The liquor battle in Exeter

In 1933, with the end of Prohibition in sight, Exeter prepared for the return of wet versus dry political battles. New Hampshire had been dry since 1917, when wartime restrictions were placed on alcohol. Even before the war, the state had limited public access by creating “license laws”, which allowed individual towns to decide whether or not to allow the sale of alcohol. Prior to nationwide Prohibition in 1920, Exeter, like most New Hampshire towns, held a citizens’ vote every two years to decide the issue – and those elections were sometimes heated.

Everyone seemed to agree that the ban would be lifted. The amendment had been approved by both houses of Congress and sent to the states for ratification. But there were lingering issues that needed to be addressed. The first was the beer issue – beer with 3% alcohol levels was legalized before Prohibition ended. A state beer commission was established by Governor Winant in May, which included Exeter’s James A. Tufts, Jr. Beer licenses that would bring much-needed revenue.

The Exeter News-Letter opposed the end of Prohibition. John Templeton, the editor, noted: “On Tuesday… the beer was legally sold for drinking at the Water Street premises in Exeter. It would be interesting to hear comments from a former occupant of this place, the late John G. Cutler, regarding the law and the alcohol content of the beverages sold.

It’s strange that Templeton brought Cutler into the conversation. John Cutler was a black saloonkeeper in Exeter until his business burned down in 1875. His uncle, Nathaniel Cutler, had sold beer in previous decades. John Cutler may have become a man of temperance after the fire. His hotel businesses in Hampton Beach tell us little about his stance on alcohol.

Historically speaking:The sparkling world of the soda fountain

Even with the legality of beer, there were people in town concerned about the possibility of hard liquor being sold in saloons. Maybe, just maybe there was still time to take a stand on the potential repeal of the ban. The vote was to take place in June. “For a righteous person,” Templeton wrote, “who lived before Prohibition, there is no need to argue to prove that life is better today than it ever was. previously.” It was true that Exeter had not suffered from the crime associated with Prohibition. He continued, “False propaganda cannot change facts. Wasted lives, crime and poverty have been the result of the sale of alcohol in every era and in every country, and with all its faults, we believe the current law is better for the people of the United States that the sale of alcohol be legalized, regardless of the restrictions. We hope that New Hampshire, regardless of the outcome elsewhere, will hold firm next Tuesday for its age-old no-go principle.

Historically speaking:The Great Walk of Exeter

Exeter did not resist. The repeal vote won 786 votes to 436 in the special election. The following November, townspeople had to approve or disapprove of allowing a liquor agency storefront in town. Again the Exeter News-Letter opposed the idea. “The agency will take badly needed money from the pockets of the poor to buy clothes and food for the family. It will encourage drunkenness and waste. There is no excuse for such an agency in Exeter, since the few people who think alcohol is essential can get it in Portsmouth. Let’s protect Exeter from this evil. This time the vote was tight. Exeter approved a state liquor store from 865 to 840. Within a year Exeter had a liquor store in the Kimball Building on Water Street, run by Reginald Stevenson with help from Ernest Bretschneider.

The opposition again tried to stop sales in 1938, but by then alcohol had infiltrated popular culture. Every movie – even the cartoons – had characters spilling drinks. Movie lounges invariably had a small bar. “Will beverages be sold in this town or city under licenses granted by the National Liquor Commission under the provisions of Chapter 99 of the Acts of 1933 and its amendments?” asked for the ballot. 1,172 voters approved keeping the liquor store. Only 616 disagreed.

Historically speaking:Chinese families in Exeter

Years later, there were people still angry enough at the decision to send a letter to the editor. Dentist Adelbert Lamson launched this review to the Exeter News-Letter: “When I was a little boy we always loved him because we could depend on him for the truth. I like everything except alcohol commercials. I know you know alcohol is poison. It causes more sins, troubles, divorces, sicknesses, madness and crimes than anything else in the land. John Templeton, the longtime editor, had died in 1938. “I wonder what John Templeton would say if he were to come back and see a booze advert in the Exeter News-Letter.” His complaints ran for a full column, ending with, “I hope you read all of this. You can print it in your journal if you dare. Editor-in-chief, Harry B. Thayer, Jr. noted below, “Not only did I read it all, I copied it.”

Barbara Rimkunas is the Curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member. Register online at

About the author