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Bootlegging, Prohibition, and Local-Option Election Doctrine in Texomaland

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Kendall Davis is well-versed in the English language. She has 20 years experience as a published author and writing for clients. Her published works include historical articles in museums, magazines, newspaper articles, columns, content marketing, advertising copy, blogging, and academic papers. Kendall also makes her way in the literary world as a copyeditor. Writing about history is her first love interest. If you have editing or content needs on your website or for your books, articles, blogs, or columns, please visit her website to see details and more examples of her work, the services she offers, and contact information. http://kdavis1836.wixsite.com/luminiwrites




How Did it Happen that Grayson County Precinct 3 Sells Alcohol and Precinct 4 Is Dry?


Recently, it surprised me to find that Whitesboro, Texas, in Grayson County Precinct 3, had voted itself "wet" in the November 6, 2018, election. Whitesboro’s Brookshire’s grocery is selling beer and wine. Muenster beer drinkers in 1939 * are significantly responsible for local-option elections when alcohol is concerned in 1959 and Liquor by the Drink in Texas in 1970.


”An amendment to the state constitution made liquor by the drink legal in Texas in 1970—the first time in fifty years. The sale of liquor by the drink was made legal in cities or counties when approved in local-option elections. Alcohol laws are primarily controlled by state regulations, although local-option elections can affect the sale of alcohol.“* (1)


The Bootlegging Outlaw and His Alias


On January 5, 1960, Edgar Marion Thompson. as alias Richard Pressley, received a visit from Grayson County Sherriff Woody Blanton armed with a Georgia state arrest warrant. Originally imprisoned for armed robbery at the Georgia State Prison in the town of Reidsville in 1934, Edgar escaped from a prison road gang in 1945.


Sheriff Blanton had arrested Richard Pressley 82 times for bootlegging, and he was convicted 34 times. At the time of this arrest, Richard had paid over $20,000 in Grayson County court fines. Edgar headed west after he escaped, began using the alias Richard Pressley, and commenced selling bootleg liquor in Sherman in 1951. He married his wife as Richard Pressley, and they had three children. Mrs. Pressley was divorced with two children when she met Richard. **


The Grayson County Sheriff’s Office and Richard Pressley


Richard did not seem to live beyond his means. His family lived in an unassuming house in west Sherman. He installed a swimming pool for his son and other children in Sherman with polio so they could exercise their paralyzed muscles. Richard was known to be a friendly and cooperative bootlegger with numerous contacts at the sheriff’s office.


Not only was Sheriff Blanton surprised at Richard’s real identity, but his wife, astonished, declared she would stand by her man. Edgar had been writing letters to his family and friends back in Georgia. He did fear that contacting them would lead to his re-arrest. But, he decided not to think about that. (2)


The Escape


It took Edgar awhile to actually arrive in Sherman. His escape was unplanned. Edgar worked closer and closer to one of the two guards with the road gang and grabbed a shotgun from one of them. Another convict quickly grabbed the second guard’s shotgun and killed him. All 15 prisoners escaped. Officials caught 12 of them. Only Edgar, the killer, and a convict who had twenty days left in prison made it. The third convict drowned when they forded a swollen river. Edgar and the killer made it three days with no food by breathing through a reed under water. The killer ended up murdering one of two soldiers they ran into after leaving the river. Edgar stopped him from killing the second one and kept moving.


Becoming Richard Pressley


Edgar went his own way covered in leeches and infected wounds after that nightmare with his co-escapee. He made his way west working day labor jobs and simply swam across the Mississippi River for fear of being caught. In Louisiana, he hooked up with a carnival and took the name of a fellow carnie who quit. He left the carnival in the winter of 1945-1946 and ended up in Sherman working on a farm.


What Finally Happened to Edgar


So, 15 years after Edgar’s escape and re-arrest, he went through quite a positive experience with neighbors, a priest, and a Methodist minister supporting him and his family. He ended up serving only 11 months in a Georgia prison for his escape. Edgar passed away in December, 1975, after suffering from two heart attacks, seven strokes, and lifelong diabetes. He has two names in death. His headstone and death certificate in Grayson County reads Richard Pressley. His Georgia death certificate reads Edgar Marion Thompson.


