Contentious elections from ’50s, ’60s set stage for wet-dry vote

There were no social media campaigns, no electronic signatures and little doubt about collecting enough names on the petition, but Warren County’s local option elections of the 1950s and ’60s that set the stage for the wet-dry decision coming this November could hardly be called products of a simpler time.

Just ask Warren County Sheriff Jerry “Peanuts” Gaines.

A 1956 Bowling Green High School graduate, Gaines was an eyewitness to the contentious 1957 vote that turned the entire county dry, and the hotly contested 1960 election that legalized alcohol sales in the city of Bowling Green and left the county with the nebulous “moist” status that defines it today.

Not that Gaines, Warren County’s sheriff for nearly 40 years, is particularly nostalgic for those days. He could do without the violence, the threatening phone calls and the allegations of election fraud that delayed implementing the decision in that 1957 election.

“They blew up buildings and everything,” Gaines said Wednesday as he reflected on an era when “Thunder Road” – a movie about the perilous business of running moonshine whiskey – was all the rage. “They wanted to keep it dry. It was bad. There were more bootleggers here than just about anywhere.”

You don’t have to take the sheriff’s word for it. Newspaper reports from the time just before, during and after those elections demonstrate that the question of legalizing or prohibiting alcohol sales was a hotter topic than the contest between a couple of guys named Kennedy and Nixon.

An August 1961 story in the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that nine bombs had been planted in Bowling Green in a 10-month period, although three of them failed to explode. The May 1961 dynamiting of the city’s Horseshoe Beer Depot was attributed in a separate news report to a beer price war. A Daily News story from 1963 reported that sticks of dynamite were found under the car of Detective Wayne Constant of the Bowling Green Police Department.

No wonder retired BGPD Officer Bernie Cox told a Daily News reporter in 2012: “Bowling Green was known as ‘Little Chicago.’ ”

“It did get pretty rough,” said Gary Raymer, Bowling Green police chief from 1980 through 2002. “There was quite a bit of violence, bombings and things like that, but I don’t think anybody was ever charged with anything.”

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