Ask where you can buy a drink in Damascus and residents point to the county line. So you get in your car and head north on Rte. 27 out of this northern Montgomery County town, past the cow pastures and fields of yellowing cornstalks into Howard County and pull into Lu and Joe's tavern.
Damascus is one of three election districts in rural Montgomery County that have been dry since Prohibition. The residents -- 16,911 of them, according to the 1980 census, and still growing -- can drink all the liquor they want in private homes and buildings if they are of legal age, but they can't buy it or sell it within the election district. So those who drink liquor are likely to take their thirst elsewhere.
The three election districts, which will vote separately on the issue, are rural areas. The main towns, Darnestown, Clarksburg and Damascus, were founded by Methodist and Presbyterian farmers.
Matthew Harris, who owns the Exxon station in Damascus, recently sat in the dark, comfortable Howard County bar with a drink and a sandwich. Damascus residents do not drink less than others, he claimed: "The people in Damascus drink more."
"But to hear the people in Damascus talk about it, you wouldn't think so," added another Damascus man, Jeff Federmeyer, who was sipping a beer.
There is a lot of talk about drinking right now, because drinking is on the ballot in the Nov. 6 general election. Voters have defeated the sale of alcoholic beverages before and, most people say, it will happen again.
Damascus is the largest town, the only one with a significant commercial area, and the place where the idea of being dry is fixed the firmest.
The Rev. Marcus Earp, who heads the largest Methodist church in town, recently wrote a letter to his congregation reminding them that the church strongly recommends abstinence from alcohol.
"I think they would be better off without it," he said.
"This is a good, stable community with a fairly high reputation for sobriety," said Everett Jones, a plumber who has lived in Damascus all his 70 years. He wants it to stay that way, and he predicted that the vote in the Damascus district will be pretty much as it was back in 1976: 1,800 to 1,058 against going wet.
But some say that newcomers moving into the developments around Damascus, people who have increased the population by about 24 percent since the last vote was taken, may change things.
"Strangers are moving into the community and are more for it the change , because they've been other places where it's easier to get hold of it," said Ethel Gladhill, 73, who does not drink and who plans to vote against ending the ban.
More than 50 years after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the nation still has 412 dry counties, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. These counties, almost all of them in Southern states, contain about 3.6 percent of the population and their number is shrinking. Eleven counties changed from dry to wet last year.
Five of Virginia's 90 counties are still dry, although none are near Washington. In Maryland, small parts of Frederick, Cecil and Baltimore counties remain dry, and only beer can be sold in most parts of Garrett County. The small Montgomery County municipalities of Washington Grove and Kensington also forbid liquor sales, but they are not reconsidering those laws.
Indeed, Damascus has been dry since it and the surrounding area was made an election district in 1884. The story goes that each voter that year was given a cup of liquor after casting his ballot at Odd Fellow's Hall, where the firehouse now stands. By middle afternoon the votes cast in Damascus outnumbered the population of Montgomery County. Following a sheriff's investigation, voters approved a referendum banning the sale of alcoholic beverages.
One hundred years later, some say it is time to change.
"I don't drink," said John B. Clark, a young man with an impressive moustache, who owns the Shell station downtown. "But it's foolish not to have it."
He, along with several others, said that the ban on liquor sales has kept good restaurants out of the area but has not done anything to stop drinking.
"That's what this town needs: liquor," Clark said.
Harry Burdette, 57, who runs a pizza parlor, a coin laundry and a carwash just down the street, is eager to see the ban on alcoholic beverage sales repealed, although he said his business is too close to a school to be granted a liquor license.
"This is the wettest dry place you have ever been in," he said.
He said that liquor sales would help business and attract restaurants. But it also would give the town greater control over drinking.
"It's already wet," Burdette said of Damascus. "But it's like we have all the problems, but none of the rewards. . . . Why send our revenue to another county? Why send people to another county to buy it? Why put our youth in the hands of other people?"
County police said that they could not recall anyone being charged with selling liquor in Damascus. And while nobody has figured how many drunk driving incidents are reported in the Damascus election district, many believe that the problem is about the same as in other areas.
"We've had problems up there with teen-agers drinking," said Montgomery County police Lt. James Mahoney, who patrols the Damascus area. He added that the youths "generally have some transportation available to them to go out of town, where they can buy any alcohol they want."
Emerson Slacum, 69, a former principal of Damascus High School who still lives in town, said he believes young people are better off in a dry town.
"I feel it's best to keep it dry, if we can," he said. "I realize the business interests, the politicians and others are interested in eliminating the dry area. But I'm in favor of maintaining it."
Slacum said he has a drink from time to time, but that as a school principal he has seen the harm alcohol can do to young people.
"I realize they can go other places and get it," he said. "But at least we don't show that we condone it by having the sale of it right here."
But most people will not tell you what they think, at least not for the record. Some say that Tom Bellison would benefit if he could sell drinks at his carryout store, which recently was draped with banners advertising a revival meeting at the town's main intersection.
Bellison, interviewed while washing dishes at Tom and Ray's Steak House, his restaurant just down the street, is one of the best-known men in town. He pointed to his customers and said that the question was too sensitive to answer in public.
"I don't want to commit myself, one way or the other," he said.
Jerry Hyatt, a portly 44-year-old lawyer who represents the three dry election districts considering the change before the state House of Delegates, has his office nearby. He put this year's liquor sales question on the ballot, but he said that he does not necessarily support it.
"I don't have a position on it," he claimed. "I don't feel it's my perogative."
Hyatt, who acknowledged that he takes a drink from time to time, said there still is a lot of opposition to selling alcoholic beverages.
"This is a community that's rural in its background and basic in its religious heritage," he explained.
Hyatt agreed that housing developments have brought in people who are not part of this tradition but said that many of them believe that the ban on alcoholic beverage sales helps to keep it a small rural town.
Fellow Del. Judy Toth, 47, declined to say whether she supports the ban. She predicted that Damascus probably would be the last of the three dry districts to allow alcohol.
"Damascus has traditionally been a Methodist community," she pointed out. " . . . The people have been, for the most part, rural and traditional, conservative people who have been there a long time and have their roots in the area, people who are really divorced from the political and the social mores of the rest of the county. It was a different world. It still is."
So for now, if you want a drink, you leave town or you plan ahead.
"Damascus is known for the people having larger bars in their basements than anywhere else," said Clark, owner of the Shell station. "A lot of people stockpile their booze. They don't want to travel for it."