Why the Main Line Still Has 35 Dry Towns

It’s the 21st century, and our region still has municipalities where alcohol can’t be bought or sold. Some might say an explanation is in order—so we found one.

Chester County has 23 municipalities that restrict the sale of alcohol, one way or another. Delaware County has 12, and Montgomery County has zero—not one. Wonder why? We’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about Marple Township—one of Delaware County’s dozen—and Wegmans.

In 2014, Jenkintown’s Goodman Properties announced an agreement of sale with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the 213-acre Don Guanella Village site at Sproul and Reed roads. Plans for the project would include retail, offices, a recreational facility, a hotel, a theater and a convenience store/gas station, with Wegmans as the centerpiece. The latter, says Bruce Goodman, will make Cardinal Crossing a “high-end center.”

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The proposal has been attacked by those who fear losing “the largest—and last—remaining shred of Penns Woods in eastern Delaware County.” Liquor is not their issue, though activists say they’ll use any available weapon to stop the bulldozers.

“Several supporters of our effort have emailed Wegmans to let them know that if Cardinal Crossing were built over the objections of the community, it would be a public-relations disaster for the company,” says Ross Veldt of Save Marple Greenspace. “We also let them know that we would be opposing any change in Marple’s dry status.”

Back in March, a Wegmans representative said the chain was still part of the project. Beer is a big deal for the company, which can no longer be described as a mere grocery store. It’s not an overstatement that Wegmans has revolutionized how beer is sold in Pennsylvania. In 2006, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board decided that a restaurant attached to one of its stores in Williamsport met the liquor-code requirement, allowing it to sell up to two six-packs of beer. The Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania protested and sued, but eventually lost in a case that went to the state Supreme Court.

That was just the nose of the camel. Ten years later, there are 17 Wegmans in Pennsylvania, and all sell beer. Other grocers—Acme, Giant—have repeated the stunt. Wawa is next. 

Wegmans doesn’t share sales figures, but the bustle in its beer department suggests that suds lovers like the place. On the BeerAdvocate website, a poster calling himself “BlazmoIntoWowee” enthused, “Finally. It’s not a change in the liquor laws, but a wonderful loophole allowing the Wegmans café to sell carryout beer. My girlfriend says I was a kid in a candy store the first time we went here.”

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But Marple is Marple, where the retail sale of beer has been banned since 1939, and hard liquor since 1935. The township does have a state liquor store and several beer distributors. But there are no bars, the go-to for anyone wanting to buy a six-pack since the end of Prohibition.

Why? History. We’re all its prisoners.

The vast majority of the ordinances restricting liquor sales in Chester and Delaware counties were passed—by referendum, it should be noted—in the years immediately following the end of Prohibition in 1933. Hence, those who had pushed for and supported the “Great Experiment” in 1919 simply went back to work in a new way.

In Harrisburg, Gov. Gifford Pinchot did his part by designing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and state-store system to, in his words,  “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” An ardent prohibitionist, Pinchot was—like his good friend Teddy Roosevelt—a progressive Republican who believed it was government’s job to regulate for the common good. He was also a strong advocate of conservation, putting electrical utilities under state control and paving of rural roads  “to get the farmers out of the mud.”

Pinchot’s legislation creating the PLCB and its state stores also included a “local option”—the right of municipalities to have referendums on whether to permit the local sale of alcohol. It allows residents to vote on four issues: the retail sale of beer, the retail sale of liquor, the existence of beer distributors, and the presence of  state stores.

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And just to stack the deck a bit in favor of the drys, Pinchot’s legislation required that such referendums could be held only during the primary of an odd-numbered year. More specifically, they could not occur when an exciting presidential, gubernatorial or senatorial contest might draw out the masses. Pinchot recognized that, in a sleepy, low-turnout primary, a motivated special-interest group is very likely to win. Of Pinchot, Roosevelt wrote to a friend, “Gifford is a dear, but he is a fanatic.”

Ella Black, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, called it a strategy of  “drying up [the nation] spot by spot.”

