By Dr. Pat Carroll
My friends and I have long-wanted one thing for our beloved Pocahontas and Randolph County: to enjoy here what people around the world have always taken for granted as normal life, to be able to sit as adults and enjoy a glass of wine with our meal at a restaurant, or sit around a pub table with friends to sip beer and talk. Life’s simple pleasures.
But 70 years ago in Randolph County, the voters, by a very narrow margin, decided to kill a gnat with an elephant gun. We had a problem here with public drunkenness, but rather than fix the problem with basic law enforcement and move on, they voted for absolute prohibition of alcohol sales here. We became dry, and this overkill, this desert, went on here for 70 years, because once you change things, it’s VERY hard to change them back again.
The story of our Pocahontas Founders Day Festival “Pop-Up St. Charles Tavern” begins several years ago, with the multiple efforts it took to get the “wet-dry question” on the local ballot. We always felt like the county would vote itself wet IF we could get the issue on the ballot. But it’s a VERY difficult process because, I believe, the state’s wet counties, which are most of the counties and the majority of the state’s population, have a financial interest in keeping the dry counties dry, so people there have to travel to spend their alcohol money in the neighboring wet counties. And, being the majority, they have the votes in the state legislature to get their way, making it very difficult to put an alcohol “local option” vote on the people’s ballot.
I launched a Facebook page in 2012 to promote interest in making Randolph County wet. It went nowhere. Luckily, in 2014, retired local attorney Linda Bowlin took on the challenge and got a lot more done. If you want a job done right, find a Linda Bowlin! That was the year, though, when there was an effort to vote the whole state wet, so Linda called off our county petition drive to work on the state-wide effort.
That statewide effort failed, ironically, because “Big Liquor”, the ones who want to keep dry counties buying from wet counties, ran a “let each county make its own decision” campaign. Of course, they knew they had state law set up so it’s almost impossible for a county to make its own decision, because it’s so hard to get the issue on the ballot (it takes far more petition signatures to hold a wet-dry vote than any other issue requires).
When the state-wide vote failed, Linda and the small group of volunteers she had put together, tried again in 2016, but they were tripped up by what Linda calls “land mines” in the alcohol petition laws that even the lawyers cannot understand. Just enough signatures were disallowed to keep the issue off the 2016 election ballot.
Third time’s the charm! Finally, in 2018, having learned a lot from the previous efforts, Linda and her hard-working group (about ten dedicated women and two dedicated men) succeeded in getting enough proper signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and the issue won easily, letting Randolph finally, after 70 dry years, join the majority of Arkansas’ counties as one of the wets, the only counties eligible to apply for festival alcohol permits.
Several years ago a few of us, people interested in keeping downtown Pocahontas wonderful, attended a Destination Downtown meeting in Little Rock. It was a convention of Main Street organizations from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, gathering to share ideas. We heard people from Mississippi and Louisiana describe festivals they had that filled their towns with thousands of people, bringing in lots of outside money that stayed in town after the visitors left. When asked how they raised the money to put on such nice festivals, they all said the same thing: beer sales! The non-profit festival committee benefits from the sales, and uses the money gained to help fund the current festival and put funds in place for their next festival.
So when Randolph County went wet, we decided to try it. In January, 2019, I began investigating the state’s requirements to grant an alcohol permit for alcohol sales at a local festival. I’d estimate I put in 16 hours getting all our ducks in a row. The permit application I submitted ran about 25 pages, most requiring notarization. They want an OK from the local police chief. They want to see your sales tax permit. They want to see a map of the festival location. They want to know what registered non-profit organization will benefit from the money raised. They want a lot, but it’s just a matter of putting in the hours and the work to get it done. Once I got all the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed, the permit was granted by Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control within a couple of weeks, with no problems. Thank you, voters of Randolph County!
Our non-profit is Five Rivers Historic Preservation, Inc., which works to preserve Randolph County’s history and heritage. In addition to owning the Randolph County Heritage Museum and other projects, they have sponsored our annual Founders Day Festival every year since our Pocahontas sesquicentennial (150 years) in 2006. Pocahontas was closer to 180 years old in 2006, but for the sesquicentennial we used the 1856 date of our incorporation with the state, rather than the town’s establishment date in the 1820’s.
With festivals, weather is always the big unknown, so for our festival tavern I volunteered use of a vacant building I own on the Pocahontas court square, in the heart of the festival area. That way we could go on, rain or shine. The same volunteers who had driven and walked all over Randolph County gathering petition signatures last year now pitched in and turned a gutted, vacant building into a pop-up tavern with strings of lights overhead, a bar supported by old wooden wine barrels, and lots of sit down and stand up tables inside.
