In the small town of Damascus, where grape juice substitutes for wine in the Communion chalice, an aversion to alcohol has created an anomaly many residents are proud of: It’s one of the last dry areas in Maryland.
Restaurants in this Montgomery County town can’t sell beer or wine, and the closest bar is in the next county over.
Two residents, however, are campaigning to change that. They’ve successfully pushed for alcohol sales to be on the ballot in November, and they’re leading a coalition of 150 to 200 residents to get their neighbors to vote.
Although similar measures have failed before, supporters of lifting the ban say they think it has a good chance of passing this time because Damascus has gone through significant changes as growth and development have continued to make the once-rural town more of a suburb.
Much of the area’s farmland has become townhouses, and an influx of young families has created a town more receptive to having a drink with dinner. The population exploded from 8,486 in 1980 to 19,949 in 2010, according to census data.
“The demographics of Damascus have changed significantly, and the town has degraded significantly . . . so something needs to be done,” said James Traverso, 55, who is co-leading the coalition with his wife.
Supporters of the referendum say they are worried about the town’s future: Its commercial center has many vacant lots, and they argue that lifting the ban would attract better restaurants and help stimulate growth.
The referendum asks for a minor change: Only beer and light wine would be served, and only at certain restaurants. But opponents fear that lifting the ban even a little could lead to more expansive alcohol sales in the future — or, worse, bars and carry-out liquor stores. They added that they wanted to protect children from early exposure to alcohol.
“Once you open the door, the door goes all the way open,” said Gary Richard, 60, who owns a 116-acre farm and two gas stations in the area and is a major opponent of the referendum.
Technically, local volunteer firefighters are allowed to sell alcohol on special temporary licenses. But for decades, residents have fought against allowing permanent liquor licenses for restaurants and stores.
The issue has been a divisive one for about 130 years. In 1880, Montgomery became a dry county because residents thought alcoholism was a major social problem, according to county historical documents. Four years later, when Damascus became its own election district, some residents put the issue back on the ballot.
On Election Day 1884, King’s Distillery, the only distillery in the county at the time, passed out cups of rye to those who voted in Damascus, according to an account by a county historian. Voters were so happy with the free booze that they went in line to vote again, and soon residents from outside Damascus and even outside the county came to vote. When election judges tallied the votes, there were more ballots than residents in Montgomery.
The county invalidated the election results — except for the ballot question on alcohol.
Montgomery remained dry until the end of Prohibition, when several election districts voted to lift the ban. By then, county residents were more receptive to alcohol; in Rockville, residents voted nearly 4 to 1 to grant alcohol sales. But in Damascus, opposition remained fierce. The opponents won nearly 3 to 1. Since then, they’ve succeeded at least five more times.
In 1984, residents defeated the referendum by 925 votes. In 1996, the margin was 665 votes. Supporters and opponents say this referendum could be the closest yet.
Traverso said he has talked with several Mount Airy restaurant owners who would love to open a branch in Damascus if the ban were lifted. His group is starting to hand out fliers and in a couple of weeks will post banners on two main thoroughfares.
“Say YES to restaurants in Damascus,” the fliers and banners say.
In the past, churches have vigorously fought against lifting the ban.
“We like our community — its wonderful people and its beautiful country setting,” said one ad sponsored by the First Baptist Church in 1992, when the issue was also on the ballot. “It’s OK not to drink, Damascus.”
Residents remain divided on the issue. Some say the younger generation is pushing for the referendum, and the old-timers and church members are resisting.
“All the older residents are going to be against it because they just don’t believe in it,” Clyde Thompson said. He was eating lunch with fellow members of First Baptist Church. They sat toward the back of the eatery Tom and Ray’s, whose owners have come out against the referendum as recovering alcoholics.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” added Jim Mangum, a fellow member who lives in Carroll County.
Others disagree. “I don’t want people overdoing it,” said Terry Beale, 28, who was with a friend at a nearby restaurant. “But [the ban] is weird.”
Elizabeth Davis, a nurse shopping at the recently opened Family Dollar, said, “It’s kinda silly that Damascus is dry when all the areas around it have alcohol.”
Damascus residents can often be found at the Lu and Joe’s biker bar in Mount Airy because it’s one of the closest places that serve alcohol. Customers said they were happy that the town was reconsidering its ways.
As he sipped his Coors Light, James Oden, 46, a Carroll County resident who lived in Damascus for about two decades, said he was annoyed by the ban in high school and would go to Mount Airy to buy alcohol. He hopes that the referendum passes.
“Damascus deserves it,” he said.