Today, nearly 700 townships and boroughs across Pennsylvania—roughly a quarter of the 2,561 total—restrict the sale of alcohol, either partially or entirely. Most common is the ban on beer sales, which is effectively a ban on bars.

Bars and taverns became an issue after the American Revolution. (You didn’t think this began with Prohibition, did you?) According to historians Mark Lender and James Martin, authors of Drinking in America: A History, our colonial ancestors drank a lot more than we do, but they handled it better.

In early America, say Lender and Martin, drinking was “a central fact of life”—but one that usually occurred in social settings. Beer and cider were common at mealtime, even for children. Harvesting was a group activity and often involved tapping a cask. Employers gave workers liquor on the job, and political candidates regularly treated voters to drinks. Taverns and inns did not have the disreputable reputation they later acquired. Instead, they were social centers, where everyone—women and children, included—gathered to learn the news and argue politics. That mixed environment discouraged drunkenness, which was punishable as a crime.

Estimates put per-capita consumption for Americans aged 15 and older in 1790 at 5.8 gallons of absolute alcohol per year. That’s more than twice the current level. Yet, according to Lender and Martin, Americans of that era were, in general, not problem drinkers.

Dumping illegal liquor in Chester County, circa 1930.

After the Revolution, traditional Old World social norms faded. Many younger Americans moved west to colonize new areas, thus breaking family ties and fraying community life, even in long-settled places. We became more individualistic. Consumption of hard liquor increased—and, with it, public drunkenness.

The most prominent person to express concern about the trend was Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician who’d signed the Declaration of Independence and had served as surgeon general of the Continental Army. In 1784, just after the end of the war, Rush published his most famous pamphlet, An Enquiry Into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors Upon the Human Body, and Their Influence Upon the Happiness of Society. The publication debunked popular notions about the presumed benefits of liquor and described more than a dozen alcohol-related health problems. Rush also pioneered the idea that alcoholism was a disease, rather than a sin—and one from which individuals could be weaned, with treatment. 

Shortly before publishing his paper, Rush had visited Carlisle, where he was helping establish what became Dickinson College. He’d been shocked by the number of the frontiersmen’s stills. “The quantity of rye destroyed and of whisky drunk in these places is immense,” he wrote in his diary. “Its effects upon their industry, health and morals are terrible.”

It may have been a minority concern, but Rush had influential friends. The first local temperance society was founded in New York in 1808. The earliest national organization, the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, emerged in 1826. Locally, some historians trace the movement to 1688, when Quakers forbade their members to sell liquor to the American Indians. Others cite 1725, when Quakers in Chester criticized liquor use at funerals.

The Delaware County Temperance Society was formed in 1835. From there on, agitation on the subject never ceased. Supporters founded temperance hotels and grocery stores in which no alcohol was sold. In those days, the goal was truly temperance—safe, moderate use of alcohol—not prohibition. But as their legal efforts failed and local drinkers ignored their advice, advocates turned to more coercive methods.

In the 1840s, the legislature passed the first local-option law. Seven years after that, Delaware County voted itself dry, and Marple was among those townships favoring the measure. Local option was later overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which declared that neither the legislature nor the courts “can legally invite the people to exercise a function which the constitution makes the peculiar business of [government officials].”

During the pre-Civil War years, alcohol was a backseat issue for white Protestant moral crusaders. (Catholics and other more recent immigrants were never in the forefront of the anti-liquor movement.) Slavery and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights received far more attention. After the war, temperance—and, increasingly, prohibition—moved to center stage.

Thereafter, alcohol was an issue in every political campaign, from the presidency to the local school board. Prohibitionists organized dozens of local, state and national groups. Most powerful were the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, and 1893’s Anti-Saloon League. Working through its Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction, the WCTU pioneered the child oriented educational programs now used by secular organizations like D.A.R.E. By 1900, the WCTU—with 27 chapters and more than 500 members in Delaware County—had persuaded every state to pass legislation requiring anti-alcohol education.

The league wanted was a “final solution” to the liquor question. “It has come to solve the liquor problem,” said one leader. 

