Letter: Alcohol in Brattleboro

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Editor of the Reformer,

Here's an addendum to the Brattleboro Historical Society's informative weekend Reformer article, "A long history of alcohol in Brattleboro."

Vermont was officially dry from 1852 to 1903, although the Reformer article tells us that hard cider and wine could be made for personal or religious use. But there were other exceptions that led to some interesting statistics. Under the prohibition law, county commissioners were to be elected who would then appoint town liquor agents. The liquor agents could sell alcoholic beverages for "medical, chemical, and mechanical purposes only."

Poking around in the annual town reports of the 1890s while doing research on Kipling in Vermont, I came across information suggesting a most generous interpretation of the law. (Kipling, by the way, said he enjoyed having a lager in the basement of Brooks House, almost certainly illegal.) In a year-end tally of February 1, 1894, the auditors reported liquor sales of $9,487.24 with a profit of $1,843.50 plus empty barrel sales of $76.55. (Old liquor barrels added a nice touch to hard cider just as they now do to maple syrup.)

But it was the inventory of liquors on hand that most stirred my imagination. I found 25 kinds of alcoholic drinks ready for medical, chemical, and mechanical purposes only, including lager, ale, three kinds of brandy, gin, two kinds of champagne, three kinds of rum, three kinds of whiskey, several kinds of wine.

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The cost to the agency of what remained at year-end was $964.83. Total purchases by the agency came to $5,189.11. The difference between the two figures was the wholesale cost of alcohol sold. It suggests a brisk business.

It must have been a comfort for the town to know that whatever the ailment an appropriate drink was available: whiskey or brandy to fortify one for surgery, a smooth wine for insomnia; champagne to celebrate recovery from illness.

Dummerston appears not to have had a liquor agency. Kipling's hard-drinking brother-in-law, Beatty Balestier, probably helped to supply the deficiency. Old-timers still speak fondly of their hard-cider days. It's now a common manufactured drink, but I hope the craft has not been lost to the families of our region.

(To acknowledge sources, I have drawn on a talk delivered to The Kipling Society at the Scott Farm in 2013, an abridgment of which appeared in The Kipling Journal, July 2014.)

Charles Fish

Dummerston, April 14


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