Quote from Willie Jacob’s article:


“His wife was a character in her own right. Pressley and some of his bootlegger buddies had a regularly scheduled poker game in Denison. Once, when he was on a losing streak with the family money, she went to the game location, stuck a loaded pistol against his temple, and said, “Honey, we’re going home.” Pressley tossed in his cards in and said, ‘Boys, I fold.’” (3)


I have two sources for this story. I was wandering around the University of North Texas’s Portal to Texas History and found the copy of Ft. Worth’s WBAP TV news script on Edgar. Then I typed his name into Google and found an in-depth article written in 2010 on the Texoma Living archived site by Willie Jacobs (1934-2018). The WBAP report said Edgar’s wife did not know about his alias, and Willie’s article reports that she did know. Willie’s is the correct report; his wife probably had to appear surprised in front of the law. I will not take credit for another journalist’s excellent research and writing. So, please read Edgar’s whole wild and fascinating story in source # 3.


Before and After Prohibition in Muenster Texas


Germans are famous for their beer and wine, plus a few other unique intoxicating beverages. German communities in Texas flat refused to obey state prohibition statutes even before federally enacted Prohibition. Cooke County voted itself “dry” in 1910. In 1911, Texas voters scarcely squeezed by a state constitutional prohibition proposition. At that time, 167 Texas counties were “dry” and 61 were “wet”.


The Texas German population realized how much their Anglo-Scotch-Irish neighbors wanted to put a stop to their drinking customs. The Texas Liquor Control Board (TLCB) regularly raided Muenster businesses before 1919. After the 1919 ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, the TLCB fined Muenster businesses who participated in selling alcohol.


Joe C. Trachta operated the Domino Parlor, a.k.a. Joe’s Joint, on the corner of Main and Fourth Streets. He paid his fines and continued operating before TLCB officials had traveled a few miles down the road. In September 1939, the TLCB ran everyone out of Joe’s Joint and threatened Joe with a year or two in jail. But, Joe kept running his illegal bar. When he married, his wife convinced him to open a drug store. He closed down his joint and began bootlegging from his drug store. Joe never did end up in jail and lived to be 90 years old. (4)


The TLCB’s Embarrassing Raid in Cooke County


The TLCB decided to raid Cooke County Electric Coop’s warehouse based on a false lead in September 1939. Justin Ness, warehouse manager, protested, but three TLCB officers began their search. When the officers asked for the key to the coop’s garage and warehouse, Joe raised a stink. The Muenster Enterprise reported that the search was founded on a belief that the owner of the lunchroom next door, A. C. Stelzer, was storing beer and liquor in the coop’s warehouse.


This raid was so embarrassing to the TLCB that the Dallas District TLCB supervisor, F. O. Goen, visited Muenster and issued the following statement to the Muenster Enterprise. ***


“We want the entire community to know that the coop office is above suspicion; also that the liquor board does not make a habit of molesting law-abiding citizens.”


Muenster Anti-Prohibition Sympathizers


The citizens of Muenster supported anti-liquor law violators. Muenster businesses continued to sell booze without problems when the TLCB was not hounding them. When the 1933 Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition, Muenster desperately tried to vote in “wet” propositions. After the repeal of Prohibition, Cooke County voted for a “dry” county by 59.3%. The Muenster precinct voted “wet” by 98.5%. In 1934, two other precincts voted “wet” for the sale of 3.2% beer. Muenster again voted “wet” by 98.3%. That voting completion continued on and on with the western towns and Muenster overwhelmingly voting “wet” and eastern Cooke County’s residents consistently winning with “dry”.


The Western Wets and the Eastern Drys of Cooke County


Muenster held a day-long, pro-wet rally with eight entertainment acts in 1939. One thousand eastern "drys" attended. Speakers took the stage with speeches about the benefits of voting wet. Mayor Seyler compelled the audience to answer this statement:


“In the spirit of goodwill, help us legalize beer so that our community can have it in an open and respectable manner. After that is done, communities have the privilege of voting themselves dry by precinct local voting options. In this way, the drys can be dry, and the wets can be wet.”


The towns of Muenster, Lindsay, Burton, and Freemound remained dry after the 1939 election. Local men asked Mayor Seyler to write the Texas Attorney General, Gerald Mann, to request information on how to divide Cooke County. The western part of Cooke County paid more than half of all the taxes collected by Cooke County.