As pro-life activists have now made abortion providers their enemy, anti-liquor crusaders targeted those who sold alcohol. That strategy allowed them to portray bar owners as preying unscrupulously on the public for money, and it was less likely to alienate drinkers (read: voters), who could then be treated as victims deserving sympathy. The prejudice against bars and taverns has endured.

In truth, taverns were often not very nice places. The days when the local inn or tavern was a wholesome community center where everyone was welcome were long over. And the fact that tavern owners had to apply to the court annually to renew their licenses may have discouraged many from investing in their improvement. Why upgrade when you could lose your livelihood at the next hearing?

“Every year, tavern owners would have to gather signatures on petitions to submit to the court,” explains Laurie Rofini, director of the Chester County Archives and a longtime student of the alcohol wars. “What the WCTU ladies would do is go down to the courthouse, ask to see those petitions, and publicize the names of those who’d signed.” Imagine going to church on a Sunday and finding yourself shunned because you’d signed a petition to license a tavern for another year.

Montgomery County mostly escaped all of this, probably for ethnic reasons. Like polyglot Philadelphia, it was home to more immigrants and fewer of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who made up the backbone of the temperance crusade. “Northern Montgomery County, as well as northern Chester County, also had more people with German backgrounds,” says Rofini, “and those areas were less supportive of temperance.” 

In 1817, Quakers and others founded a temperance society in Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County. In an 1873 local-option vote, it was the only township in the county to vote itself dry.

Today, it’s possible to live in Chester County or Delaware County for years without knowing whether your municipality is wet or dry. Boroughs and townships are small— if one is dry, the next is not. “If you ask any of our residents, I bet they couldn’t answer whether the borough was wet or dry,” says David Waltz, council president of Rutledge, which is indeed dry. 

The borough, Waltz notes, is only four blocks square and has no commercial development. Even if it voted itself wet, there would be no place for a bar, a beer distributor or a state store.

If anything, dry status today seems less a moral argument and more a quasi zoning tool. If a borough or township is wet, it can vote itself dry if a particular establishment becomes troublesome. In northern Chester County, Elverson (population 1,290) voted itself dry in 1979 when the former Blue Rock Hotel became a magnet for biker gangs.

Conversely, a municipality can vote itself wet to land a desired project or help out an ongoing venture. In East Nantmeal Township—about a 10-minute drive from Elverson—85 percent of voters chose to go conditionally wet last year. The rural township has no restaurants, but it is home to two private golf clubs that may now serve alcohol to members and their guests.

Whether Marple residents will someday be able to buy six-packs at their local Wegmans will likely be decided in the same way.

From Left: The spoils of a 1925 raid on a still in rural Chester County; Rev. James W. Dale 

3 Noted Early Teetotalers

Rev. James W. Dale

Walk down State Street in Media, and there are plenty of places to get a beer—which might cause Rev. James Dale to spin in his grave in the Middletown Presbyterian churchyard. Dale, you see, died thinking he’d made Media dry forever.

It all goes back to the founding of the borough in 1850. That’s when Media was chartered by the state legislature to serve as the county seat, replacing Chester. The charter made Media a dry borough, and it stayed that way until 1933, when national prohibition was repealed.

Making Media dry had been Dale’s idea. He had help, of course, but the fact that local leaders joined and got it done reveals the power of the temperance idea in the mid-19th century. “He began the movement by visiting a large number of prominent and influential persons in different parts of the county, to whom he presented his idea and the methods by which it was to be realized,” wrote Dale’s colleague, Rev. James Roberts, in an 1886 memorial. 

Born in Odessa, Del., Dale became interested in temperance—or total abstinence—while in the seminary. He once preached a funeral sermon for a man who’d drowned after stumbling into the Delaware River while drunk, painting local saloon operators as little better than murderers.

Media’s charter was approved by the legislature in February 1850. “A spark has been stricken out among the hills of Delaware County. To what end? To be extinguished, and thus render our darkness more terrible? Shall this be? No!” said Dale at the time. “We will watch over it, and breathe upon it until it burns, and glows, and radiates with beams of truth all over our great commonwealth.”


