Portales has long history of opposing alcohol sales

By Robin Fornoff: FNM content editor

Mark it as another chapter in a long and storied struggle over demon alcohol in Portales and Roosevelt County.

A petition drive started by local restaurants and aimed at legalizing Sunday sales of alcohol in Portales may not hold the promise of rough and tumble politics of the past. But the developing struggle to keep Sunday sales off the table is shaping up to be an issue that cannot be ignored.

On one side there is Cattle Baron Manager Richard Chambers, who started the petition because he says his and other food establishments are losing lots of dollars in sales to Clovis restaurants that do serve alcohol on Sunday. He’s joined by two other big names in the region, Juanitos and Pizza Hut.

At last count Friday, Chambers said he had more than enough signatures — 900 and counting — to force the matter to a citywide referendum.

And on the other side, there is the Rev. Brad Morgan, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, born and raised in Portales, a quiet man of strong conviction and determination who is promising to “actively oppose” anything that would allow sales on his Sabbath.

“I understand,” says Morgan, “he (Chambers) wants to and needs to promote his business. But I also don’t think it’s too much to have one day set aside to promote family values by not serving alcohol.”

Shades of the past in a city noted for its struggles over alcohol. Roosevelt County is still dry. And it wasn’t until April 1975 that voters finally approved sales of any alcohol within Portales city limits.

“Roosevelt County History and Heritage,” published a year before that historic vote notes, “Prohibition has been one of the continuing controversies in the history of Portales and is one characteristic by which Portales is known across the state.”

The book paints a picture of a young Portales in the late 1800s overrun with saloons, gambling and public brawling. A growing citizenry had had enough by 1915, banning all alcohol by act of the town council, a declaration of political war for saloon owners and other business interests, some of which turned to bootlegging to survive.

What followed was a spate of referendums every few years, usually with religious conviction fueling one side and business interests ponying up the cash for the other.

David Stone remembers how it was. Stone is president of J.P. Stone Community Bank, a man whose heritage is a family of pioneers who struggled to carve a living off the often challenging land of the High Plains and establish banking in Portales and other communities across the region during the rough and tumble days of cowboys, cattle and the railroad.

“Up until about the (1960s) just about every town was dry from west Texas to most of eastern New Mexico,” said Stone, noting he doesn’t personally use alcohol. “There were bootleggers all over the place. Until Lubbock legalized it, they came here to find it.”

Stone recalls a speakeasy outside Kenna, population 15, south of Portales “where all the college kids and truckers went to drink. Hell, there’d be 18-wheelers stacked up along both sides of the highway for a mile in either direction.”

Indeed, explained Stone, it was Vietnam, lowering the voting age to 18 and the college crowd at Eastern New Mexico University that proved pivotal in the 1975 vote that finally allowed alcohol sales in Portales.

He’s convinced if it gets to a vote and ENMU is in session, this time Sunday sales will become a reality.

Meanwhile, Pastor Morgan, who dutifully notes he doesn’t want to become the poster boy for prohibition in Portales, is determined Sunday should remain set aside as a day without alcohol sales.

“I’m not trying to impose my views on anyone,” said Morgan. “Abstinence is a choice. I would love to go back to being completely dry, certainly. But do I think that is within any realm of reality? No.”

Morgan said for now what he means by actively opposing Sunday alcohol sales is he will bring it up in discussions among the 100 or so who attend his services each Sunday.

The Rev. Dave McFadden, pastor of the First Baptist Church and president of the local ministerial alliance, said he would vote against Sunday alcohol. “I learned a long time ago,” said McFadden, “not to try and tell my congregation what to do.”

Adds McFadden, “The less alcohol sold, the safer we are on the streets and the less damage is done to people.”

City Clerk Joan Martinez-Terry said as of Monday, Chambers hasn’t filed a petition seeking a referendum “but I expect it almost any day now.”

Chambers said he wanted 1,000 signatures to assure the minimum 350 registered voters needed to force an election.

Martinez-Terry, who will be in charge of certifying signatures, noted those who sign must be registered voters living within city limits and they must sign the same way they did when registering to vote.