Muenster, Texas, and the Birth of Two Texas Laws


The western Cooke County “wets” would find success 20 years later. The Texas Supreme Court ruling on the case of Myers v. Martinez supported that individual incorporations within the counties could decide independently on their liquor laws. The July 29, 1959, ruling states, “Each incorporated town could determine its own destiny within the doctrine known as local-option.” On September 5, 1959, Muenster voters legalized the sale and consumption of alcohol. (4)


Liquor by the Drink, 1970


In another 21 years, the hard and dedicated work of the people of Muenster helped set the precedent for the statewide local-option doctrine of liquor sales in 1970:


“When approved in local-option elections in 'wet' precincts of counties, sale of liquor by the drink is permitted in Texas. This resulted in the adoption of an amendment to the Texas Constitution in 1970 and subsequent legislation, followed by local-option elections. This amendment marked the first time in 50 years that the sale of liquor by the drink was legal in Texas. In 1986, there were 62 counties wholly dry. In 2015, there were 7 counties wholly dry.” (5)


The beer drinkers in Muenster began a 33-year legal process with a pro-wet rally in 1939.


Notations


* I have not researched the German communities around Austin, Texas, and south and southwest of Austin. I suspect there may have been the same legal wrangling in that region of Texas that helped set the precedent for local-option elections and the ratification of the Liquor by the Drink code.


** As per journalism culture rolled for a couple of hundred years, no one thought it was important to mention Edgar’s wife’s name in both of my sources. Willie did not mention her name in his 2010 article. Willie worked for the Sherman Herald Democrat in 1960. Even in 1960, omitting married women’s names was the norm in news reporting. I do not believe that Willie left Mrs. Pressley’s name out of his article because he was a male chauvinist. One of the most significant issues targeted by the late 1960’s feminist movement addressed how women were portrayed in journalism.


*** On February 3, 1939, the Muenster, Texas, newspaper conducted business as the Muenster News. I believe the thesis source that I cited had cited his source incorrectly.


https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth335409/?q=The%20Muenster%20News%20%28Muenster%20Tex.%29%201939


Pictures


1. The Richard Pressley Family—Photo provided to Willie Jacobs—Courtesy of the Pressley family.


2. Georgia Prison Road Gang Circa 1945—By the 1940s, Deep South state departments of criminal justice (as we call it today) use of African American chain gangs were beginning to feel pressure from the feds to cease arresting black men on falsified charges for purposes of state work. Prison road gangs in 1945 Georgia did not wear chains connected to each other. At that time in Georgia, state prisoners did wear black and white striped suits. We begin seeing white men on prisoner chain and road gangs in the Deep South in the 1940s. We do not know how Edgar shed his prison suit. This picture is copyrighted under Getty Images, and the men appear to be posing for this picture. I do not believe it is an original picture of Georgia prisoners in 1945. But, this picture does depict what a Georgia prison road gang looked like in 1945.


3. Sheriff Woody Blanton


4. Sheriff Burney Parker, who had been known to take a nip for time to time, tolerated bootleggers during the Prohibition years in Brenham, except for those who made deathly dangerous booze. This corn whiskey and the illegal still were captured in a 1924 raid. Instead of ethyl alcohol, improperly distilled whiskey becomes methyl alcohol, which causes blindness and even death—Courtesy Texas Coop Power Magazine, January 2008.


5 & 6. A shoe fitted with cattle hooves to disguise bootlegging tracks.  https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/history/bootleggers-baseball-barbecue-brenham-in-the-20s


7. Willie Jacobs Obituary
https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/willie-jacobs-obituary?pid=188795096


Sources


1.https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/history/bootleggers-baseball-barbecue-brenham-in-the-20s


2. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc862580/
WBAP-TV (Television station: Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Script: Bootlegger], item, January 5, 1960; (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc862580/: accessed June 24, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.


3. https://www.texomaliving.com/hiding-in-plain-sight


4. McDaniel, Robert Wayne. Muenster, Texas: A Centennial History, thesis, August 1988; Denton, Texas. Pages 89-96.


5. https://texasalmanac.com/topics/government/local-option-alcohol-map-counties-0


6. https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/82R/billtext/html/HB02194F.HTM


 




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