Charles Lukens Huston

Charles Lukens Huston didn’t drink, but he thought more was required of a man than just that. From a family of wealth and influence, Huston believed people in his position were obligated to use their resources for the good of others. 

Born a Quaker, he was the grandson of famed steelmaker Rebecca Lukens, founder of what became Lukens Steel in Coatesville. With his brother, Abram, he operated the once-largest steel mill in the world. 

Huston became a Presbyterian and was a ruling elder and Sunday- school teacher in his congregation. He served as a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and was chair of its Committee on Evangelism for 33 years. Huston’s good works included serving as Chester County’s director of the poor and helping to found Coatesville Hospital. He was also director of the Montrose Bible Conference Association, and he largely financed a leper hospital in Congo and Christian missionaries in China. “But first, last and always,” read his obituary in a company newspaper, “his interest was in the welfare of the men of the mill and their families.” 

That fueled his efforts to close down the liquor business in Coatesville and beyond. Huston didn’t forbid his employees to drink—that wasn’t his way. His strategy was simply to make liquor unavailable. A primary tactic was to support Chester County’s no-license committees. Huston personally pledged $1,000 to the no-license clause—almost $25,000 today. In 1917, he joined the finance committee of the Dry Federation of Pennsylvania and immediately proposed that the group encourage the federal government to establish zones where liquor couldn’t be sold around plants making war matérial. 

At the request of the National Coal Operators’ Association, President Woodrow Wilson declared a five-mile dry zone around coal-producing mines. Production went up, and that helped the passage of Prohibition two years later.


Flora Silver Berry

Like most of the American women who labored for three generations for suffrage and prohibition, Flora Silver Berry was mostly anonymous in her lifetime and has been forgotten since. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is how many of her there were—and for how long. At one time, more than 150,000 American females—overwhelmingly white, middle class, native born and Protestant—belonged to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which was the largest of several national temperance organizations.

The wife of a college professor, Berry was born in Zionsville, Ind., came to Delaware County sometime before World War I, and settled in Nether Providence. Her husband was Herman Claude Berry, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose specialty was the stress points in iron and steel. Flora—who usually went by “Mrs. H.C. Berry”—was civically active, and her passion seems to have been for what she viewed as the liquor threat. In 1933, as the Pennsylvania legislature prepared to vote on repeal of the 18th Amendment, she led the group known as “Allied Citizens in Support of the 18th Amendment”—a sort of rear guard for the temperance movement that had been launched almost exactly a century earlier with the founding of the Delaware County Temperance Society.

Prohibition, she noted, had closed 177,790 saloons, and repeal threatened to bring them back. The idea that establishments selling liquor by the drink were virtual factories for turning husbands into drunken wife-beaters was an enduring prohibitionist theme that may have delayed women obtaining the vote. Suffragists’ opposition to “the open saloon”—and their endorsement of reforms like a minimum wage, banning child labor and safety standards—caused business owners and the liquor interests to unite against them. 

One legacy of the women’s efforts: a ban on bars is the most common dry ordinance in Chester and Delaware counties.


Dry Municipalities

Chester County

East Bradford Township
East Brandywine Township
East Coventry Township
East Goshen Township
East Nantmeal Township
East Nottingham Township
Elk Township
Elverson Borough
Franklin Township
Highland Township Township
London Grove Township
Londonderry Township
Lower Oxford Township
New London Township
Thornbury Township
Upper Oxford Township 
West Brandywine Township
West Fallowfield Township
West Grove Borough
West Marlborough Township
West Nantmeal Township
West Pikeland Township
Westtown Township

Delaware County

Aldan Borough
Bethel Township
Brookhaven Borough
Colwyn Borough
Lansdowne Borough
Marple Township
Parkside Borough
Rutledge Borough
Sharon Hill Borough
Swarthmore Borough
Upland Borough
Yeadon Borough

Statewide, there are 684 dry or partially dry townships, boroughs and cities. Most are concentrated in the north central, south central and northwest regions of Pennsylvania.

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