Local “reenactors,” who dressed in period costumes of the era of Pocahontas’ founding, were there working at the tavern, and two of them worked day and night over a big iron kettle, popping sweet “kettle corn” over a propane flame. The popcorn was free to tavern patrons, and they sold a LOT of bags of popcorn for festival goers to munch as they walked the town.
Each year our festival features a free barbecue meal, while supplies last, and this year the addition of the tavern sort of completes the historical significance of Founders Day. In 1835, when Randolph County was carved out of Lawrence County, there was a vote to pick the location of the county seat. Two locations were in the running, Pocahontas and Martin Springs. The landowners at the Pocahontas location held a free barbecue, and it’s said that free whiskey also flowed, and the voters were persuaded to pick Pocahontas as county seat. For a while after that the town was known affectionately, by the Martin Springs folks, as “Poke It On Us”. This year the city and county provided 350 barbecue chicken meals, which were available to pick up at 6 p.m. They were all gone by 6:12.
Our festival permit allowed people to carry their beverages out on the streets, within the area roped off for the festival, so it had almost a Beale Street feel as people strolled the streets and listened to the live music on Saturday night. We had 5 blocks roped off, so there was a lot of strolling to be done!
We also set up an outdoor area of “umbrella tables” in the street in front of the tavern and people loved sitting outside on Friday and Saturday, talking and sipping their drinks. We offered several games of Randolph County and Arkansas trivia on Saturday afternoon, and with the emcee (Linda Bowlin) standing in the tavern door to call out the questions, everybody inside and out at the umbrella tables took part, with nice prizes for the winners.
During the weeks of planning and setting up our tavern, we heard non-stop rumors of grumblings from a small group of naysayers who were just sure there would be drunks sleeping on the sidewalks. One rumor said we were setting up a permanent saloon. Not true. Another rumor said there would be strippers at the tavern. Not true, other than a couple of our hard-working 50+ servers who got hot and removed their jackets to show their St. Charles Tavern Staff tee shirts.
In addition to beer and wine by the glass, we also offered beer “flights”, with 5 oz. samples of 5 different craft beers, and wine samplers, with 2 oz. samples of 5 different wines. The samplers were popular. Having no idea how many people would show up for the festival, we contacted the Newport beer distributor and ordered delivery of a couple of cases of each of the 5 craft beers plus 1 keg of Bud Light.
We worried about what to do with the beer left in the keg after the festival ended. We needn’t have worried. The keg was empty within the first 4 hours of the festival! We made about a dozen “supply runs” to local stores to buy more beer and wine during the festival. On every trip we thought we had ordered enough additional supplies to last the rest of the festival, and every time we ran out again within a couple of hours.
The Pocahontas police were excellent to work with for our festival. They and the mayor seemed anxious for our tavern to be a success for our festival and for our town. Policemen were always at or near the tavern during the festival, but they behaved the way all policemen OUGHT to be: they were there to help us, not as adversaries constantly looking for violations.
The police were just folks at the festival, talking and laughing with everybody, drinking sodas and eating kettle corn, there if needed, but otherwise unobtrusive. And it turns out they had an easy time of it, because there were no problems. Nobody had too much to drink. Everybody we saw was happy, having a good time, and thankful to the festival organizers and the tavern workers for making it all possible.
In the end, we took in about $5,000 in alcohol and popcorn sales during the 18 hours the tavern was open. About $500 of that will go for state and local sales taxes. We had another $2000 in expenses to build the bar (a one-time expense), decorate the tavern, and buy the beer, wine, cups, and popcorn. So with all expenses paid, we now have about $2,500 in the bank to apply toward our next festival, which will, of course, be bigger and better than ever!
Besides the money, the best things that came out of the effort included that our community had a great time while proving the naysayers wrong about the likelihood of alcohol-related problems, our tavern team learned a lot about how to do it even better next time, and our team came out of it tired but ready to do it again…after a few months off.
We’re already talking about a fall festival. Randolph County has an unusually large population of descendants of German immigrants who moved here in the 1880’s, so an “Oktoberfest” seems like a logical fall festival for us, though if we find other towns have things planned for October, we might have a “Novemberfest” instead. But fest we shall have, and it will be great fun!
Special guest editorial by Dr. Pat Carroll