In the state of Minnesota today—although no one is really quite sure—there are approximately sixty communities that are classified as “dry” towns.‘ Simply put these towns, by statute, do not allow the issuance of licenses to sell anything stronger that 3.2% beer. No strong beer, wine, or liquor can be sold. Cokato is one of those towns. And how it came to be this way is a story that is full of twist, turns, and legal shenanigans that could make modern audiences blush. Before we begin this tale though, some background is needed.
The law that allowed towns to ban the sale of these products was enacted in 1870 as an amendment to the state's liquor laws. It read “that nothing herein shall be construed as to prevent the people of any municipal township from deciding for themselves whether licenses shall be granted to any person.” The steps heeded to put the question on the ballot included: a petition signed by at least ten legal voters of the district; notification to voters about the question; and a separate ballot at election time with the options “ln favor of license” and “Against license.” Cokato’s citizenry made frequent use of this statute, commonly called the “local option" law.
The contention surrounding the issuance of liquor licenses in Cokato had its start very early. The first license was issued to J. B. Runser by the village council on November 18, 1878, at a cost of $125. Runser’s enterprise was short-lived though, as the council rejected all applications for licenses in January, 1879. This flip-flopping continued for the next three -years, as the council would grant licenses one year, and say “no” the next.
The citizens of Cokato entered into the license debate in March, 1889. The Cokato Observer declared triumphantly that “The Saloons Must Go!”, reporting that the village’s elector- ate had banished liquor licenses by a vote of 70 to 38. The Observer also noted that Dassel had voted to stay “wet,” and some Cokato businessmen were concerned about losing trade dollars to their western neighbor.
The license issue came up regularly for Cokato voters during the 1890s. Since only ten signatures were needed to place the issue on the ballot, it should be no surprise that this became an annual affair.
Cokato stayed dry for most of the 1890s, except for the years from 1896 to 1898. The margins of victory for both sides during those years was never ample. Twenty votes was often the deciding factor.
Those who wanted to keep Cokato dry sometimes resorted to means that a modern audience would find suspect. For example, in 1890, a group of people raised $50 and presented it to a local minister. The minister was instructed to give the money reliable temperance farmers so they could hire potential wet voters for one day—election day.
For most of the decade of 1901 -- 1910, Cokato was in the wet column. In several of the elections, the margin of victory was almost two-to-one. Those who opposed saloons were often “mystified” by the success of the wet forces
The real reason for this success was soon discovered though. It turns out that an election judge, who owned buildings being leased to saloon owners, had been stuffing the ballot box. He was quickly relieved from his duties and fined for his efforts.
Just because Cokato was dry did not mean that liquor could not be bought. “Blind pigs”, establishments that illegally sold liquor, were a constant problem for city officials. To solve this, a detective was hired in 1890 to gather evidence against these illicit operators. Unfortunately, the detective was beaten up shortly after being hired, quit his position, and left town.
The owners and editors of local newspapers made no secret of their “anti-liquor feelings. Frank Lamson, editor of the Observer (1889-1893) feared for his personal safety because of his beliefs (and perhaps because he was also Justice of the Peace). Said Lamson: “A. P. Peterson [a local merchant] and I were marked men among the lawless element the village. We carried revolvers and we walked the middle of the street at night.”
Were saloons really a problem for Cokato? That depended on who you asked. The court dockets were often full of people arrested for drinking- related offenses, such as brawling, stealing, and being intoxicated in public. Local temperance groups were convinced that “demon rum” was destroying the moral fiber of the country, and that saloons must be banished to achieve this goal.
Saloon owners felt that they were simply trying to run legitimate businesses. They would tout the fact that they too, paid taxes and that the beer they sold was made “using Minnesota-grown barley. They felt their efforts were benefiting the economy of the entire state.
The license debate in Cokato was suspended in 1915 when the citizens of Wright County voted the entire county dry. The onset of National Prohibition in 1919, lasting until 1933, kept the issue in the background for many years.
Between 1933 and 1996, there were seven attempts by citizens to end Cokato’s dry status. The most recent vote was in 1974. Each time, those opposed to licenses prevailed, usually by large margins.
ln the end, the control of its destiny by Cokato’s residents is perhaps the truest legacy, of local option. In an era where local units of government seem to be losing more and more of their autonomy, local option seems to represent a small bastion of self-governance. And regardless of how others may view matters, the residents of Cokato do not seem to mind one bit.
UPDATE: Since the original publication of this article in May 1997, at least four communities have voted to allow issuance of licenses or opened municipal liquor stores. The voters of Cokato did just that in 2006, approving licenses in that year’s November general election. In November 2012, Sunday liquor sales were approved by the voters.
UPDATE II:A chart detailing Cokato's local option elections can be found here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The relevant state statute that governs local option elections can be found here.