Cheers! 150-year drought ends in Rockport's bars

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The Independent US

"It has been 150 years," said Mr Beacham, an antique shop owner in Rockport, Massachusetts. "I was privileged to be the first person to legally buy a drink It was humbling. It was an awesome experience."

This week, the small New England town made a break with its past when one of its inns finally started selling alcohol. Apart from a brief period immediately following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it was the first time anyone had been able to legally buy a drink in Rockport since the Civil War.

Mr Beacham won the honour to be the first customer at the Emerson Inn by the Sea because of his role heading the campaign to end Rockport's dry status. A previous campaign to lift the alcohol ban in the 1990s had failed as a result of those townsfolk who believed that Rockport should keep its tradition.

"About 16 months ago, Rockport decided to join the 21st century," Mr Beacham told The Independent. "We are a tourist community. It has been a dry town for 150 years. There was a need to change and I though it was the right thing to do."

Support for keeping Rockport dry was partly based on the lore detailing the origin of its ban. Legend has it the ban dates from 1856, when a local woman called Hannah Jumper led a group of about 200 axe-wielding women - the so-called "Hatchet Gang" - who marched around the town smashing every bottle of spirits they could find.

True or not, many in the community believed this tradition was a selling point for Rockport and something that made this town of about 7,800 inhabitants stand out from others. A campaign to retain the ban was organised around the slogan "Keep Rockport Dry".

But Mr Beacham had the support of many in the tourism industry who said the ban was damaging trade. After a referendum, approval by the state, and then finally another vote by the townsfolk, the local authorities in April decided to grant liquor licences to restaurants and inns. The law still bans bars and off-licences.

On Tuesday evening, the Emerson Inn became the first business to receive its licence and its owner, Bruce Coates, held a party to celebrate. He said that while the tradition of Hannah Jumper was important, there was more to Rockport than one story.

"Rockport goes back further than 1856," he said. "Prior to that, this inn was a tavern. The owner changed it into an inn because he was scared at what happened. So things have come full circle."

Mr Coates said that restaurant customers had been allowed to bring in their own alcohol before the law changed but that many tourists had grown impatient with such rules. It was a threat to the summer tourism trade, which can see the town's population triple.

"It was driving the built-in business away," he added. "The Americans got frustrated. The Europeans didn't believe what you were saying."