Oklahomans are considering some of the biggest changes to the state’s liquor laws since the end of prohibition. If approved, State Question 792 would amend the state constitution and alter a system with roots planted during the days of Indian Territory.
Oklahoma’s liquor laws can make outsiders do a double-take.
Low-point beer. No refrigeration at liquor stores, which are closed on Sundays. Looking for wine at a grocery store? Forget it.
It started before statehood. Alcohol was permitted in Oklahoma Territory, to the west, but the federal government banned it in Indian Territory, in what is now the eastern part of the state.
Bob Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, says even though liquor was outlawed in Indian Territory, bootleggers and frontiersman would bring it into the area.
“Theoretically we were born sober, but we never were. We were always a wet state,” Blackburn said.
Things got complicated when Oklahoma and Indian Territories were combined at statehood. One of Congress’ conditions for entry into the Union was a ban on importing alcohol into the former Indian Territories.
“They wanted to protect the Indians whose lands had been allotted in severalty, allotted on land that was individually owned. They said you’ve got to keep alcohol out,” Blackburn said.
Oklahoma became a state at the height of the Progressive Era, when prohibitionists tried to ban alcohol across the country. Many of the original white settlers in Oklahoma were Southern Baptists and Methodists. They believed alcohol was evil.
“So the framers of the constitution say, ‘We’re going to ban alcohol everywhere.’ So when we became a state on November 16, 1907, alcohol suddenly was illegal. Of course it was still here, but it was illegal,” Blackburn said.
PROHIBITED, BUT PLENTIFUL
National prohibition came in 1919, but booze still flowed into the state from Arkansas and Missouri. Farmers figured out corn was worth more as alcohol than as feed.
“Those people learned that they could take that corn and instead of feeding it to old Bessie the mule or having it ground for food on the table, why not convert it into something of value. Adding value. Free enterprise. And so you have free enterprise working despite the law,” Blackburn said.
Many sheriffs wouldn’t bust the moonshiners because it would be political suicide. Blackburn says some district attorneys would occasionally try to please the church crowd by putting together a so-called “flying squadron” and bust a still.
“Of course, the boys down the street, working in the oil patch or working in the packing plants, would be cussing you because suddenly the price of their alcohol doubles because of supply and demand,” Blackburn said.
Prohibition ended nationally in 1933, but it continued on in Oklahoma because it had been written into the state constitution. The lone exception was beer that’s 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.
“The theory is that you can’t get drunk on 3.2 beer,” Blackburn said. “Well as a college student I learned different.”
Blackburn says prosperity brought more people to Oklahoma after World War II. The suburbs grew and people were thirsty. They wanted something stronger than low-point beer, and bootleggers and booze runners provided it. Many were protected by local law enforcement.
“Everyone has their alcohol through the 50s. And along comes a reforming, progressive young governor named J. Howard Edmondson,” Blackburn said. “And J. Howard Edmondson says the hypocrisy of this is hurting society.”
Edmondson argued this underground economy wasn’t being taxed.
“It is creating an underclass of people breaking the law,” Blackburn said. “It’s compromising the integrity of our law enforcement community and the entire criminal justice system.”
Blackburn says Oklahomans would have voted against repealing Prohibition because they already had their booze. But Edmondson knew how to get people’s attention. Department of Public Safety commissioner Joe Cannon started to bust all the places that illegally sold alcohol, including the private clubs and hotels.
“Keeping alcohol from the guys at the packing plants or the oil fields is one thing,” Blackburn said. “But keeping alcohol from the members of the country club or those who are running the banks downtown and suddenly they can’t give alcohol to their buddies in New York City, then suddenly you start getting their attention.”
In 1959, Oklahomans finally repealed Prohibition, but it didn’t die without a fight. To appease dry proponents, Edmondson included certain provisions in his plan. Among them, it remained illegal to sell liquor by the drink. Alcohol could only be sold at liquor stores, it couldn’t be refrigerated, and the stores had to close on Sundays.
BYRON'S TOUGH BUSINESS
The governor’s office asked a young construction company and dress shop owner named Byron Gambulos to build five sample liquor stores in Oklahoma City to show people what they would look like.
Gambulos built one of those shops down the street from the state Capitol to lease out to a tenant.
“I find out the tenant couldn’t get a license because he was a state capitol bootlegger. And I now end up with a liquor store. And so I took girls that work for me in the dress shop and put them out there and it was just love at first sight,” Gambulos said. “I felt at home in it.”
This was a rough industry. Gambulos’ prices were lower than his competitors. In November 1964, somebody bombed his liquor store. A second bombing took place the following month.
“I got mad, put a gun tower on top of the liquor store with a machine gun,” Gambulos said. “The third bombing was March or April of ‘65.”
Gambulos says the third bombing caught law enforcement’s attention, and the perpetrators were arrested. His store, Byron’s Liquor Warehouse, is still in business today at NW 23rd Street and Broadway.
At the age of 90, Gambulos has seen Oklahoma’s liquor laws evolve over his lifetime. He doesn’t like that State Question 792 would change the wholesale system, and he says money would leave Oklahoma.
“We were homegrown in the beginning. I wish we could stay that way but we can’t with Walmart moving in. Figure it this way: Their profits are going out of state,” Gambulos said.
But other aspects don’t bother him, like selling cold beer and chilled wine. And he says his store will still do well. So he’s ambivalent about the outcome. All his life, he says, he saw things in black and white. This is the first time he’s gray.