TOPEKA, KAN. -- As Carry Nation's body lay a-molderin' in the grave, the people of Kansas bellied up to the bars -- some bars, anyway -- and ordered liquor by the drink legally yesterday for the first time in 106 years.

The people of this midcontinent "rectangle of righteousness," which sent forth the Temperance Unions and the Prohibition movement to a receptive nation a century ago, were drinking to a referendum, effective today, that finally amended the stern ukase in Article 15 of the Kansas constitution: "The open saloon shall be and is hereby forever prohibited."

Confounding writer William Allen White's famous dictum that "Kansans will vote dry so long as they can stagger to the polls," voters last November reversed a long history of prairie puritanism by approving a package of constitutional changes -- known here generically as the "sin amendments" -- that permit liquor by the drink at county option, parimutuel gambling and a state lottery.

Some religious figures concluded that passage of the three measures proved once and for all that Kansas has gone to hell. But other analysts offered a less apocalyptic explanation -- that the changing attitude toward governmental control of personal habits reflects changes in the economy and demography of this state at the heart of the heartland.

It's not that Kansas has suddenly developed an insatiable need for Demon Rum. After all, any thirsty Kansan has been able to buy a drink for years under the "liquor-by-the-wink" system that forced bars and restaurants to pretend they were private clubs and thus exempt from the "open saloon" law.

Instead, Gov. Mike Hayden (R) said today, the "wet" vote demonstrates that "the Kansas electorate is younger, more suburbanized, more open than it used to be." Further, Hayden said, passage of the referendum "is a measure of how important travel and tourism are right now."

There aren't many elections that can be explained by studying an interstate highway map, but the vote for liquor-by-the-drink in Kansas falls into that unusual category. The counties that voted "wet" -- and thus permit liquor sales under the new county-option system -- are clustered mainly along I-70 and I-35, the two long strips of Kansas where tourism has become a crucial part of the economy.

Indeed, the drinks that were legally sold in the saloons of Kansas today properly should be viewed as droplets in a new economic tide in the Plains and Rocky Mountain states. With traditional "extraction" industries, such as oil and farming, in the doldrums, the region is moving toward a new economic order based on the "attraction" industry of tourism and conventions.

Although the liquor referendum carried 60 percent to 40 percent, with strong support in the populous eastern counties, 69 of Kansas' 105 counties once more elected to stay dry, thus holding true to a tradition that is nearly as old as Kansas.

The Prohibition movement here really began in the "bleeding Kansas" days before the Civil War, when Puritans poured into the territory from New England to establish Kansas as a nonslave state. Slavery was soon abolished, and the Puritans focused on drinking.

The immigrant New Englanders made Kansas the first state to enshrine Prohibition in its constitution, but illegal saloons continued to operate, particularly in the cowboy country west of Topeka.

The main tool of the "dry" forces was moral suasion -- until the emergence of Medicine Lodge housewife, Carry Nation.

"Moral suasion?" she snorted. "If there's anything that's weak and worse than useless, it's moral suasion."

Declaring herself the "John Brown of Prohibition" and marching her forces to the lyrics of "John Brown's body lies a-molderin' in the grave," Nation attacked bars in Wichita and Topeka -- with a hatchet, according to legend.

Then she went on to work in the national Prohibition movement. She was in her grave when the national prohibition amendment was repealed, but her spirit prevailed in Kansas in a series of statewide referenda. The "drys" prevailed as recently as 1970, but the intervening years have seen a younger, less rural electorate with diminished dedication to tradition.

As a result, Kansas is not quite the bastion of social and economic reform it was. It is not clear that the late William Allen White, the poet laureate of the editorial page of the Emporia Gazette, could say today as he once did that Kansas is "a kind of prophecy . . . the low barometer of the nation."

"Things start in Kansas that finish in history," White said, referring to such Jayhawk causes as abolition, prohibition, bank deposit insurance, securities regulation and public health regulations. Although White was no longer alive in 1954, he probably would have been proud that the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education began at Sumner school here in Topeka.

On the liquor-by-the-drink question, though, Kansas trails history. With the demise of the "open saloon" clause, only two more states, Utah and West Virginia, still ban the sale of liquor by the drink statewide.