouted amid the farms and churches to accommodate a growing population of commuters to Frederick, Baltimore and Washington.

Miller, at the Red Rooster, says the newcomers should have known when they moved in that Damascus is a dry town.

"It's a lot like the guy that buys the house next to the silo, and then he complains that the silo's too loud," he says, as a customer arrives to pick up some takeout. "Well, he shouldn't have bought the house next to the silo."

But the debate doesn't divide neatly between longtime residents and newcomers. David Warfield's grandfather founded Damascus Motor Co. in 1917. Warfield joined the dealership in 1977, after graduating from Damascus High School; he's now general manager.

He says it's "high time" the ban was lifted.

"We've been waiting on it for so long," Warfield says while eating lunch with his parents at Tom and Ray's on Main Street. "The big thing is, you're not going to get any chain restaurants to open in Damascus without it."

Those who favor lifting the ban speak of economic development. Randy Scritchfield, a former president of the local Chamber of Commerce and the Damascus Community Alliance, led the repeal effort in 1996.

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